Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Confederate Flag

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a very powerful essay at The Atlantic’s website, here.

He starts off with some comments on Jody Rosen’s interview with Brad Paisley which delved into the reactions against Paisley’s duet with LL Cool J, Accidental Racist.

Next he gets to the meat of his essay.  Paisley may have had good intentions, but he doesn’t get it.  “It is not simply that the flag is offensive. It is that it is the chosen symbol of slaveholders and those who wanted to live in a republic rooted in slaveholding.”

Lest the professional southerners get their hackles in an uproar, he’s not blaming the south for slavery.  He points out that the entire United States benefited financially from slavery.  “In 1836, cotton from the South accounted for 59 percent of this country’s exports. Effectively, in the run up to the Civil War, our leading export was produced by slave labor. This cotton enriched our country financially and powered us into the modern world.”

He tells us in a very stark detail what that meant in human terms.  “But behind the numbers were the wrecked lives of black men and women. A slave stood roughly a 30 percent chance of being sold away. ‘Of the two thirds of a million interstate sales made by the traders in the decades before the Civil War,’ writes [historian Walter] Johnson, ‘twenty-five percent involved the destruction of a first marriage and fifty percent destroyed a nuclear family.’ ”

He gives us a very poignant historical fact:

“I think of Henry ‘Box’ Brown, saying farewell to the family that was sold from him.

‘The next day, I stationed myself by the side of the road, along which the slaves, amounting to three hundred and fifty, were to pass. The purchaser of my wife was a Methodist minister, who was about starting for North Carolina. Pretty soon five waggon-loads of little children passed, and looking at the foremost one, what should I see but a little child, pointing its tiny hand towards me, exclaiming, ‘There’s my father; I knew he would come and bid me good-bye.’

“It was Brown’s oldest child. Henry Brown never saw his son or his wife again. In antebellum America, slavery was the enriching of white people through the legalized destruction of black families.”

He follows that with an excerpt from Mississippi’s Declaration of Causes for seceding, in which they wrote, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”  As Coates tells us, “And that is the cause of the men who raised the Confederate flag.”

And then he gives it to us in stark reality.  The confederate flag is not just offensive.  Oh, no.  Not by a long shot:  “If you accept that the Confederacy fought to preserve and expand slavery, then you might begin to understand how the descendants of the enslaved might regard symbols of that era. And you might also begin to understand that ‘offense’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. Reading Penthouse while having Christmas dinner with your grandmother is offensive. Donning the symbols of those who fought for right to sell Henry Brown’s wife and child is immoral.”

This got to me.  I never conceived that putting on a shirt with the confederate flag on it, or putting a confederate flag up on a house or on a 50-foot flagpole just south of Richmond, VA would be immoral.  And yet, I can’t argue with his logic.  Even in 1860, any white family man in the United States would tell you that if you were going to sell his wife and children away so he and they would never see each other again, then you would be an evil person, and that was an immoral act.  Yet, that’s exactly what was done to black families, and the reason the confederacy existed was they saw the Lincoln administration was a threat to the continued existence of the institution that allowed them to do that.  The flag is a symbol of the men whose victory meant the continuation of that practice as a legal action on this continent.

Does this mean folks who wear a confederate flag or display it are automatically immoral people?  I don’t think so.  I think they don’t know the implications of what they’re doing.  I have enough faith in people to believe that if they were convinced of the facts behind what they were doing, they wouldn’t do it anymore.  Certainly there would be a few who would continue to do so, but I believe the majority wouldn’t do so.

But that’s the rub, isn’t it?  Convincing them of the facts will be difficult because for many it is a matter akin to theology, not of fact.

I had a conversation on an internet forum regarding this.

Person A said Coates was “using the Confederate flag as a scapegoat for the US flag.”

Coates addresses this in the comments section of his essay, saying basically that just about every nation with a history of signficant length has had evil things done in its name, but very few nations are ever formed for the express purpose of doing evil.  So there is a fundamental difference between a nation that happened to have slavery and eventually rid itself of slavery and an entity that was formed in order to prevent the loss of slavery.

Person B said, “The article is an opinion piece directed towards changing the opinions of people who have a positive/indifferent/don’t see why it’s wrong, opinion towards the Confederate flag. My opinion is that the author’s opinion is just an opinion, and a wrong one at that.”

My response was:

Six states who seceded, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, and Alabama, left specific statements telling us why they seceded.

Do you stipulate that the overwhelming reason they seceded was because they perceived a threat to slavery and sought to preserve that institution?

Seceded states sent commissioners to other slave states to persuade them to join in the secessions.  Louisiana sent their official representative to Texas to give reasons to secede.

Would you stipulate that the overwhelming reason he gave was to protect and preserve the institution of slavery?

Jefferson Davis talked about why the states seceded in his message to the confederate congress on April 29, 1861.

Would you stipulate that he said it was the threat to slavery that drove the states out of the Union?

Given that the overwhelming reason for secession was protection of slavery, would you stipulate that protection of slavery was the overwhelming reason why the confederate states wanted to be independent of the United States?

If not, why not?

If so, then how is his opinion wrong?

Person B’s response was predictable:

“I’m not stipulating anything, we were talking about what the Confederate Flag represents, not why the South seceded.

“Your opinions  in regards to the reasons for secession may or may not be wrong, but as I said I was not talking about secession, the author said that it is not only offensive to fly the Confederate flag, but immoral, that is the sum of his article and what I disagree with.

“I don’t view it in that light, and I resent anyone who tries to tell me that my views on the flag are wrong and tries to lecture me on how immoral it somehow is to fly the Southern Cross every once in awhile.”

Of course he’s not going to stipulate to anything, because he knows that once he acknowledges the truth, the logic inevitably leads to Coates being right.  We’re back to his faith, not facts.

I said:

“Does the reason why the confederacy wanted to be independent have nothing to do with the fighting?

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13 comments

  1. You hit the essential point at the end: Why was the Confederate soldier called to arms? Fundamentally, it was to protect the institution of slavery. I respect and honor the fortitude and military skill of almost every Johnny Reb who trudged along a road in a threadbare uniform and bare feet. But they were doing it in the cause of slavery..

  2. I really enjoy reading his essays regarding the Civil War and African American memory of it. I’m still disappointed he had to pull out of the Gettysburg stuff.

    1. Maybe another time. 🙂

  3. I have issues with Ta’s article.

    And then he gives it to us in stark reality. The confederate flag is not just offensive. Oh, no. Not by a long shot: “If you accept that the Confederacy fought to preserve and expand slavery, then you might begin to understand how the descendants of the enslaved might regard symbols of that era. And you might also begin to understand that ‘offense’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. Reading Penthouse while having Christmas dinner with your grandmother is offensive. Donning the symbols of those who fought for right to sell Henry Brown’s wife and child is immoral.”

    As you already pointed out, not everyone that dons the symbol approaches the situation with a racist mindset. This is especially true in the context of Paisley’s song where the flag is presented as a pop culture symbol in correlation with Lynyrd Skynyrd. With that in mind, I think this issue is much more complicated than the seemingly logical argument Ta-Nehisi is making. I also think he is stretching his argument when he generalizes that every black individual who sees that symbol will think about the aspects of expansion and preservation of slavery under that flag. My gut feeling is, like many Americans, the black community will have its own misconceptions about the flag. A recent Pew Research Poll reinforces my belief and shows the situation to be more complicated than presented by Ta-Nahisi.

    http://www.people-press.org/2011/04/08/civil-war-at-150-still-relevant-still-divisive/

    Keep in mind those are polls of people’s perceptions, and not statements as to what is right and wrong.

    With that said, I think a lot of people are spending too much time on the flag when it comes to Accidental Racist. It represents a small minutia of the song (2 lines) while the rest of the song really examines the cultural baggage of many Southerners when it comes to race relations with the black community.

    1. Thanks, Rob. I wanted to get into that a bit more in my post, but I might have not worded it right. A moral person who doesn’t believe what they are doing is immoral can perform what we would see as an immoral act. Does that make sense? So a teenager wearing a confederate flag t-shirt because it looks cool might not believe it’s immoral to do so because s/he doesn’t know the history behind it. I think that’s what Ta-Nehisi is getting at. Once we know why the confederacy existed and the implications of that existence, only then can we understand the morality of what we’re doing when we put on such a t-shirt. Whether intended or not, we’re sending out a signal of support for what the confederacy wanted to do–be able to continue to sell black children away from their parents.

      What all that means is that in saying displaying the flag is an immoral act, Ta-Nehisi isn’t saying the people who do it are therefore immoral people. I think he is saying they need to understand the background of the symbol and therefore the message they are sending. The more widespread the education about it, the more white folks will reject the symbol.

      John Coski does a great job in putting the flag into perspective, and I think his compromise solution is one with which Ta-Nehisi would agree.

      1. I’d wager it would be okay to make the generalization that those that have come to the conclusions you are suggesting, already make the moral decision not to wear the CBF emblazoned on their clothing. Those that know that history and choose to display it anyways, are in denial of what that heritage truly is or they are blatantly racist and know why they are using it. But I disagree with this:

        Whether intended or not, we’re sending out a signal of support for what the confederacy wanted to do–be able to continue to sell black children away from their parents.

        Does a Hindu send a signal of support for the Nazis by wearing the Swaztika? What of the American Flag Old Navy T-Shirt being worn at the Casino in Cherokee, N.C.? I don’t think that those that display symbols out of ignorance, or differing interpretations, are supporting a singular ideology. I think this is especially true when we are discussing something as abstract and relative as morality.

        BTW, I am not necessarily disagreeing with you. I just take issue with a discussion of perceptions and morality when terms of absolutes are used.

        1. If the Hindu wore the Swastika during a visit to Auschwitz, what signal is he sending? Context would be key. In a communication, the sender has the responsibility for ensuring his or her message is understood, and the receiver gets to determine what message is received.

          I think a national flag sends the signal of support for the nation and its goals. Neoconfederates aside, the US didn’t have a goal to exterminate Native Americans. They did have a goal, however poorly executed, to ensure peace by having reservations for the Native Americans where they could do their thing while the whites could do their thing outside the reservations. Like it or not, the confederate flag (all versions, even the battle flag) is forever associated with the goals of the confederacy. The battle flag has the additional baggage of being used by racist groups since the Civil War, with some years of exception, and being used as a symbol of opposition to racial equality.

          If the flag is used in a memorial service for confederate dead, that’s one thing. If it’s on a t-shirt, though, that’s a bit different. And putting it on a t-shirt would tend to trivialize a symbol meant to honor confederate dead, no?

  4. If the Hindu wore the Swastika during a visit to Auschwitz, what signal is he sending? Context would be key. In a communication, the sender has the responsibility for ensuring his or her message is understood, and the receiver gets to determine what message is received.

    Absolutely, context is everything. I totally agree. But in our hypothetical situation, what if that Hindu who is wearing the Swastika as a symbol of empowerment, is confronted by someone that disagrees with its display. I’d imagine that regardless of someone’s context, someone will probably get offended. That is sort of my point when it comes to the different contexts in which people use to wear the flag. They are not all innocent, but they are not all obtuse like the Flaggers. On the receiving end, I don’t think all black people are offended, nor are they all comfortable with it either. Paisley on the other hand, in connection with LL Cool J, use the CBF in the context of a pop-culture icon, and merely an introduction to a song about racial tension. I think Ta-Nesihi misses that point in his generalization.

    The U.S. policy never officially stated that it was exterminating the Native Indians, but forced removal policies carried out under the flag did lead to death. The nation forcibly removed Cherokee Indians to the West resulting in the death of around 4,000 people. Robert Remini wrote an argument based on Prucha ( I believe), arguing Jackson’s goal to achieve peace through removal rather than this concept that he was psychotic, racist, or paternalistic. But Remini also condemned the faulty planning and execution of those policies (which you pointed out). Official policy or not, the stain is there to bare. But we live in the here, and the now. The flag has an evolved meaning. Some see it is “heritage,” others see it as this, http://www.allmanbrothersband.com/gallery/abb/stuff/abb_74_prgm.jpg, and others see it as a racist symbol.

    I don’t know about trivialization. Each individual soldier fought and possibly died for different reasons beyond that flag. Hell, many of them fought and died under a different flag all together. The power of the flag, or any symbol, lies solely within the user of the symbol, and within the viewer of said symbol. Why do kids “pledge” to flag to start the day? I say let the flag fly, those 50 foot poles for the Confederacy can just go right up along side the highway. Let the flag trivialize itself. Much like my students every morning, they don’t pledge to the flag because they believe in the statement. They pledge because they have to, it’s routine. It is now a trivial thing to them. Ta-Nehisi can argue from the point of view that “Nothing is changed by banishing the Confederate Flag out of a desire to be polite or inoffensive. The Confederate Flag should not die because black people have come to feel a certain way about their country, it should die when white people come to feel a certain way about themselves.” The truth, things will only “change” when everyone stops putting power behind the symbol. Sadly, that won’t ever happen from either race.

    1. I think we agree about far more than we disagree here, Rob.

      A thought ran through my head regarding your pledge example. Like everyone else, when I was a kid I recited it because I had to and didn’t think much of it. As an adult, when I recite it, I know the meaning behind it, and I know what I’m pledging and why it’s important. But I will never forget the words because of all those times I recited it as a kid because I had to. 🙂

      1. Ditto, except now every time I recite it I think about a Communist witch hunt.

        1. Dude, you’ve got to cut down on your Howard Zinn reading. 😉

          1. Wow, thanks. I heard that book was a total bust.

  5. I liked Howard Zinn

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