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