The Confederate flag is an American symbol like no other. The reasons for this aren’t complicated: the Rebel flag is both distinctly American and functionally anti-American at the same time. It’s American in the sense that it once stood for a rebellion started by Americans, but anti-American in the sense that those American rebels waged a treasonous war against, you know, the United States. Yes-sir-ee-Bob, the stars and bars represents the most chaotic moment in U.S. history, when the land of the free went to war over the fact that millions of its residents were decidedly unfree, and plenty of (white) Americans wanted to maintain that status quo.
Historically, the Confederate battle flag represents the attempt in 1861 by the majority of the southern states to establish an independent, slaveholding republic: the Confederate States of America. This was during an era when emancipation was kind of a trendy thing, but leave it to some entrepreneurial Americans to buck feel-good, humanitarian fads when their pocketbooks, their cotton crops, and their entire social order was at stake.
As the old notion goes, the Confederacy lost the Civil War, but its underlying ideology of white supremacy won the peace for a long period afterwards — in some respects even up to the present day (cough *Ferguson* cough *Baltimore*). This is why the Confederate flag, as much as it remains a symbol of rebellion and slavery, is still very much an American symbol that will always be pretty damn controversial — as it should be. By the nineteenth century, slavery was an exclusively southern thing, but white supremacy was — and is — an American thing (if you’re white and you don’t believe this, then you’re wrong and in need of a good ole’ fashioned caning). This is the hard truth that we have to wrestle with whenever we discuss what it means to fly the Rebel flag in twenty-first century America.
Perhaps this historical reckoning is a bit much for today’s youngins to handle, but Heavens to Betsy, it really shouldn’t be. Case in point: recently, a group of teenage John Hughes-movie knockoffs in Colorado decided that it would be an awesome idea to like, OMG, totally have their prom pictures taken while holding big guns and an even bigger Confederate flag! In a related instance, a couple of North Carolina students had a pic taken of themselves waving the Rebel flag on a class field trip to Gettysburg National Military Park (talk about siding with the losers). Both instances made local newscasts and caused some internet controversy.
Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin discusses why flying the stars and bars without any historical context in both of these instances is deeply problematic. But there’s something else going on when America’s alabaster progeny decide to take up the Confederate banner seemingly without much appreciation for what that banner stands for. Teenagers have always fancied themselves as rebels. And when it comes to proving your rebel bona-fides while posing in tacky rented gowns and trying to show the football team that you’re totally badass because you’re shouldering a needlessly large-scale firearm, few symbols are more effective than the Confederate flag.
I’ve already written about the history behind the Confederate flag in the post “Why you Can’t Separate the Confederate Flag from its History,” and I’ve detailed the underlying white supremacy that was at the heart of the Southern rebellion in “The Confederacy, Slavery, and the Fog of Historical Memory,” so I’m not gonna rehash much of those points here. But there’s another aspect to the Confederate flag that should be noted: how it became a very loaded, but nonetheless generic, symbol of rebellion that still appeals to America’s impressionable teenage moppets.
By the late 1870s, the American public had grown tired of the chaos of Reconstruction, what with all of its political discord and Klan-led racial terrorism. Thus, in an attempt to finally heal long-festering wounds, white Americans North and South adopted a reconciliationist stance on the Civil War that de-emphasized the central roles that slavery and racism played in the conflict. In the place of slavery, whites constructed a collective memory of the war as an unfortunate spat between two groups of noble Caucasians — a version of the still-popular, overly sentimental schlockfest known as the “brother-against-brother” trope. By removing black Americans from the memory of the war, whites downplayed the very raw, and very real racial conflict that sparked the violence but didn’t die out when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomatox. By culturally amputating the Civil War’s beating ideological heart of slavery from the collective national memory, post-war whites normalized “whiteness” as the default national identity. They also stripped the Confederacy — and, by extension, its battle flag — of its core political meanings, at least in the popular consciousness.
Enter American capitalism. In the many decades after the post-war reconciliationists stripped the Confederate flag of its real meaning, marketing geniuses like North Carolina’s Dixie Outfitters filled that void by mass-producing the battle flag as a catch-all emblem of “rebellion.” They at least have some keen business sense, because millions of Americans have been willing to hand over plenty of dead presidents (including, ironically, President Lincolns) to purchase a little bit of Rebel glory. And isn’t that just so damn American? Before we even knew what we had, we patented the Confederate flag, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now we’re selling it, we wanna sell it!!!
For many Americans, including the teens in the previously mentioned pictures, the Rebel flag is just that: a rebel flag, a form of generic, only vaguely historical, commodified rebellion. Heck, a mother of one of the Colorado students observed about the kids displaying the Confederate flag: “I think in their immaturity they kind of think it is a cowboy thing.” Ya see? What’s more of an American rebel than a cowboy?! In many cases, kids like this are as likely to think about the flag’s historical connotations as the Cleveland Indians are to win the World Series. The same goes for much of the general public.
Of course, there’s always been a small subculture of Confederate “Heritage” bozos who actively deny the Rebel flag’s deep connections to slavery and white supremacy because they’d like to think that great, great, great Uncle Bocephus donned his butternut duds to fight for something a bit more noble than keepin’ the darkies in their place. Aren’t they precious…
But beyond the Neo-Confederates, a good chunk of the American public simply doesn’t attach much political or historical meaning to the Confederate flag. To them, the flag just stands for “rebellion,” and even though most contemporary Americans have never rebelled against anything beyond leaving nasty Yelp reviews about their local Golden Corral buffet, they nonetheless like to think that they’re rebels because, you know, freedom and such. Thus, waving a Confederate flag, or plastering the stars and bars on the bumper of their 1987 Ford Pinto allows some people to feel like rebels in the generic sense without actually having to rebel against something. This says a lot about how American history is filtered through the national consciousness, and it says even more about some Americans’ willingness to plaster over their tragic racial past by making the Confederate flag into little more than a questionable fashion statement or a lame prom photo prop.