On Statues, Flags, and Heritage

Flags

Flags hanging outside a bar in Wisconsin. Photo by Callen Harty.

 

Statues that honor secessionists who rebelled against our country are coming down in cities around the country and it is well past time for it. The soldiers honored with these statues were men who fought to defend slavery. While some may say that the Civil War was about states’ rights, it was only technically about that. In reality it came down to slavery. It was about the right to buy, sell, auction, and own other human beings. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others fought to preserve their way of life, which meant preserving the institution of slavery, and all the horror that comes with that. Memorials to men who fought to maintain that way of life are understandably offensive to those of African-American descent and should be considered offensive to anyone who believes in the inherent dignity and worth of every person. The Confederate battle flag that is so often seen at white power rallies is also not about Southern heritage, despite many people who are convinced that it is.

The Confederate battle flag is clearly not about Southern heritage when it is used by racist white men and women in every state of the union. Those who participated in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville came from all over the country. They weren’t just from the South. They brought many symbols with them, from all parts of the country, including shields, banners, and Confederate battle flags. As reported in a June 12 article in the Washington Post political scientists Logan Strother, Spencer Piston, and Thomas Ogorzale examined the history of the flag and found that it had been mostly forgotten until 1948 when Strom Thurmond and others used it to protest Harry Truman’s quest for civil rights at the Democratic national convention. They walked out of the convention and the flag was revived at that time as a symbol against the battle for civil rights for African-Americans. Whether consciously or not it has been used in that way ever since. When you see Confederate flags hanging in the windows of Wisconsinites and Michiganders who have never lived in the South that pretty much tells you that it is not a symbol of Southern heritage. Instead, it is a symbol of a darker, hateful underbelly of our society.

Likewise, the statues are not about Southern heritage, unless you want to return to the plantation days or believe that Southern heritage is all about slavery. If you want to honor your heritage, by all means do so. A person can celebrate heritage in many ways. One could celebrate Southern heritage best by dismissing the symbolic remnants of the Confederacy and by honoring other aspects of the region. That might include Dixieland jazz, bluegrass, country, and other music. It could include pecan pie, collard greens, and other foods associated with the South. You could honor Harper Lee, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and other great writers who grew up in the South. Or the many scientists and inventors who hailed from the area. Rejoice in the landscape, natural beauty, and wildlife which is everywhere throughout the region. Celebrate the renowned Southern hospitality, which anyone who has ever visited has experienced. Spanish moss, peanuts, alligators, Cajun culture, sweet tea, and more represent the region. These are the real symbols of Southern heritage.

If you are white just imagine for a moment that you are African-American and that on your way to work every day you have to walk or drive past the Confederate battle flag or a statue honoring one of the men who fought to keep you a slave, to keep you oppressed, to keep you from freedom. How would that make you feel? Would it make you feel like you weren’t still oppressed? It doesn’t seem likely. Would it make you feel like you are welcomed in your community with open arms or would it make you feel that those who continue to honor those soldiers, generals, and the Confederate battle flag still wish the South had won and kept you in chains? Imagine being a Jew and having to walk past a statue honoring Adolph Hitler, a queer person walking past a statue of Dan White, or any minority walking past a memorial to those who worked hardest at keeping them in their place and from full freedom and citizenship. And if you can’t imagine any of these things, then imagine having to regularly view a statue of someone in your life who hurt you deeply and imagine how seeing a memorial to the person who wounded you would make you feel.

It can be much more difficult when it is more personal. It can be difficult when your ancestors fought against something that is not considered the right thing to do–even if they fully believed they were right and were a product of their time. If your great-great-grandfather was a good husband, father, and citizen in every other way it is okay to honor that without feeling compelled to honor the things he did in his life that were not okay. I celebrate my great-great-grandfather as an early member of the Republican party–back when it was founded and stood for ending slavery. I celebrate him for leading two parties to California during the gold rush and for founding a town there that still exists. I celebrate him for being elected to the Wisconsin legislature in the 1850s. But through my genealogical research I have also read a section of a book that specifically describes him killing an Indian during the Battle of Bad Axe in the Black Hawk War, which was one of the bloodiest battles of one of the bloodiest wars against Native Americans. He may have killed many, but the narrative described one particular incident. It was unsettling to read and I do not celebrate him for that incident. In fact, it fills me with shame. I would be uncomfortable at a memorial that honored the soldiers who slaughtered men and women at the Battle of Bad Axe. A more appropriate memorial would be to the innocent people who died there. I would not take up my great-great-grandfather’s battle flag as a symbol of pride or as a symbol of the things best representing my heritage.

If he had fought for slavery I would also be ashamed of that. I would not take up the battle flag of soldiers who fought to keep people enslaved as a symbol of pride. If he had fought for the Confederacy I would not want a memorial to him or his fellow soldiers honoring that fight when it is the antithesis of all that I believe is right and just. I would want that memorial to be removed and to be replaced by one honoring the men, women, and children who lived and died in slavery, or one that encourages us to move toward a future where all are truly created and treated equally in this country.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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