Reenactress Blog

And We'll Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys...

"The Battle Cry of Freedom" is a song about a Nation rallying around a flag that represented their idea of what freedom could mean for their people. Interestingly, this song has two different versions with different lyrics, one for the United States of America and one for the Confederate States of America so it's actually about two Nations rallying around flags. The U.S. version is about "rallying 'round" the "Stars and Stripes" American Flag that we all know and love to help bring about the end to slavery and to reunite the country into a whole, and the C.S. version is about "rallying 'round" a different flag, some version of the Confederate flag, though the song does not specify which one, to attain freedom from tyranny and demonstrate a love of localized homeland and family. It's the same tune, roughly the same song, but with two different meanings about two different flags. I think this song is a great example for us to look to when thinking about the recent events concerning the Confederate Battle Flag and how we are gathered around it as a Nation "once again" much like it says in the song.

I have been refraining from specifically commenting on the topic of what's to be done with the Confederate Battle Flag for the last few days because I wasn't sure how my feelings would be received or whether it was appropriate to join this highly politicized conversation in the wake of the heinous act of racist domestic terrorism committed in South Carolina a week ago. However, I feel that as a reenactor who has been trying to represent history, sometimes under the banner of the battle flags of the Army of Tennessee or Army of Northern Virginia (also widely recognized as the Confederate Battle Flag), I have developed a somewhat unique perspective on that Flag, and I hope it is not disrespectful to those who have lost their lives or their loved ones to express it at this sadly relevant time.

I have formed my opinion based on conversations I have had with many people who avidly display the Battle Flag to represent their heritage and to teach history, people I greatly respect, and many people who recognize it as a racist symbol of a regime of slavery, a culture of segregation, and a feeling of hatred against African Americans, people I also greatly respect.

While the Confederate Battle Flag may not have been be inherently racist from its onset, denying the fact that it represents racism to a gigantic percentage of the United States' population in the present day would, in my opinion, be naive at best, and possibly even cruel, at worst. I generally feel that for that reason, it's probably best to take it down from public buildings. However, in the light of the Battle Flag being banned as an outright racist symbol from being sold by retailers like Amazon, eBay, Walmart and Sears, I began to worry that this delicate situation is being handled with a hack saw instead of the scalpel it probably deserves.

My basic point rests on this idea: Context makes a huge difference in the interpretation of words and symbols. The Confederate Battle Flag or Southern Cross is a symbol inbued with all sorts of meaning, and the meaning is influenced by the context in which it appears. I believe we need to recognize the nuances of our language and then speak and act accordingly when we use words and symbols like the Confederate Battle Flag.

I'd like to give a few example of other words and symbols with ambiguous meanings that, taken out of context, can be very offensive and hurtful. For example, in England the word "fag" often refers to a cigarette, but I doubt an English person would go around asking people for a "fag" in the United States, especially in the company of homosexual people. They would recognize that the word "fag" refers to not only to cigarettes, but also to homosexuals depending on the context of the word. It would not the best word to use out of an appropriate British context because, in America, that word is more often a derogatory term used to negatively represent gay people rather than a word used to ask for a smoke. Similarly, the swastika has come to be viewed as a symbol of hatred and antisemitism in Germany (and most other western nations affected by World War II) due to the Nazi party's use of that symbol, but in India and many other parts of Asia where they practice Buddhism and Hinduism, the swastika represents good fortune. It would be appropriate to use the swastika as a positive symbol in a Buddhist temple in China without people thinking as much about Nazis, but it would not be appropriate to use that same symbol in a synagogue in Munich. We know how people in that synagogue would feel; they would feel bad because they would feel hated. This clash in meaning of the swastika symbol came to a head at one Buddhist temple in Southern California, and it was local Jewish leaders who came to the temple's defense in continuing the use of the symbol. It takes being educated on all the history of these words and symbols to recognize what they would mean in a specific context.

In this same way, I recognize that the Battle Flag represents Southern Heritage and Civil War history to many people, and I don't think those people are wrong to see that meaning in the Flag. It represents the memory of their ancestors who fought and died for a cause, even if it was a lost cause, or a cause that was racked with a desire by many to keep black slaves in bondage to preserve the economic status quo. At the time of the Civil War, the Battle Flag also represented the rights of States to govern themselves and to try to prevent a tyrannical government from ignoring their concerns, even if their concerns did encompass keeping slaves. Following the Civil War, it came to represent the Daughters and Sons of Confederate Veterans, those women and men who lost their fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and husbands (and also some female relatives) to the Civil War on the C.S.A. side. And it has also come to represent a nostalgia for an idealized Southern Americana, which many people choose to subscribe to because it makes them feel good about their homeland and proud of their heritage. But the ideal Southern Pride can never fully exist because it is tainted by slavery, racism, and oppression of minority groups, which is also part of the history of the South, and America as a whole. The Battle Flag represents many good things to many good and decent people, and I would venture to say that most of them want to use it to show those feelings without being considered racists. The problem is that they seem to ignore the other part of the Flag's history.

At the same time the Flag represents history and heritage, it ALSO symbolizes outright racism - pure, simple, and undiluted hate - to many other good and decent people due to its use for a regime that in a large part existed to uphold human bondage as well as its appropriation by racist groups following the Civil War and up-to-and-including during the present day. The Battle Flag's Civil War history is not it's only history. It was also used by the Dixiecrats in the 1940's and 1950's to rally segregationists against integration of schools, public transportation, bathroom facilities, the military, and almost every other aspect of society. It has been used by the KKK and other white supremacist groups as a symbol of the subjugation of non-white people as well as a calling card for violent acts committed against blacks, Jews, Hispanics and other minority groups. Most recently, a white man, who (allegedly) committed terrible acts of murder against an innocent group of church-goers in the city of Charleston, displayed the Battle Flag on his car to demonstrate his racist views.

The tricky thing about language and communication is that words and symbols can, and often do, have more than one meaning at the exact same time! The Battle Flag symbolizes all of those things, and much more, simultaneously! Because of that ambiguous meaning, I believe that people who choose to fly the flag should pay special attention to the context in which they are using it so it may be less likely to be misinterpreted. I think that would be the first step in the right direction.

I understand that this could mean self-censoring and restricting the use of the Flag only to appropriate venues, which I know could be considered a violation of free speech if we legally mandate that the Flag not be used at certain times or in certain places. I adamantly support free speech, even in cases where I also adamantly disagree with with the speech being made, which is why I do not support passing laws restricting the use of the Battle Flag in all situations. Rather, I would hope that we, as a society, would be able to use our common sense and empathy for others to make decisions about when the use of the Battle Flag is appropriate versus when it is not based on the context of its use.

In a place where people of all races are meant to feel comfortable and like they have equal access to justice and representation (like in front of a State Capitol building), I feel that it is currently quite inappropriate to fly the Battle Flag because it reminds so many of those people of the history of racism in the United States rather than a sacrifice of their ancestors or a symbol of their Southern Pride.

However, at a Civil War museum, reenactment, Sons or Daughters of Confederate Veterans meeting, in a history book, on the grave of a Confederate soldier, etc., the context of the symbol may be enough for people to also associate the Flag with Southern Heritage or historical reverence rather than completely with racism, which could make all the difference in the way it makes someone feel who might happen on the flag in that setting. A person viewing the Flag at a museum might say to himself or herself, "This Flag is here because it is demonstrating history or honoring Americans who fought bravely and died, even if for a lost Cause," rather than, "This Flag is here because people either don’t recognize that it makes me feel awful or consciously don't care about my feelings."

After 150 years trying to recover from our Civil War and an even longer history of racial unrest in our Nation, I think now is a fine time for us to openly discuss the context of the Battle Flag and when it might be appropriate and when it might not be appropriate to display it. Then we can make an informed decision based on our knowledge and understanding of the complexity of how the Flag is interpreted in different settings and stop using it where it will make people feel unwanted or afraid, especially if that's not how we want them to have to feel.

I believe is important for people who are suffering to be loved and supported by their community, especially at a time when their suffering has been magnified by the cruelty of others. I feel that it would be prudent to use the Battle Flag more judiciously if that could alleviate some of their suffering.

I think that would probably mean we take the Flag down in front of State Capitols, but maybe leave it up in front of Civil War history museums and places where its meaning is less likely to manifest purely racist sentiment. Taking the Battle Flag down from the Capitol building in South Carolina could at least be a way for our community to show good faith and solidarity toward those members that are constantly suffering the treacherous effects of racism.

With all that said, I also feel that one way in which our culture is currently using a hack saw to solve this problem instead of scalpel is by outright banning the sale of all objects displaying the Battle Flag in public market places like on Amazon or eBay. I recently saw a post on Facebook from a man who had written a book on the Civil War in the state of Virginia talking about how his book, which showed the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia on its cover, is no longer being sold on Amazon because of the use of that flag. This book is a history book. It has the Battle Flag on it for an extremely relevant reason. It's not a book promoting hate, but a book trying to educate people about a specific historical time period that actually happened. When we go as far as to try to erase history or censor someone from selling their history book, which contains their free speech, especially speech that does not advocate hate or violence, I believe we go too far. Whatever algorithm has been set up by Amazon to remove all uses of the Battle Flag, even on book covers, is far too over-reaching. I'm hoping Amazon is able to send in their real human employees after the algorithm to correct these types of censorship errors, and I'm hoping that real human beings are able to sort out complexities in a way that robots cannot.

I must also confess that the fact that I am currently making a film as a living historian on the Civil War does complicate my opinion on this matter. It's inconvenient for me that the Confederate Battle Flag, which appears in much of my footage and photographs because it is used in the historical recreations and reenactments I participate in, would be categorically banned. From a purely personal standpoint, I have always felt somewhat uncomfortable portraying a Confederate soldier and "fighting" under that Flag for at least a few reasons: 1) I'm a Northerner, and I don't actually feel that much "Southern Pride," 2) My entire family arrived in the Untied States in the 1900's, so I probably don't have any ancestors that fought in the Civil War on either side, and 3) I'd like to think I'm not a racist, and I'd like other people to think that same thing about me. But, honestly, I need to show Confederate Flags to do my hobby, a hobby I, and other women like me, have fought hard to be a part of and have endured everything from basic awkwardness to purposeful discrimination in that fight. I need to show the Confederate Flag to at least somewhat accurately portray a part of history to an audience. I need to show the Confederate Flag to make the film that I am trying to make about the topic I'm trying to make it on. If websites like Amazon make it so I can't distribute my movie because the Confederate Battle Flag might appear on the DVD case, that would make it much more difficult for me to get my movie out there. It would also make it really difficult to sell merchandise featuring actual elements of the movie. Like I mentioned above, I also have relationships with people who are what you might call "flaggers," and I hope to continue being friends with many of them. And, on top of it all, I sometimes enjoy portraying a Confederate soldier because I find their history interesting, and I want to learn about it, understand it, and represent it accurately so other people can understand it, too. So I must acknowledge that, I have a very vested interest in preventing the blanket censorship of the Confederate Battle Flag with no regard for its context, and I hope that this hack saw ban from retailers stops and gradually adjusts to incorporate more nuance.

While #TakeItDownFromCertainInappropriatePlaces isn't nearly as catchy as #TakeItDown and #LeaveItUpWhereItsBeingUsedMoresoToPortrayHistoryAndMightBePerceivedLessAsBeingBlatantalyRacist isn't as committed as #LeaveItUp, what my opinion on the Battle Flag boils down to is that my opinion can't be boiled down as easily as one might hope for an Internet meme. But, I don't think this situation should be boiled down in that way. Taking the Battle Flag down isn't going to extricate the centuries of racism that have pervaded our culture. It's not going to be that easy. 

It's totally possible that I just wasted an hour of my time and yours writing this post on a red herring that is the Battle Flag when we could have been using that time to think of ways to improve the situation of institutionalized and overt racism, which seems to me like the real problem.

Anyway, I understand that just because this is my opinion, that it isn't the only opinion, and it may not be a perfectly correct opinion. I reserve the right to adjust my opinion based on feedback or to reformulate it all together based on new, better information. I anticipate that there will be people who will disagree with my desire to remove the Battle Flag from inappropriate venues where it would signify racism more clearly than history or heritage. I anticipate that there will be people who disagree with my desire to retain the Battle Flag in what I deem to be more appropriate venues where I would hope that people would be able to appreciate the meaning it held during the Civil War, the meaning it still holds for Southerners who may have lost an ancestor in that war, and the meaning for historians who are trying to show people a truth about our past, regardless of how sordid that past may be.

I'm interested to hear the opinions of others, and to keep this dialog open. I think we might all be better off both talking about it and also listening about it before we move forward.