What We Miss When We Focus on the Confederate Flag…

This past June, I began my summer travels with a homecoming tour of the American South, visiting old friends, and stopping at places across the region that had meant something special to me growing up. One of the highlights of the trip was dinner at Chef & the Farmer, the neo-Southern cuisine restaurant opened by Vivian Howard in Kinston, North Carolina. My wife Cynthia and I were joined for this amazing dinner (one of the 3 or 4 best I have ever eaten) by John Huey, the former Editor-in-Chief of Time Inc. and a fellow member of the jury for the Peabody Awards, and his wife, Kate.  

Howard’s program, A Chef’s Life, had won a Peabody Award during our first year on the jury: this program tells the story of how Howard and her husband, the artist Ben Knight, moved back to Eastern North Carolina from New York City to open a farm-to-table restaurant. A Chef’s Life situates her efforts to reinvent southern cooking in the context of the cultural life of her surrounding community, telling the stories of the farmers who grow the food she serves and the local traditions concerning how that food is prepared. Howard knows how to make traditional southern dishes taste great! Her program offers an alternative set of images and stories about the American south, focusing on its rich cultural traditions and its strong sense of community. A Chef’s Life ranks in my personal canon of contemporary works which invite us to rethink and reimagine southern identity: Russ McElwee’s Sherman’s March, Jeremy Love’s Bayou, Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher, Ava DuVerney’s Selma, Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights, Ray Mckinnon’s Rectify, and the music of T-Bone Burnett, to cite just a few favorites. 

Huey and I had grown up in Atlanta, just a few miles apart, and so we had bonded as members of the committee; we both had fallen hard for Howard and her program. I wanted to taste the food she prepared: Huey had already had a few chances and promised me that I would not be disappointed. And I was not.

It is hard for anyone raised in the South (especially someone who has found their fortunes outside the region) not to have profoundly mixed feelings about what it means to be southern.  As we had dinner together, the two couples (with visits from Howard and her staff) talked about how we struggled to separate what we love about the South from its more cringeworthy and disappointing aspects.

But when we got back to our rooms, we learned the news of the tragic shooting at the black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Huey and his wife are residents of Charleston and were driving back immediately to participate in some of the gatherings that would take place there in the aftermath. We talked briefly about how much progress that city had made — people of many races working together — to create a more diverse yet unified community. 

There are many ways America could have responded to the shootings in Charleston, including, for example, by pursuing all the more aggressively the kinds of gun reform (or mental health) policies  that might have actually prevented the shooting from taking place, using the incident to continue what I had seen as a promising national dialogue about race and racism or  to foreground the history of efforts (successful or otherwise) towards civil rights and cultural diversity within the region. And some of these other approaches were tried. But for the most part, the Charleston shootings have triggered a summer where the public conversation has been dominated by debates around the Confederate flag.

Let me begin with as direct a statement as I can make: the continued use of the Confederate battle flag on public buildings or state flags in the South is indefensible.

State governments should no longer provide cover for those for whom the flag has always been about hate and not heritage; citizens of color should no longer feel misrepresented or excluded when they look upon their state’s seat of power, and our local and state governments should be looking towards the future and not the past. So, take it down!

Obama is correct that the flag belongs in a museum.  There is no way to erase or ignore the fact that this flag’s history has been charged at every moment by the worst kinds of racist ideologies.

In 2003 (way too recently!), the Confederate war banner was removed from the Georgia flag and similar choices were made by other southern states. Today, the Confederate flag is officially part of the flag of Mississippi, but until the recent efforts, it was still displayed, for example, on state-sanctioned auto license plates. As state governments have moved away from the use of the Confederate flag for official purposes, that banner has been used almost entirely by the most extreme, most defiant segments of the white South. Today, most people choosing to use this flag, in the face of pained responses from other people, are doing so with the full knowledge of the flag’s implications. That said, the Confederate flag has always bourn a complex range of other meanings (family, region, class, masculinity, tradition, pride, resistance), which are not easy to separate out from that history and which is why removing the flag still carries an emotional charge, even for those of us who have come to deplore it as a symbol of the south’s worst impulses.

I hear my non-Southern friends on Facebook say that the Confederate flag is “simply” about racism, and what I want to suggest is that there is nothing simple about it.

You will get no defenses of the flag from me based on arguments around heritage. It is impossible to reduce a flag to a single meaning, but, in so far as it is possible, the Confederate flag now stands for racism. Period. End of story.

So I was happy when we saw a new wave of energy across the South to further limit the use of the flag in any official capacity, a struggle long over-due and well worth fighting. But as the flag goes away, we then have to work through the other things that it stands for and we have to develop a more complex account of how race operates in contemporary America.

Let’s start with a key point. Banning symbols is rarely the best way to get at the source of problems and often can be a way of masking their root causes.   Removing symbols attempts to negate their original meanings and effects (perhaps necessary to do) but does not generate new beliefs and practices. We need to find new ways to articulate southern identity that are not based in racist ideologies and that reflect  contemporary southern experience.

For much of my life, I, like many other southern white men of my generation, saw the Confederate flag as a sloppy shorthand for my southern identity. The Confederate flag waved over my childhood treehouse and was part of the state flag I learned to draw in elementary school. My grandmother filled me with stories of my Great-Great-Grandfather who fought for the Confederacy and helped to raise her. There were still aging Confederate veterans being paraded around during my early childhood.

 Whiteness has often been discussed as an ex-nominated category, an unacknowledged norm against which all other identities need to justify themselves, but it can also be experienced as a lack — an absence of a particular identity or history, a hunger for stronger ties (which is part of what people mean when they talk about the Confederate flag in terms of “heritage.”) My family’s history went far back in the South, so far that we have never traced our story to an immigration narrative: Jenkins is no doubt an Irish or Welsh name but I have no other “mother country” from which I can meaningfully claim ancestry. So, for me, being a southerner is a deep part of my identity. Just as there is much about southern history that fills me with dread, shame, and guilt, there is much — food, music, literature and language, cultural practices —  that I still value enormously.Let’s be clear that there is no one southern experience; being southern is to be part of what Benedict Anderson would call an imagined community, and the shifting boundaries of who belongs or doesn’t belong within that community are part of what is at stake in this debate. There are important regional, generational, and gender/sexuality-based differences in what it means to be a white southerner and beyond that, southern history needs to incorporate its multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic influences. 

One can express pride in being an Irish-American without that pride being read as necessarily a snub to Polish-Americans and one can assume that such pride brings with it some ambivalence: after all, most of those immigrants left their mother countries for good reasons.  Yet, Americans seem to find it easier to define their heritage through links to Europe or some other elsewhere rather than deal with regional particularities in their own backyards. We have few symbols through which to express a shared southern identity. The Confederate flag was the wrong symbol, as is now clear, but it was the one we inherited from previous generations.

Flags are imperfect vehicles for expressing cultural identity, since they can always be high-jacked by someone else in pursuit of their own identities (ultra right wing groups have used the American flag to hammer home divisive political messages, but progressives don’t relinquish the flag as a symbol of their country). Most flags have uncomfortable histories (How can anyone wave the Union Jack given the history of British racism and colonialism around the world?) For that reason, while I was deeply offended by the use of the flag as a symbol of white supremacy,  I was frustrated with the idea that something that was part of my state’s flag could be reduced to a single negative meaning, given what cultural studies teaches us about how even the most loaded cultural symbols can be appropriated, remixed, and resignified. (See, for example, this website which explores the diverse ways that southerners of multiple race have endowed the flag with meaning in the context of their everyday life choices.)

There was much I did not know (or had not bothered to find out) about the Confederate flag until recently, starting with the fact that what we are calling the Confederate flag never flew over the government of the Confederate States of America. It was explicitly a battle flag, and it was reclaimed as a symbol of the south by subsequent generations of political leaders who almost without exception deployed it for explicitly racist purposes. For example, the Confederate battle flag was added to the Georgia State Flag in 1956, just two years before I was born,  in the context of debates about the civil rights movement. It was not added to the flag simply as an acknowledgement of southern pride (the earlier flag included a variant of the official flag of the Confederacy and it was replaced by the more militant image).  It was a symbol of defiance against the federal government’s push towards desegregation.

I’m thankful this summer’s debate highlighted those facts—which I’m guessing many southerners of my generation or younger didn’t know. But I’m dismayed that this conversation has led to intense negativity about the American South in general, so my friends on Facebook would add comments about “white trash,” “crackers”, “rednecks,” “Bubba,” and “Honey Boo Boo.”  If critics use the flag debate as an excuse to mock southerners in general, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at a knee-jerk reaction by some to hold onto the stars and bars. Southerners have a right, like any other group,  to be proud of their culture and their family histories. But that pride should not be expressed at someone else’s expense.

The attack on the Confederate flag has come dangerously close to treating racism as if it were somehow the unique property of a particular region. America has a history of locating racism in the South in order to avoid addressing the racism that infects the whole nation.   Anyone who grew up in the South during my generation had to confront this legacy of racism and white supremacy. You had to decide how you were going to respond, while many  in New England or the Midwest have rarely reflected on their own  privilege or seen themselves as implicated within racism. My schoolmates each made a choice; I knew people (myself among them) who became active in the civil right’s movement  and I knew people who joined the Klan.  As long as the rest of the country has a way to deflect serious consideration of a more complex history of racism onto a set of stereotypes about “rednecks” waving Confederate flags, they will do so. 

This refocusing on the Confederate flag has come at a moment when we are, as a country, paying increased attention to, for example, racialized police violence. The #BlackLivesMatters movement has helped us to see incidents of black deaths at the hands of white cops not as isolated incidences, not as problems in local police forces, but as a more widespread issue that impacts the lives of every Black American. So, it has been significant that the incidents which have sparked media coverage have come from places like Ferguson, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles,  and Baltimore as much or more than they have come from Florida, Texas or South Carolina. Going after Confederate flags doesn’t get us very far in terms of understanding someone like Donald Trump and the many people around the country who seem to be embracing what he stands for. Racism remains a problem in every community in America and people at all levels will need to work together to bring about meaningful change.

A focus on the Confederate flag has a tendency to personalize racism, to discuss it as a moral failing of specific individuals, rather than as a systemic and structural problem. For many white people, racism does not appear to be a problem in America today because they do not see blacks being forced to ride the back of the bus and do not see people burning crosses in their neighborhoods. We have hidden the overt signs of racism (though not the everyday micro-aggressions) and we have changed many Jim Crow laws. This does not mean, however, that we are not seeing the rolling back of voter rights, for example, or that our communities do not still feel the economic and social impacts of post-war housing policies which limited who could get loans to buy into particular communities (a history capably discussed in George Lipsitz’s recent How Racism Takes Place) or that criminal justice and incarceration policies do not have implicit racial biases or… The point is that these phenomenon are built into the system in such a way that we do not need to identify explicit racist intents in order to find racialized impacts.

So, what happens to the focus on these structural and systemic factors when we bring back the age-old boogeyman of the redneck waving a Confederate flag? This is not to let Bubba off the hook or to deny that there are real hate groups in the south and elsewhere which need to be confronted. The Southern Poverty Law Center which monitors such groups do valuable work. That said, we could get rid of all of the Klansmen tomorrow and still have substantial issues we need to confront.

A focus on the Confederate flag brings with it a particular framing, which emphasizes the relations between blacks and whites, at the expense of adopting a more complex, layered picture of our multicultural society. It reduces the issue of racism to a binary when much of our best contemporary theory about race and racism has been emphasizing intersectionality — multiple points of contact between multiple demographic groups, not to mention the ways race intersects with class, gender, sexuality, and so forth. Ironically, it was an Indian-American woman, South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Hailey, who ended up taking the lead on getting the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina State House, a reminder that the modern south has experienced waves of immigration in recent years resulting in much more demographic diversity than most media representations acknowledge.

Even if we want to focus on race in the South, we need to do so with an awareness of the experiences of Latino, Asian-American, American Muslim, and a range of other minority groups who are struggling to survive and thrive in the region.  To return to my home state, Georgia is now the tenth largest state for Hispanics in the United States. To focus more narrowly on my home town, Atlanta long consisted overwhelmingly of blacks and non-Hispanic whites; those groups made up 92.1% of the city in 1990, but by 2010 their proportion had shrunk to 85.0%. Metropolitan Atlanta’s Hispanic population increased by 72.0% from 2000 to 2010, and in 2010 the city was 10.2% Hispanic. The Asian American population increased by 65.5%, and in 2010 Asian Americans made up 5.1% of the Metropolitan area. And depending on which estimate you use, Georgia’s  Muslim population is between 9.9-13% of the state’s total population. (So much for our Bible Belt stereotypes). None of this is to make the mistake of universalizing the meaning of #BlackLivesMatter by translating it into “all lives matter.” Black-white relations have a special status, have a painful history that needs to be confronted and acknowledged, but there is also work we need to do that factors in these other experiences of racial and cultural difference in the south and beyond.  

A debate around the Confederate flag increases our awareness of the history of racial conflict in the region — which can be a good thing. As I mentioned, it awakened me to the specific timing of the introduction of the Confederate flag to the state flag of Georgia and thus undercut any lingering rationales for its status as tradition. Yet, as we do so, we need to also pay attention to the long history of struggles to forge cross-racial alliances across the region — the ways diverse people have worked together  to re-invent their communities, to form new symbols and traditions, to frame new identities, that are more inclusive. Some key southern cities have made real progress in reforming laws and policies that bear traces of that history of racial discrimination. Yes, we’ve got a long, long way to go but we may want to look at what’s working in cities like Charleston, Atlanta, and elsewhere, as we try to figure out how we might form meaningful alliances to overcome racist beliefs and practices.

It is neither fair nor realistic to tell white southerners that they should not have some form of collective identity which reflects their history. This is why a fight over the flag becomes so divisive and defensive. We need to create positive new symbols of local pride. Otherwise, people will cling to the old ones. We need to find ways to represent the south that are more inclusive while confronting the region’s particular history of racism and segregation.  The flag must go but we should not leave a symbolic vacuum in its place or we will not like what fills that space.

And this might bring us back to Vivian Howard and A Chef’s Life, by way of illustration. We should never place all the burden on one sign or even one cultural system.   Food, which demonstrates the potential for constant variation and re-articulation, may offer us a more sophisticated language for talking about regional and cultural identities than flags. The ingredients at the core of traditional southern cooking — sweet potatoes, collard greens, okra, corn bread, iced tea, peanuts, peaches, chicken, black eyed peas, etc. — are foodstuffs that can be found in both black and white kitchens. Some were foods that were brought to America from Africa. Some were foods that hint at shared histories of poverty and struggles to survive. Some were foods prepared by black cooks working in white households, and so they hint at the ways — painful and sometimes affectionate — that white and black lives were complexly intertwined across that history.

The history of southern cooking is fraught with exploitation, appropriation, marginalization, and scarcity, it would have to acknowledge how much blood was spilt over gaining access to lunch counters. The fact that we eat many of the same foods does not mean we fix them in the same ways or eat them in the same places and there are some dishes which produce dread and disgust,  so there’s much we still have to overcome.  Paula Dean shows us that southern cooking can contain too much butter — and too much racism — to be always the best thing for our health, but all the more reason  to tinker with those classic ingredients and see if something a bit more tasty emerges.  

The great thing about food is that it comes with a “serve by” date, and after that, we throw it out and try something else. Food can represent family history (as anyone with fading hand copied recipes from earlier generations can attest) but it also points to community practices — the potluck — which imply a world where there is always room for another seat at the table. Traditional southern dishes can be mixed with new ingredients which reflect other histories and trajectories.

The Southern Foodways Alliance, for example, represents the kind of collective enterprise that will be required if we are to construct alternative markers of southern identity. Here’s part of how they describe their mission: “The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation…We tell honest and sometimes difficult stories about our region. We embrace Southern history, the realities of the Southern present, and the opportunities for Southern futures. In other words, we don’t flinch from talking about race, class, religion, gender, and all the other biggies.”

Howard’s food and her personal narrative are a powerful expression of local particularity, all the more so because it is a story of a return to the south, of what people bring back with them and what they discover “back home”, of new beginnings and creative rewordings: what emerges in her kitchen is provisional and improvisational  and this is what we need to embrace if we are to articulate forms of southern pride that do not bear residuals of the Confederate past.

And I can tell you, for all the symbolic weight I am placing on it here, Howard’s food tastes damn fine.

I am grateful to John Huey, Charlie Jenkins, Sam Ford, Amanda Ford, Tara McPherson, Liana Gamber-Thompson,  Samantha Close, Andrea Wenzel, Erna Smith, for critiques, advice, and insight during the writing of this essay. Any stupidity that remains is my responsibility.

Comments

  1. This is such an insightful and intimate post about a complex and nuanced issue. You have explained it better here than anything else I’ve read on the it. That’s why I’m such a big fan of yours. 🙂 I particularly appreciate your illumination of the fact that most of the racial hotspots right now are not even in the South. As someone who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, I can tell you from firsthand experience that regrettably we have more than our share of racists. I love the idea of coming up with another symbol of the South. It would be cool to see peoples’ suggestions. Food and farming is not a bad place to start because every region of our country can be defined by its food, no? For us it was food steeped in German tradition like delectable sausages, sauerkraut, corned beef, apples and vegetables fresh from the garden – Pennsylvania Dutch food which is really Pennsylvania Deutsch a fact that most people don’t know. I look forward to one day visiting Kinston and experiencing Vivian Howard’s food.