“In the South the war is what A.D. is elsewhere; they date from it.” — Mark Twain
I have a Confederate ten dollar bill. It is neatly framed in a shadow box and sitting on a book shelf in our home office. Among the imagery is a cavalry artillery unit pulling cannons presumably into battle. A portrait of Robert M. T. Hunter, Secretary of State for the Confederacy, looks out expressionless from the lower right corner as though he knows how this all will end. It was given to me by my father and to him by his father before. So, here it has come to rest among ancient medicine bottles, a vintage merchant’s scale, and a pair of clay billiard balls from another age, fracture lines across their surface- in other words things cherished for their age and beauty despite their present uselessness. The bill has not been considered legal tender for more than five generations. It has no inherent value. It is not backed by any precious metal or by the full faith and credit of any existing government. Its only redeemable value is in the story that it tells, and like any antique it is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it (which according to online markets is between about $25-$50.) It is a relic from a monumental time in our national history and nothing more. I do not derive any sense of identity from it. It’s more a trinket than a totem, one that no one, by the way, is clamoring be put back in circulation.
The flag though has enjoyed a reverence, however misdirected, for decades, and despite the jingoistic tribalism it seems to encourage the Confederate flag still flies over lands, public and private 150 years after the fall of its short lived government. Why? Because this is the fable we tell ourselves about ourselves: that the flag no longer represents the Confederacy but something loftier. We have justified to ourselves through unimaginable gymnastics of reasoning that these 13 stars set on a St. Andrew’s Cross represent “heritage” and “self-reliance”, “Southern pride” and other sanctimonious drivel. This parochial attempt to cleave the slavery issue free from the flag is disingenuous at best and downright subversive at worst.
The truth, as inescapable to historians as it is inconvenient for apologists, is that the central tenet of the Confederate cause was states’ rights-specifically a state’s right to allow holding other human beings in bondage for purposes of labor. Anyone still asserting a different narrative in this age must prefer the willful blindness required to make such claims and have no interest in reading what documents are available such as the Mississippi Declaration of Secessionwhich literally says in the second sentence that, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery”. And if keeping people in captivity by merit only of their skin color seems abhorrent to us today so should continuing to wave the flag of a government that defended that right.
As for me, I do not need a polyester rag made in China to tell me where home is. My sense of place is steadfast, and my relationship to it more direct. What need do we have in worshiping out-dated and divisive symbols when our states, the Southern states, gave this country its most enduring cultural touchstones? The music of the South is the music of America. From the rocky highlands of Appalachia to the alluvial plains of the Mississippi, Southern musicians virtually authored the American songbook. Their work is canon. The dishes of kitchens from the bayous to the Chesapeake are revered to a degree that Southern food culture warrants its own non-profit And the American South has long been a literary wellspring. Just survey any library’s bookshelves- Twain, Faulkner, O’Conner, and McCarthy. The names of giants are too many to count. The South is a place unto itself, and its voice- these songs, these flavors, and this prose are not trivial things. They are our birthright.
Let us lower the flag and furl it at last. Let us recognize what we should have seen all along, that we have a more noble inheritance to attend to. The unreconstructed and embittered Confederate holdout may hopelessly continue to say, “the South will rise again.”
I say, “We already have. What are you waiting for?”