Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Heritage Not Hate?

In the last week, we have had the Virginia governor declare April Confederate History Month and downplay the role of slavery and had Mississippi governor and former chair of the Republican National Committee Haley Barber back him up declaring the unimportance of that small fact.

It is certainly true that every culture has aspects that deserve to be celebrated. There are parts of Southern American life that should be held up and enjoyed in both in past and present form. Every culture has its skeletons, that for which it ought to be ashamed and which it ought to wrestle with authentically in its evolution towards a more just community. At times of cultural celebration, we should be able to look past these things with an asterisk in order to celebrate what is admirable about the heritage of a group.

Yet, the calls to do this with Southern culture seem odd in that the icons and remembrances intentionally selected are not those of the culture writ large, but tend to be the ones associated with the injustices. The South is a part of this country and those representing it have been quick to praise those who serve and die for the nation and to paint those who disagree with them as unamerican or treasonous. So, it stands to reason that being an American is something they treasure. Yet the emblem they choose for their part of American culture is that associated with the ultimate treasonous act, the succession of the Southern States, indeed one which occurred for the purposes of defending the institution of slavery, the ultimate form of racism short of genocide. The "State's rights" movement -- which was a fight for the right for states to discriminate against minorities -- chose as its symbol the Confederate battle flag, something that carries the emotional and historical baggage of hate.

So, it is odd that the claim is made that such celebrations of Southern culture are wrapped up as "Confederate history" along with claims that it is purely about heritage, not hate. "The South" is not synonymous with "the Confederacy" unless you want to include the intentional bigotry the Confederacy was fighting for. We can certainly celebrate the 4th of July setting aside the genocide we committed against the Native Americans, but it would be absurd if we did it by wearing Custer beards and then got upset that people were being provoked.

Southern culture deserves to be celebrated, but the question is if such moves are really about heritage not hate, why are these supposed celebrations always made with explicit reference to intentionally provocative symbols that evoke the history of hate and not neutral icons that denote the positive aspects of the culture?