Ways of seeing: A flag that symbolizes racial hatred

A pick up truck drives around Middlebury, with giant Confederate flags flapping in the wind. A house on Schoolhouse Road displays the same flag. A young person in a local parade sports one on his shirt. Belt buckles that say “100% Rebel” with stars and bars in the background, sit on the shelf at a farm supply store. Imagine for a moment that these flags display swastikas. What would go through your mind when you saw them? Would you feel anger or fear? Would you want to rip these flags to shreds, and then burn them into ashes?
That is how I feel when I see a Confederate flag, because I know the history of this hateful symbol. The original cause that the flag stood for is this: that the Southern states (known as the Confederacy) should have the right to enslave Black people.
Recent scholarship shows that most Americans are not getting accurate information about slavery, and how fundamental it was to our nation’s history. Even relatively recently published textbooks often gloss over the barbarity of the “Peculiar Institution” that allowed white slave owners to rape enslaved Black women with impunity, and then sell their babies away from them for profit.
Slavery was so incredibly lucrative that if the Southern states had been their own country it would have been the fourth richest nation in the world at the start of the Civil War. By brutally enslaving Black people to produce 75 percent of the world’s cotton, Mississippi River valley slave holders counted among their numbers more millionaires than anywhere else in the nation.
The United States of America’s prosperity comes directly from slavery, and we have never acknowledged it, apologized for it, or made amends for the generations of suffering and trauma that Black Americans endure to this day. To insist that the Confederate flag stands for something other than racism is to engage in the most willful and hateful ignorance of history.
From the earliest days after the defeat of the Confederacy, white supremacists have waged a deliberate misinformation campaign to convince Northern and Southern white people that the Confederate flag stands for something other than the perpetuation of slavery. But at the same time, the flag has been used as a weapon of terror against Black communities.
Last summer, when the Addison Independent reported about the appearance of a large Confederate flag in East Middlebury, an Addison County resident shared her childhood memories in a letter to the editor. She recalled hiding with her relatives, on the floor in a darkened house, while young white men roared around the neighborhood in their Confederate flag festooned trucks.
Recently, when I went into a store that had Confederate flag merchandise for sale, the clerk was responsive to my complaints, instantly whisking the offending items from the shelf with such speed that I suspected I was not the first person to complain about this. But when another employee asked about it, the merchandise was referred to as “that Dukes of Hazzard stuff.”
For those not in the know, “The Dukes of Hazzard” was a TV show that aired from 1979 to 1985. It featured two brothers, Bo and Luke Duke, and their longhaired, long legged, short shorts wearing cousin Daisy, who drove around Hazzard County, Georgia in an orange car named the General Lee. The General Lee had its doors welded shut for some reason, so the characters were forever hopping in and out through the windows. The other thing about the car was that it sported a huge Confederate flag.
Now being a California kid who until recently had never visited any of the southern states, I’m pretty sure my very first exposure to this flag was on the Dukes of Hazard TV show. In case I haven’t made this clear, on the show, the people driving around with the huge Confederate flag on their car were the Good Guys. This is a big problem.
Happily, a show like this would never get made today, because while Hollywood writers’ rooms are still dominated by white men, writers of color have made enough inroads that propaganda depicting hateful symbols as harmless just wouldn’t fly. But a great deal of damage was done. First you have school textbooks diminishing the horrors of slavery. Then you have a deliberate crusade to misinform Southerners about the reason the Civil War was fought. Couple that with an extremely popular TV show that depicts this flag (and did I mention the car is called the General Lee?!) as a bit of harmless, rowdy, good ol’ boys fun.
If you are a white person, you probably don’t have the same kind of trauma associated with this flag that many Black Americans do. But that doesn’t mean you get a pass to remain ignorant of the real meaning of this flag. It is incumbent upon all of us to educate ourselves and to Speak Up if our friends and neighbors need our help. It may ruffle some feathers, and there will always be some thickheaded people who stubbornly cling to bigoted ideas. But on our national political stage we are seeing the results of looking away when bigotry gets expressed.
In New York City, at the Christopher Street subway station, a large sign reads “No bigotry, hatred, or prejudice allowed at this station at any time.” Let’s make Addison County, Vermont unfriendly to bigotry in the same way. Instead of subway stations, we have Green Mountains, trees leafing out in their full June glory, cows grazing on luscious grass, and a caring community. “No bigotry, hatred, or prejudice allowed at this station at any time.”
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works, and lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected].

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