NPR logo When The 'Heritage' In 'Heritage Not Hate' Is More Skynyrd Than Stonewall Jackson

When The 'Heritage' In 'Heritage Not Hate' Is More Skynyrd Than Stonewall Jackson

A crowd cheers as the Confederate flag is lowered from the Statehouse grounds on July 10 in Columbia, S.C. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley presided over the event after signing the historic legislation the day before. John Moore/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption John Moore/Getty Images

A crowd cheers as the Confederate flag is lowered from the Statehouse grounds on July 10 in Columbia, S.C. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley presided over the event after signing the historic legislation the day before.

John Moore/Getty Images

Friday's ceremony to remove the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina's state Capitol grounds was scored by loud cheers and applause from the huge, largely black crowd who came to see it off. The contrast between the cheers and the official pomp — marching soldiers in dress grays funereally handling the furled flag — was yet another example of the wildly divergent orientations people have toward the Confederate flag.

In a less-covered event closer to home, another beloved and polarizing symbol lost its co-sign from the state last week. On Wednesday, a judge agreed that the federal trademark office could strip the NFL's Washington Redskins of its trademark on the basis that the team's name is disparaging toward Native Americans.

The arguments in favor of these two icons sound a lot alike — they're just about pride of place and tradition, and the folks reading them as racist are missing the point. These arguments are sloppy for a bunch of reasons, but what irritates me most about them right now is that I kind of see where they're coming from.

OK, before we go any further — let's stipulate that I'm not riding for the continued public display of the Confederate flag or the Redskins name or logo, and take it for granted that any serious argument in their defense has to grapple honestly with their full histories. What I'm hung up on is this: There are few symbols so inelastic and so static that they cannot be stretched to accommodate our own complicated, personal histories in ways that feel genuine and worth protecting. That's true even for loaded symbols like the Washington team's logo, and yeah, even the Confederate flag.

A man displays a Confederate flag tattoo as he participates in a rally to show support for the American and Confederate flags on July 11 in Loxahatchee, Fla. Organizers of the rally said that after the Confederate flag was removed from South Carolina's Statehouse, it reinforced their need to show support for the Confederate flag, which some feel is under attack. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A man displays a Confederate flag tattoo as he participates in a rally to show support for the American and Confederate flags on July 11 in Loxahatchee, Fla. Organizers of the rally said that after the Confederate flag was removed from South Carolina's Statehouse, it reinforced their need to show support for the Confederate flag, which some feel is under attack.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

These symbols are so irredeemably radioactive for so many people that being asked to consider the feeeeelings of those who defend them feels like wasted time, at best, and often something far more insidious. But, like it or not, we're probably doomed to keep talking past each other until we find a way to at least acknowledge that messiness. When some folks make the "heritage not hate" argument, they're genuinely not referring to the heritage of Stonewall Jackson and the Lost Cause. They're often trying to hold fast a heritage that's far more recent — like, circa when they were teenagers — and, to their minds, more wrapped in memories of family cookouts and first dates than the sins of the past.

Of course, thinking that way doesn't make it so. So where does that leave us?

I had to think on this after a brief encounter on a trip to Chicago last week. We were touring downtown, and as we headed up the elevator at the Willis Tower, a white dude riding up with us said he dug my black Phillies cap. We chopped it up on the elevator for a moment — turns out he grew up just outside the Philly city limits, and now lives in D.C., too, just blocks from where I live — before we stepped off and went our separate ways. Two Philly dudes, nodding to each other before keeping it moving.

I tend to wear a Phillies baseball cap when I'm feeling especially Philadelphian even though I'm, at best, a casual baseball fan. But for an awful lot of black Philadelphians of a certain vintage, the Phillies represent the worst of my hometown. This was the team whose players and fans accosted Jackie Robinson in 1947. They were stubborn to the end, the last team in the National League to integrate. Several members of my family pointedly did not go to the championship parade in 2008, for these reasons.

I know this history better than most. I tell myself that this was a different time, when the team had different owners, that the distaste many black folks feel for the Phils is understandable but not really relevant to my hat. No, my hat is personal shorthand: this is where I'm from; I'm putting on for my city. To a lot of other black folks in Philly, it stands for a historically racist team that had little love for folks who look like us. Full stop.

If the Phillies, a team with a relatively mild history in the annals of baseball and race, can hold all these different meanings all at once — regional pride and racial animosity and family heritage — what does that tell us about how to deal with way more loaded imagery like the St. Andrew's Cross on the rebel flag or the Native American on Washington's helmets?

Likewise, if you grew up in the D.C. area, a sea of burgundy and gold, you might not know or care that the team's name is for many a caricature of a people who were on the business end of a brutal, horrific campaign of extermination by the federal government. The replica jerseys, the beer can holders, the bumper stickers, and yes, the flags that wave from cars — to millions of folks, they're just what you take to the sports bar, the background noise for a Sunday afternoon tailgating party. Millions of people grew up watching the team play with their families like a colleague of mine here on Code Switch who, to this day, recalls with a twinge of fondness the team's fight song whenever they score a touchdown. The version she sang had been updated from its previous, more cringeworthy iteration: Braves on the warpath, fight for old D.C., Run or pass and score, we want a lot more. Beat 'em, Swamp'um, Touchdown, let the points soar ...

A Washington fan wears a patch-covered jacket on the sidelines before an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans last year in Landover, Md. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP hide caption

toggle caption Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

A Washington fan wears a patch-covered jacket on the sidelines before an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans last year in Landover, Md.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Her cherished memories are wallpapered with racist signage. She knows this better than most. How does she — and the rest of us — reconcile personal nostalgia with what racist icons represent more broadly?

I called up Chuck Reece, the editor-in-chief of The Bitter Southerner, an excellent website of modern Southern culture, to talk about some of this. Reece grew up in Georgia in the 1960s and '70s, not long after white Southerners began taking up the flag anew in protest of the wave of integration that followed Brown v. Board of Education. As a grown man, Reece is a vocal critic of public displays of the flag; his publication has expressly called for its removal. But for a lot of young white people in the South at that time, he told me, their relationship to the flag was bonded by something more complicated — or maybe less complicated — than racism. "To me, the flag meant nothing more than a regional spirit of rebellion," he said of his thinking at the time — rebellion in that vague, formless way in which teenagers tend to define it.

"If you were a teenager back then and could get a car," he went on, "it almost felt like it came with an 8-track of a Skynyrd cassette in the deck." The rebel flag figured heavily into Lynyrd Skynyrd's look and those of other Southern rock groups at the time; Skynyrd often performed in front of a humongous backdrop of the Confederate flag.

What is he — and anyone with personal history that's all tangled up in society's baggage, meaning everyone — to do with these awkward juxtapositions?

I took the question to my friend Keith Woods, a native New Orleanian and an executive here at NPR. ("Keith, you're a Southerner ..." I began. "Uh oh," he responded.) He told me the story of a recent push to rename some Crescent City landmarks and institutions named for Confederate and otherwise notoriously racist figures. One high school was quietly and puzzlingly spared by the city's then mostly black council members, despite being named for John McDonogh, a fabulously wealthy planter who owned more than 1,800 slaves. When McDonogh died, he left much of his fortune to establishing new public schools — on the condition that they were racially segregated. McDonogh 35 High School, which bears his name, became the first public high school for blacks in Louisiana, and over the decades, many of New Orleans' black elite have passed through its doors. Black city council members had the opportunity to erase its name, but they decided not to. After all, what did the school's namesake really have to do with their fond memories of their teenage years?

When I related this story to Reece of Bitter Southerner, he equated it to the tinge of sadness he still feels today when he drives by the site of his own former elementary school in Georgia, since razed to the ground and built over. "I still get a little pissed off to see my school's gone," he said. "Even if [McDonogh] was called Joe's High School, people would still want to keep the name Joe's High School."

It just happens that McDonogh 35 was named for a powerful racist, and so the solution seems clear: Pick something else, and move on. But for a lot of grads, it just wouldn't be the same, and that mattered beyond what seems practical. We all undertake the awkward mental gymnastics of making space for ugly cultural objects when they're familiar, when our personal memories are wrapped up in them. My editor here on Code Switch, Tasneem Raja, loves the Rolling Stones' unambiguously misogynistic "Under My Thumb" despite her feminism, because it holds memories of her first apartment. Likewise, I love all sorts of hip-hop that directly contradicts my own personal politics. Were someone to challenge us on the ugliness of that music, they would win. But we wouldn't stop playing the songs.

Of course, this sort of nostalgia often rests awkwardly against unalloyed contempt — and as Reece pointed out, growing up in the South in the 1960s and 1970s meant growing up in a world dedicated to making that contempt polite and digestible; the Civil War was about state's rights, not slavery, and so on. There are shades of unknowing, willful or nostalgic or contemptuous, but unknowing isn't an excuse. It is impossible to claim in good faith that slavery wasn't the Confederate cause, no way to wish away the fact that Redskin is a slur. The state, big businesses and the media have stopped trying. Major retailers like Amazon and Wal-Mart have dropped merchandise bearing the flag; a growing list of news outlets and sports commentators have pledged to stop using the team's name.

As institutional co-signs fall away, that leaves the highly personal, and person by person, project of figuring out whether — and how — to decouple one's history from symbols that are facing increasing public heat. On balance, the societal toxicity of these assets far outstrips our personal investments in them. As someone who writes about race, I have to sort through and explain why that is. And yet, I'm left this week with something that feels uncomfortably close to empathy for those who are now being asked to put them in a drawer and walk away.

U.S. and Confederate flags fly from a vehicle during a rally to show support for the flags on July 11 in Loxahatchee, Fla. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images

U.S. and Confederate flags fly from a vehicle during a rally to show support for the flags on July 11 in Loxahatchee, Fla.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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