My Response to “Learn Your History”

A Confederate flag is displayed at the South Carolina state capitol in Columbia January 9, 2008. Many U.S. presidential campaigns shift their focus to South Carolina today for their first test in the south--the historic flag, which until 2000 flew from the capitol dome, is for some a symbol of the state's political and racial divisions.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst   (UNITED STATES) - RTX5DUD
A Confederate flag is displayed at the South Carolina state capitol in Columbia January 9, 2008. Many U.S. presidential campaigns shift their focus to South Carolina today for their first test in the south–the historic flag, which until 2000 flew from the capitol dome, is for some a symbol of the state’s political and racial divisions. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES) – RTX5DUD

As of today, our governor has called for the Confederate flag to come down from the monument on the State House grounds.

For something so divisive, you’d think there would be celebration.

But amidst the almost-universal praise, there is a strain of grumbling that goes something like this:
Learn your history! It’s about heritage, not racism!

History is a tricky subject. We can think that it’s an objective account of our past, or we can acknowledge that it is a subjective mish-mash of narratives that managed to win out over other narratives. To be sure, a history of Native Americans in the United States would be written differently from the Native American perspective than those who drove them out of their lands. Curriculum wars have been waged over how certain history has been told in school textbooks. If history was objective, we wouldn’t have these issues.

So when I hear “Learn your history,” I ask: Whose history? I’m a white male Southerner who spent a lot of time in past years studying how the Confederacy came to be, because I wanted to find out which was true: heritage or hate? I love flag design and owned a few Civil War era flags of South Carolina. I read Calhoun and Davis. I have been heavily involved in my own local history initiatives. I studied other instances of secession in world history. I could even see some of the constitutional rationale for secession, on paper and in a vacuum, so to speak. None of that could erase the fact that, despite the causes we may assign to Southern secession and the lingering Confederacy, there were clearly racist motives amidst the non-racist ones in the founding of the CSA. To that end, the flags represent it.

Flags are about active causes. It’s one thing to have a monument to the Confederate dead, but flying a battle flag in their memory doesn’t do anything other than imply we still support that cause today. It’s safe to say those men died for their country–CSA, at the time–and I would imagine their idea of patriotism today would beholden them to the same United States Flag that we fly today as Americans. (That brings up another point: flying those two flags at the same time seems completely illogical to me, but that’s another post.)

When we–white, southern, reasonably comfortable, and only connected to the Civil War by memory or distant relatives who were fighting to keep their economic interests alive–say “learn your history,” we are actually saying “learn the history that makes this flag okay.” The problem is, it’s not that simple. History is checkered. History is subjective. You cannot tell me that a descendant of a slave in South Carolina has the same perspective on history that we do. When we say “learn your history,” we are once again imposing our will over those who don’t have the luxury of a Gone With The Wind recollection of history.

If you can put together an entire nation, or state, or county of people who think that battle flag represents them, then secede again and fly it. But as it stands, state government represents all state residents, and enough of them don’t share the same history you do of that symbol. What’s wrong with being a good neighbor and letting it go?

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