I recently saw a video on my social media newsfeed about a thirty something year-old man who, in his early twenties, tattooed a large image of the Confederate Flag on his body; the ubiquitous “stars and bars.” In later years, as he became educated about the racist, treasonous legacy the flag represented he hid the tattoo beneath layers of clothes. The birth of his daughter propelled him to have the tattoo removed. Quite rightly, the shame of explaining to his daughter what provoked him to stamp himself with one of the most disgraceful symbols in U.S. history was unbearable.
His intentions were so harmless, if a little tragic: he tattooed himself with the Confederate Flag because, in his mind, it represented the virtuous ideals of rebelliousness against capricious authority and righteous male swagger. For anyone who has read an American history book this claim seems preposterous. Obviously, he hadn’t had the presence of mind to do just that before making his fateful decision.
For anyone who was a child of the late seventies and early eighties, misguided notions about the virtues embodied in the Confederate Flag were not only reasonable, but widely shared by legions of children, adolescents, and adults across North America. “How could this be?” you ask. The answer: The Dukes of Hazzard.
The Dukes was a wildly popular television show that ran from 1979 to 1986. It made John Schneider, Tom Wopat and Catherine Bach household names. It had millions of kids from coast-to-coast-to-coast across North America exclaiming “Heeeeeeee Haaaaw!” and playing with the show’s most ubiquitous marketing gimmick – toy replicas of Bo and Luke’s red “hot rod” adorned with the infamous Confederate Flag.
This man’s story is a compelling account of how something as seemingly benign as a popular television show becomes a brutally effective tool of cultural denial. It explains how his decision to permanently label himself with such a provocative political symbol in American history was not politically driven in the least; was neither a testament to feelings of “Southern Pride” nor an ardent reflection of libertarian, populist political affinities. The man was born in the mid-late seventies and grew up in Buffalo, New York – far from the U.S. South and, relatively speaking, not a hotbed of racialized politics.
I was a black kid raised in a white family in Canada. This man and I have more in common culturally than he would have with U.S. Southerners and their politically-charged, self-serving narrative about the Confederate Flag, which incessantly downplays the dubious, pervasive racism and political treason it symbolizes. For the same reasons as this man, I harboured mostly positive ideas about the Confederate Flag as an adolescent. I too was oblivious to the moral taint the emblem signifies. Nobody in my surroundings either castigated or downplayed the flag’s historical significance. I was never taught to view it as a symbol of white supremacy or southern pride. I was never exposed to the scene of white supremacists or ardent racists touting the flag as they engaged in racially-motivated, terrorizing political violence.
Like the man in the video, I lived far north of places where the Confederate flag and monuments depicting Confederate war figures would have been commonplace in public spaces. I never knew the Confederate Flag was the battle flag of General Robert E. Lee, the rebellious military figure who led his North Virginia Army against the Union Army (The United States, that is). I was not aware the “stars and bars” version of the Confederate Flag would become the lasting symbol of U.S. Southern pride after the U.S. Civil War, when Confederate veteran groups flew it at memorial events to commemorate the humiliating defeat of their fight against the federal decree to end slavery.
I did not know any of this because my first exposure to the Confederate Flag did not come from a history book. That would come much later. Rather, the first time I ever encountered that symbol of treason and hatred was on Bo and Luke Duke’s trademark car in The Dukes of Hazzard. Thanks to what I saw on that light-hearted television show, the Confederate flag came to represent a symbol of rebelliousness against capricious authority, a resistance to legal corruption, and a testosterone-laden, thrill-seeking celebration of two mavericks whose favourite pastime was sticking up for the good guys.
I was like most other white kids in the seventies and eighties. Every Friday night my family and I eagerly awaited, with wide eyed reverie, the action-packed show about a couple of good ole’ boys who drove a mint, red car – the one with the Confederate Flag on the roof – which they named “General Lee.” My friends and I desperately wanted that dang car as our own and by Jove I whined and pouted until I got it. Once acquired, I shamelessly proffered my Dukes of Hazzard swag, which produced the desired effect: my fellow adolescent dupes swooning at my good fortune, pining to have their own trove of history-obliterating Hollywood marketing loot, just like me. No adult suggested there was anything politically suspect about any of this, even if they did scold me for being an obnoxious braggart.
I was only nine when I got hooked on The Dukes; I was not engaging the cultural products shoved in my face with a critical, sceptical eye. At that age, I mostly believed the moral messages explicitly or implicitly conveyed in authoritative sources; I never suspected anybody would make a television show that was a total whitewash of sordid historical realities. I was ignorant of the fact the Confederate Flag was a symbol of treason and white supremacy; that it came into being when U.S. Southern States took up arms against the The United States of America because it had banned slavery.
The show did nothing to disabuse me or millions of others of our ignorance about the abject truths inherent in the Confederate Flag; did not shed a single ray of light on its disreputable historical significance. It did not allude to, hint, or imply the flag epitomized a disgraceful legacy in the U.S. south. If anything, such glaring omissions further obfuscated the truth of America’s virulently racist history more than the country’s cultural predilection for racism denial had already done by that time.
The crass juxtaposition of a joyful, light hearted, good natured, and utterly fictional narrative over the nefarious historical realities rendered the show a grimly effective tool to further inculcate a profound, widespread ignorance of the horrific legacy of white supremacy. Sadly, that legacy was still seething just beneath the surface, not only in the U.S. south, but in the country as a whole, at the time of the show’s popularity. It further buried the racist foundations upon which America was built: on the exploited, dehumanized, whipped and bound backs of African slaves.
Such burgeoning amnesia would undoubtedly pave the way for the country’s embrace of Ronald Reagan and his neo-Jim Crow policies. With Reagan’s thespian aplomb, a platform criminalizing black poverty and disenfranchisement was easily sold to a pliable American electorate under the auspices of being the wholesale fiscal and moral cleansing the country needed. It was a cleansing indeed: an ethnic cleansing of black existence, the air of legitimacy afforded by specious cultural tropes about vice and crime, which held sway because of endemic societal racism. The taint of racism in these policies was polished up with the aid of wildly popular, mass market television shows that primed the collective mind to tolerate crass racism – or to stomach glib, racism denial – especially when it came cloaked in the veil of wholesomeness and nostalgia.
As improbable as it may seem, our ignorance of the facts was partly due to an erasure in consciousness perpetrated by a trite, jejune, mindless television show and its Pollyanna depiction of the U.S. south – which I and others swallowed up like bamboozled lemmings. Incredulity at the sheer propaganda value of a seemingly benign cultural medium does not change the very real, very damaging effect it had on the collective mind. It cannot be understated how instrumental The Dukes of Hazzard was in fomenting a total misapprehension of countless horrific realities of American history; the legacies of which are still being felt today.
How else do we explain a guy from Buffalo obliviously tattooing a massive Confederate flag on his body? Whether its creators realized it or not, that show played an active role in sweeping America’s dreadful history of slavery and white supremacy – including the place of the Confederate flag in it – under the rug. It did so by valourizing that flag; by cleaning up its image and cementing its association with the virtuous, eminently likeable protagonists of the show and the wholesome values they purported to represent.
Historically, there is no grey area about what the Confederate Flag stands for: slavery, exploitation, white supremacy, and genocide. It is also the banner of the most virulent political extremism ever to exist in the United States. In that respect it is no different than the Nazi Swastika or the flag of the ISIS Islamist extremist group. Proponents of all three of these symbols shun democratic means to express their political grievances. A profound, unabashed chauvinism lies at the core of their extremist ideology. In addition, they glamourize the resort to armed violence as the primary means to achieve their political objectives – one that, in the case of those flying the Confederate Flag, rendered the U.S. Civil War as one of the nineteenth century’s most violent armed conflicts; one that killed nearly a million American soldiers and civilians.
No matter what its proponents try to assert – either out of ignorance or denial – to posit this historically fraught symbol as a facet of “Southern Pride” is a detestable political gambit given its dubious moral ancestry. To choose the Confederate Flag as the symbol of “Southern Pride” is a choice to propagate affinities to undemocratic, racist extremism. It is also a choice to foment collective, modern amnesia about the atrocities of black slavery and post-Emancipation era racism in the U.S. South; all of this symbolized by the Confederate Flag flown by defenders of racist brutality.
There are countless other phenomena unique to the U.S. South that could stand as relics of the pride folks have for their home and way of life. Here are some examples that easily come to mind, and I’ve never set foot in the U.S. South: the rural lifestyle and the closer connection to nature this foments, the hospitality, the attachment to family; the harsh realities that come from living off the land and the turn to God, community, and spirituality to ease the burdens of life.
Then there’s the culture, especially the penchant for producing extraordinary literary and musical artists. I mean, Nashville, Tennessee, right? There’s also: Elvis, Ella Fitzgerald, Little Richard, Thelonious Monk, Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson, Rockabilly, The Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd to name just a tiny fraction of the explosion of Southern musical talent. Then there are the prominent political, historical, and literary figures: Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, and so on and so on. In terms of icons befitting of Southern Pride there is an embarrassment of riches from which to choose.
Even the legacy of racially-tinged conflict between whites and blacks and the honest push for a peaceful resolution provides plenty of inspiration for sources of pride. History has shown how deep-seated political tension can make a place and its people stronger in the overcoming; can bring a people together by forcing them to dig a little deeper, to be more collectively introspective as they fight a little harder for what is right. Why? Because they have known first-hand the destruction caused and the disgrace that follows when forces of moral darkness are allowed to prevail. These are facets of Southern life that, in the genuine effort to work through them in the interest of establishing an ethically defensible, harmonious community are worthy of pride. So why choose a symbol of disgrace; an icon of slavery, extremism, and white supremacy over so many other far more praiseworthy options?
I feel for the guy who tattooed that Confederate Flag on his body. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when it became clear his ideas about that symbol were the result of a cultural whitewash of the heinous truth. The falsehoods he harboured about the flag’s benign cultural relevance were embedded so firmly specifically because he was exposed to them as a child; the propaganda instilled by means of a seemingly harmless cultural institution: The Dukes of Hazzard. The indoctrination could just as well have been achieved by its ubiquitous appearance in the NASCAR racing circuit (until it was recently banned, that is); or its presence in movies and television shows in the eighties that were set in the South.
These are all perfect examples of how a person does not have to be intentionally, consciously racist to become inculcated with racist tropes and sincerely believe they are harmless. This is how many U.S. Southerners have come to believe the Civil War icons in public spaces are harmless facets of Southern Pride. The strong emotional aversion among Southerners at the efforts to remove these artifacts of America’s horrid past speak to just how pernicious and powerful such mundane tools of cultural amnesia are in instilling delusion in otherwise sensible minds.
I doubt the show’s creators consciously set out to gloss over the truth of the Confederate Flag as a symbol of the morally corrupt practice of slavery and replace it with more palatable notions. They weren’t trying to sell denial, or rebrand that flag. Their motives were mundane: they weren’t thinking it through because they were white and unaffected by the languishing racism in the American mindset. They knew the confederate flag was a unifying symbol for folks in the U.S. south and capitalized on it for marketing purposes without accounting for the dangers in effectively whitewashing the flag’s disgraceful legacy. I absolutely have no doubt that, in their thoughtless desire to cash in on depictions of a completely delusional ideal of the US South, they simultaneously helped anaesthetize American viewers to the dangerous predilection for white supremacy and racist extremism that still exists in their political culture.
Wildly popular shows like The Dukes of Hazzard and other, similarly popular cultural products of the time (like the mini-series The North & The South) were cultural arbiters an extraordinary delusional shift in American consciousness. Unfortunately, the shift was away from certitude about the disreputable truth of the Confederate Flag; away from understanding that flag as the embodiment of America’s shame to one that increasingly became a legitimate symbol of “Southern Pride.” Such dubious notions were no doubt buttressed by the fact states like Georgia and Mississippi incorporated the “stars and bars” into their state flag; that North Carolina, until very recently, flew the Confederate flag over its state legislature.
Only in recent times have Americans begun to see the harm in turning a blind eye to the tainted, white supremacist icons of their past. Statues of Confederate Generals, Confederate Flags adorning government institutions and gracing state flags normalizes and condones racist extremism, not among those who are ignorant of the flag’s sordid past and do not share its agenda, but among those who are aware and actively support it. To allow such provocative symbols of immorality and political extremism to stand as legitimate forms of political expression not only perpetuates the casual racism that is the lifeblood of systemic racism, but it also allows racism’s extremist, criminal elements to hide in plain sight.
The Confederate flag is a symbol that merely perpetuates the legitimacy of these brutal, racist legacies, which is why its affinities to anything good and virtuous must be dislodged from American consciousness, once and for all. It is merely the first step on the long road to America’s recovery from, and atonement for, its addiction to white supremacy. Right-thinking Americans should be incredulous about the fact that, in the twenty-first century – which saw the nation’s first black President elected – there remains a shred of debate about the moral repugnance of the Confederate flag; about why it must never be afforded the legitimacy of association with institutions of government at any level.
The Dukes of Hazzard was one of countless cultural phenomena that, in the aggregate, have contributed to America’s denial of its heinous, racist history. It was a powerful tool of collective denial specifically because it was so readily fed to and eaten up by legions of young, uncritical minds in a mass-market setting. Its massive popularity was itself the primary means by which it normalized something disreputable as something legitimate or benign.
It suggests a critical moral and ethical vigilance must always be applied in matters of how America’s racist past is represented in the artifacts of mass popular culture. Like the statues of the treasonous Confederate Generals dotting towns and cities across the U.S. South, certain cultural relics act as a powerful antidote to the moral consciousness of a nation. So long as these relics of a disreputable legacy are heralded as legitimate icons worthy of celebration, they impart their decrepit moral taint; not only in the minds who teach others to lionize them, but also of those taught to admire them.
No people can purport to be “great” who supports an idea as morally bereft as that of white supremacy, racist terrorism, and political extremism. This is especially salient in the world’s oldest democracy. Ignorance is no longer a legitimate excuse; such ignorance is too often wilful – and comes with dire consequences, not only for the actual lives of American blacks, but also for the ethical reputation of American whites. It is time to buttress claims about your nation’s laudable virtues with praiseworthy deeds; like genuinely acknowledging your past sins and making real efforts to do better for sake of all American citizens, regardless of creed or colour, in the future.
I point no fingers. In Canada we have only begun to accept our genocidal treatment of this country’s indigenous peoples. But we are doing just that: acknowledging not just our sins, but the ingrained racism that moved our collective hands to the commission of such vile deeds upon an entire creed of human beings who are our fellow citizens. It is time for America to do the same. Only then can the process of healing, atoning, rooting out and replacing the racist frame and walls that built and housed a racist system truly begin.
In America the first steps on the path to healing must include a collective intolerance for the Confederate Flag; for anyone who touts Confederate generals as “war heroes.” These historical icons and figures are unequivocally tainted; they embody notions of slavery, violent extremism, political treason, and white supremacy. No one in America should be able to raise a Confederate Flag and say, “I am proud” without inviting the scorn of fellow citizens for touting something so horrific, vile, undemocratic, and unpatriotic.