Some time ago a video appeared on my social media newsfeed about a thirty something year-old man who, in his early twenties, tattooed on his shoulder an image of the Confederate Flag – the well-known “stars and bars.” In later years, when he more fully realized the racist, treasonous legacy the flag represented he tried to hide the tattoo from others beneath layers of clothes. The birth of his daughter propelled him to take steps to have the tattoo removed. Quite rightly, he could not bear the shame of explaining to her why he had seen fit to brand himself with one of the most disgraceful symbols in U.S. history.
This man’s decision to tattoo himself with the Confederate Flag arose because of its association, in his mind, with the virtuous ideals of rebelliousness against capricious authority and righteous male swagger. For anyone who has read an American history book this claim might seem preposterous. For anyone who was a child of the late seventies and early eighties, such an idea was not only reasonable, but also widely shared by legions of children and adolescents 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 is striking how his decision to permanently label himself with such a provocative political symbol in American history was not politically driven in any way; it was neither a testament to his feelings of “Southern Pride” nor an ardent reflection of his libertarian, populist political affinities. He 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 perspectives on the Confederate Flag. For the same reasons as this man, I harboured mostly positive ideas about the Confederate Flag as an adolescent. Most certainly, I was completely oblivious to any negative taint attached to the symbol. 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 symbol as they engaged in racially-motivated, provocative political deeds.
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 I and my family 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 untoward about any of this, even while they chided me for being such 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 much of a critical eye, to say the least. 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 complete whitewash of actual history. 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 I or millions of others from our ignorance of the abject truth of 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 remarkable thespian gifts, 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 have a tolerance for racism – or racism denial – especially when 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 and profound, unabashed chauvinism stands at the heart of their extremist ideology. The other common link they share is the resort to armed violence as the primary means of political action – one that, in the case of those flying the Confederate Flag, made the U.S. Civil War one of the nineteenth century world’s most violent armed conflicts; one that killed almost 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 an insidious and provocative 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 – the tension that makes a place and its people stronger in the overcoming; that makes people resilient, forces them to dig a little deeper and fight a little harder for what is right. These are facets of Southern life that, in working through them for the betterment of everyone in the 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 defensible 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 at instilling delusion in otherwise sensible minds.
I doubt the show’s creators would have intended to instill the idea of the Confederate Flag as something other than a symbol of the morally corrupt practice of slavery. I doubt they considered how the show’s rebranding of the Confederate Flag would have felt to black viewers; the trauma induced by a whitewashing of the flag’s undeniable, prominent place in a disgraceful facet of American history. 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 anaesthetized a dangerous cultural predilection for white supremacy, racism, and political extremism.
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 it must be removed 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 that, in the twenty-first century – which saw the nation’s first black President elected – there remains any debate about the ethical merits of the Confederate flag.
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 and political extremism. Ignorance is no longer a legitimate excuse; such ignorance is too often wilful – and comes with dire consequences for American blacks. It is time to buttress claims of pride about one’s virtues with praiseworthy deeds; like acknowledging one’s past sins and making a real effort to do better in the future.
That effort begins with showing intolerance toward those who wave the Confederate Flag and tout Confederate war “heroes” because these icons are unequivocally tainted as proponents of slavery, political extremism, treason against The United States, and white supremacy. No one can raise a Confederate Flag and say, “I am proud” and expect those aware of that flag’s rotten roots to show them respect when they tout something so indecent, ignorant, and vile.