The Folklore Project


New Orleans, Louisiana

Separating Hate from Heritage in the Lies They Told Us

By Alex Johnson

At this point, you’re either with the Nazis or you’re not.

If your truck bumper still has a sticker on it with the rebel flag and the “Heritage, Not Hate” slogan, then you’re a neo-Confederate with the skinheads and Nazis. If the stars and bars ever symbolized something beyond hate, it died on Saturday with Heather Heyer, Jay Cullen, and Berke Bates. Here’s why.

Exceedingly few white Southerners are white supremacists. Many of us, however, are descendants of Confederate soldiers. And many Southerners today, both white and black, can trace family lineages to graveyards with CSA-inscribed tombstones.

My great-great-great-grandfather was severely wounded at the Second Battle of Manassas (Yankees called it Bull Run). Like most who fought, he was not a slave owner. The 1860 census shows less than a third of the population in states that seceded owned slaves. So perhaps he marched up to Manassas, Virginia, under Robert E. Lee’s command in defense of some romantic sense of homeland. Or perhaps he fought for some future interest in owning human souls.

The most probable reason is that he was A) a product of his time and B) a pawn of wealthy, self-interested slave owners. It was an era when every white person was a white supremacist. Even the most radical Northern liberals who were anti-slavery abolitionists were not advocating for full equality (see, e.g., President Lincoln’s Inauguration Speech, the history of Liberia’s creation, or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”). It was also an era when plantation owners enacted laws, like the Twenty-Slave Law, to exempt from military service the privileged members of their social scene. These men were busy, after all. They had a war to sell, ungodly amounts of wealth in human chattel to protect, and a country to create.

So, they commissioned propaganda to create Confederate pride. Secessionists paid for songs and newspaper stories to inspire many a poor farmer to believe he was better than a black slave (see Virginian Drew Gilpin Faust’s “The Creation of Confederate Nationalism”). It worked in the 1860s because society was structured around a slave economy and structural changes are complicated, especially when respected community men like T.R.R. Cobb manipulated sacred texts to defend what we now know is indefensible. Cobb wrote the Confederate Constitution, and its only major difference from the U.S. Constitution is the right to own humans.

Propaganda also worked because storytelling is part of the human condition. We cling to narratives that empower us and explain why we are here. Ta-Nehisi Coates shows in “Between the World and Me” that both historians and Hollywood perpetuate the brighter-side narratives while distracting us from acknowledging the injustices. Like many Americans, Pat Conroy grew up reading Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” but recognizes in “My Reading Life” that Mitchell’s 1936 book, and 1939 movie, was the “singular, canonical moment in Southern mythmaking.”

I don’t know if my eighth-grade history teacher in Carnesville, Georgia, read fiction, but I do know he called the Civil War the “War of Northern Aggression.” His enthusiasm for history was genuine and he was a nice man who sang George Jones under his breath, making us all laugh when he went low on "He Stopped Loving Her Today." He was also a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and taught revisionist legends to a classroom of white and black teenagers and once wrote on the whiteboard, “The War for Southern Independence was NOT fought over slavery.”

Let’s consider a hypothetical: Assuming my public school teacher was right and we take slavery out of the equation completely, what remains are the Robert E. Lee statues and Confederate monuments dedicated to the Lost Cause. But a Lost Cause for what, if not for white people owning black people? Chivalry? Cotton? Mint juleps? Pre-industrial agriculture and life before air conditioning? Lee was a role model who, I’ve heard, is the only West Point cadet to graduate without a demerit, so maybe that earns him monumental status.

But being a good student and brave soldier does not attract neo-Nazis to rally around your monument. White nationalists erected most of these statues in the early 20th century to assert mythmaking in stone. Without slavery and postbellum race relations, there would be no need to argue over the symbolism of these city monuments.

Next, let’s consider the Confederate battle flag. Without slavery, these stars and bars have nice symmetry. Same goes for the aesthetics of a swastika — if we leave out Hitler and genocide. But Hitler was real. Slavery was real, too. And like the men who took power after Reconstruction and erected the monuments, white men of the 1950s added these stars and bars to their states’ flags, a reaction to post-WWII civil-rights advocates. In 1956, for example, the Georgia legislature approved a new flag with the Confederate stars and bars covering two-thirds of the flag, where they remained until 2001.

Around that time, in 1955, James Baldwin published “Notes of a Native Son.” Baldwin wrote about history’s influence on the present: “Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors…. Every legend, moreover, contains its residuum of truth, and the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.”

So, in our hypothetical, we’ve put all American history in a vacuum and extracted the reality of horrors that come with an economy built on human bondage.

Fast forward to 2017.

Last weekend, armed white nationalists and skinheads rallied beneath Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville; they wore swastikas and the stars-and-bars; they burned tiki torches and chanted, “You will not replace us” and "Jews will not replace us." Without slavery in the historical equation (and memories of torch-bearing Klansmen), they’re branding a novel idea of Aryan dominance with otherwise pretty symbols. But in reality, they’re hate-mongers carrying fire and weapons, using well-branded symbols for their not-so-new cause.
Without slavery, these white supremacists may have stolen an otherwise benign symbol that other citizens looked to for nostalgia, one that evokes some idea of myth-made halcyon days. No more.
Swastikas and the stars-and-bars are hate symbols. What they represent is incongruent with the liberties symbolized in the Union’s stars and stripes.
If you’re a white rural Southerner like me, denounce these symbols at once. Tear yourself from the self-interested men who traffic in them. Break away from the casino-man politics that thrives in division and distraction. It’s a cancer on our society, and it’s all-consuming.
You don’t have to stay aligned with the neo-Nazis. You can be proud of our Southern heritage without also being a neo-Confederate. You can be an American patriot, but it requires your acceptance of Southern heritage as mixed-race, and that our past is both good and bad — what the Drive-By Truckers call “the duality of the Southern thing.” And it requires you not only to dance to James Brown, but also to say it loud and proud: “Black lives matter.”
The propaganda disseminated by slave owners and Confederate nationalists might have worked 160 years later with the help of subsequent generations. But this generation knows the difference between facts and alternative facts. Free yourself from their manipulation. We’re all children in the classroom, and the teacher is retelling overused myths. We know better now.
All it takes is thinking for yourself about the stories you’ve been told and separating fact from myth. With clarity of vision, and a little reading, you too will see anew the lies selfish men carved into stone, showed in movies, and were repeated by teachers and otherwise sweet grandmothers.
We’re all victims of those narratives, but the hypothesis was false. As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said three weeks before firing on Fort Sumter, “African slavery” was the “cornerstone” of the new country. Slavery was real, and the power of that evil institution lingers in the lies we’ve been told for too long. First, it was the slave owners. Now, it’s the skinheads. Don’t fall prey to their perversions of reality.
Let them have the hate symbols. We’ll take our heritage.