As some of you know, I have been down in Georgia conducting research on ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) for a few weeks now. During most of this trip I have been isolated on the St. Catherines research and conservation island near mainland Savannah. However, occasionally I come to the mainland to get groceries and supplies for the field, and being from Canada, I always experience a little bit of culture shock when I'm in America. Specifically while down in Georgia, I couldn't help but notice confederate flags everywhere. They were used as bumper stickers, flown from cars as flags and adorned on front porches. For me, these flags are symbolic of southern racism, oppression and slavery. In my mind having a confederate flag on your tailgate is equivalent to an "I support slavery" bumper sticker. But I know that symbolism changes both over space and through time, and may not mean the same thing to people in 21st century Georgia that it meant to people in 19th century Georgia or to someone from southern Ontario.
So I decided to ask people from the south who were staying on the island and I got some answers that validated my own opinion about the use of confederate flags and also some deeper, more nuanced opinion about their use in the 21st century south.
First and foremost the general consensus was that people who celebrate the confederate flag are in fact - as I suspected - parading around the fact that they are racist and that they support what the Confederate States of America stood for back in the 1860's. However, there are those who see the flag as a culturally important part of southern identity and attempt to detach the flag's symbolic connectedness to racism, oppression and slavery and instead re-create it as a symbol of southern unity, strength and distinctiveness. I personally don't support this because to me that would be no different than if Nazi flags were still celebrated by people in modern Germany as re-imagined symbols of German strength and determination. People who attempt to do this with the confederate flag are ignorant of the countless citizens of Georgia who still (and will always) associate the flag with feelings of deep pain and resentment.
Almost more importantly, I learned an important aspect of the flags meaning to those people of Georgia who identify as African-American. I wondered while I was on the streets of Georgia whether most of them thought the same thing as I did when I saw the flag, and apparently the answer is both yes and no. From the people I spoke with it seems as though it has become generational. For the the older generation of African-American Georgians the confederate flag is still associated with real pain, resentment, and even fear. To many of them they grew up in a culture where if they encountered someone with a confederate flag, that was someone who hated them solely because they existed. And many still remember that those people beat, lynched or killed their family members and friends while growing up. To me this is heartbreaking because they have to live in a society where they can't escape the symbolism and consequently can't escape from the associated feelings that the confederate flag evokes.
However, for the younger generations, who have had to struggle far less with racism and oppression than the older generations of southern African-Americans, the confederate flag is now seen as a symbol of the south and part of southern culture. I do not know exactly how I feel about this, a part of me really finds it disturbing, but a part of me feels like it is not my place to say how a new generation of southern African-Americans feels about this symbol, since I do not live here and obviously I have my own preconceived notions of what the confederate flag represents. Of course, not all southern African-Americans see the symbol as an innocuous representation of southern identity, but the feelings do seem to have changed substantially from past generations.
I know my opinion is heavily biased, because if I had my own way, the flag would be banned - as the Nazi flag in Germany has been banned. However, banning the Confederate flag would infringe on freedom of speech and expression, which are both corner stones of American culture and society. And I'll also admit, that maybe it isn't my place to engage in this debate. I am a visitor. I come from a different country and have been influenced by different local and regional experiences. But for what my opinion is worth, when I see it proudly displayed on cars, houses and shops, I see a society that is embracing a dark past instead of trying to distance themselves from it, and in the process they are implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) allowing racism and oppression to become synonymous with what it means to be southern.