I get it. The Confederate flag is offensive to many African Americans. What has become something of a mantra within the black community is arguably the clearest example of a collective voice that for far too long was kept silent in discussions about how our Civil War ought to be remembered. While I support calls to take down Confederate flags in a few select places I tend to resist the idea of tearing things down that provide windows into our nation’s past. These calls almost always reveal deep frustration and bitterness, but they rarely involve education and understanding. John Hennessy is correct in pointing out the deep chasm between white and black Americans when it comes to Civil War memory.
This most recent case in Atlanta concerning a Confederate flag situated next to a monument marking the graves of 400 soldiers is a perfect example. The problem came to light following the funeral of SCLC President Rev. Howard Creecy, Jr. Mourners noticed the flag in the distance and this led Rev. Benford Stellmacher to demand that the cemetery take the flag down. He discovered, however, that the land is private property and belongs to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In my view, there is nothing inappropriate about the placement of this flag. It’s not that I happen to agree with the SCLC in its recognition that this particular plot is private property or that it is not part of the cemetery itself it is that the flag marks a location that white residents decided to set aside for their fallen soldiers.
What Rev. Stellmacher never explains is what will be accomplished by pulling down this particular flag beyond his own emotional satisfaction. What he should be doing, along with other African American leaders in the community, is figuring out how these sites can be incorporated into a narrative that encourages a closer identification and reconciliation with the past. Monuments and other historic sites are always open to interpretation. We can choose to be offended by these sites or we can figure out a way to incorporate them as our own. In doing so, the site or object is not simply divested of its power to offend, but it becomes a catalyst to a richer understanding of one’s place within the community and the nation.