How to Tell the Story of Our Past: A Final Reflection on the Confederate Flag

How to Tell the Story of Our Past: A Final Reflection on the Confederate Flag June 29, 2015

My husband, David French, has some final words about the Confederate flag issue:

Let me be clear about my perspective: History should not be taught through a framework that first (or even materially) considers how a student or citizen feels about that history. Nor should it be taught through the closely related framework of dictating the teaching of particular point of view. Rather, the teaching of history should acknowledge – as much as human beings can – the truth of the past in all its complexity. That complexity can be difficult and painful to process. Yet it can also be revealing and inspiring, with the same set of facts playing on human emotions and knowledge in distinct and often contradictory ways.

This approach can be upsetting if the goal of a nation or a political movement is to guarantee the growth and development of a particular ideology. The modern campus culture represents the apex of this mindset, despising truly free speech and debate because students might come to the conclusion that the dominant view of “social justice” is deeply flawed and – even worse – actively oppose their progressive aims. Contrary ideas can be emotionally hurtful to ideological allies. Contrary ideas can even be evil. Thus, free speech is all downside, containing only risks and pain for a movement that has determined all that it needs to determine about truth and justice.

I detect more than a whiff of a similar mindset in comments about the flag and about monuments, memorials, and other historical markers acknowledging or honoring Confederate soldiers and leaders. To the critic, their existence is all downside, no upside – hurting many (but not all) African-American citizens and sending deeply mixed messages about American attitudes towards the Confederacy. Never mind that these mixed messages have been part of American life for more than 150 years. Never mind that the memorials themselves are part of an important history of grief and healing that reflected the South’s immense loss of life, a loss we can’t comprehend in modern times. Never mind that the memorials cannot wipe away the horrible truths of slavery and Jim Crow. Never mind that the memorials and monuments have memorialized valor in a way that has helped motivate generations of Southerners to fight for freedom under the Stars and Stripes. The flags must come down, and the memorials must be transformed.

The contemporary cultural view of the Confederacy, its soldiers, and citizens is now fixed – there is absolutely nothing about their lives and legacy that’s worth remembering if it at all complicates the narrative of evil rebellion followed by evil resistance to integration and inclusion, not even when that complication involves a legacy of not just valor but also of charity and appreciation from many of the men who spilled their own blood and faced the agony of loss in their long fight against the South.

I’ve said this before – in my initial essay about the flag – my daughter is African-American, and the thought that she could be held (if born at a different time) in slavery or subjected to second-class-citizenship through Jim Crow is horrifying. I’m grateful beyond words that our nation culturally and legally embraces equal rights for all its citizens. As I also said in my essay, my forefathers wore gray in the Civil War, fighting at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Franklin, and Nashville. It is an aspect of God’s wonderful and mysterious grace that a descendant of Confederates is raising a bi-racial family. Yet my story is hardly unusual in the South. This transformation is both in spite – and because of – my deeply Christian ancestors. To change the South so that memorials are now re-cast as symbols of their eternal shame is to treat them worse than their Union adversaries did in the immediate aftermath of bloody conflict.

I’ll end my part of this discussion with, forgive me, a long quotation from Union hero Joshua Chamberlain – a better man than I’ll ever be – reflecting his own view of the defeated Confederate Army at Appomattox:

Read Chamberlain’s words here.

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