My maternal grandmother, Alida Mae Towers, had the lineage and opportunity to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. She was a descendent of Ethan Allen who led the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont against the British troops. But she didn’t join. “The war’s over,” she said of the issue. “Let it be done.” The same message could be sent to those deep-rooted southerners who refuse to lay down their figurative and literal guns after the Civil War. Although my mother and father were transplants to Florida from New Hampshire and Indiana, respectively, I am a child of The South. I’ve been privy to the rancorous fraternity of Confederate descendants. Because of my pale skin and blonde hair, southern folks assume I’m of their heritage and confide in me their private misgivings over racial intermixing and black celebrity. I’ve seen them stockpiling weapons, heard their jokes that involve that word starting with N which my father called “the dirtiest word in the language,” watched them display the Confederate flag on bumper stickers (or sometimes full back-window decals), as patches on their hunting caps (with, of course, no adumbration of intimidation, no suggestion of an empowered lynch mob, no question of what, or who, they’re really hunting), as tattoos on their bodies and flags they fly on holidays.
“When I see the stars and bars, that’s just as bad as the Nazi swastika,” Spike Lee said Thursday night in the Ruby Diamond auditorium on the FSU campus. As provocative as it was incendiary, Lee’s statement spoke to the adversarial dualism still in existence between staunch southern loyalists and the rest of the country.
He spoke to a crowd of students from FSU and FAMU, a traditionally black college in Tallahassee. In slacks and a sweater-jacket, Lee walked onto a stark stage with only a stool wearing a hat repping area code 404 out of Atlanta, home to his alma mater Morehouse. The 54-year-old professor of film at NYU and Academy-Award-nominated director talked a little Seminole football, then spoke about the need for college students to choose a major in a field they love, and not in the field that will make them the most money. “That’s not real living. That’s just existing,” Lee said of those who spend their lives in a profession where collecting wealth is the only aim. He encouraged students to expose themselves to the arts, to film and literature, to ignore familial demands of a lucrative career path because “Parents kill more dreams than anybody.” He said what you’d expect him to. The crowd had heard it all before. There was a palpable anticipation for the Q&A portion of the evening.
Eventually, Lee finished his narrative about chasing dreams instead of dollars, and a number of hands went up with questions for the director. The crowd of boisterous students wanted to know about his comments that Tyler Perry’s movies were “coonery and bafoonery,” about his opinions on the ways digital media has changed filmmaking, about the crisis of fatherhood and violence in African-American communities, about what he took away from film school and the secret to his success. Lee, street-wise and profusive with his profanities, said he realized, while in film school at NYU, that most first-time directors write their own scripts, and that knowing how to write effectively was the most important factor in becoming successful. “If you can write, you get paid,” Lee said. “And you’ll be better off for it.” This was a nice nod to composition courses in college. In fact, we teach his journal to Do the Right Thing from our freshman anthologies. Of acting, Lee suggested that auditioners become acquainted with rejection and maintain a firm sense of their goals and identity. “Rejection will make you crazy,” he said. “You gotta have a notion of who you are.” I took this advice to apply to writing as well, as writers should become inured to and comfortable with the many rejections they will receive in a lifetime. He also spoke about the importance of staying dedicated to ones craft, saying, “If you’re trying to find a shortcut, I question your commitment.”
Lee’s presentation targeted college freshmen and sophomores, film school students, and the African-American community. Since I’m not included in any of those demographics, I found myself straining to hear a message I could take from the evening. But the most compelling moment came four or five questions into the Q&A when Spike asked the microphone-bearers to hand one over to a young white male standing in the middle of his row in the middle of the auditorium. Spike said to give a microphone to the guy in the blue shirt.
“Actually, I’d say this is a shade of green,” the guy started, establishing a tone of discord.
“What’s the question?” Spike said, looking annoyed.
“What are your thoughts on William T. Sherman?”
Spike Lee crossed his arms. “Why don’t you tell everybody what you’re really asking.”
The guy went on to inform the crowd that Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, is a reference to General Sherman who burnt a trail of destruction from Atlanta to Savannah during the Civil War. As I browse through General Sherman’s Wikipedia page now, I see that General Sherman led an army of northern white, free blacks, and black slaves, and I see that General Sherman is considered one of the most bellicose and blood-thirsty—albeit effective—generals in US history. Although he didn’t consider blacks to be equal to whites in the eyes of God, he carried out orders that granted, after his siege of the South, 40,000 free black men their 40 acres and a mule, expropriating the land from defeated southerners in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. President Andrew Johnson took that land away within the year. By naming his production company 40 Acres and a Mule, Spike Lee is reclaiming the revoked property of his forefathers, repurposing the language to make the phrase something black Americans can be proud to own, and reasserting, with each new production, the empty promises and history of racism tied to the American government.
As I listened to the questioner, I saw in him that perverted idea of justice rising from southern hostility toward outsiders that compelled him to challenge Spike Lee on his reclaiming, repurposing, and reasserting. The questioner’s warped assertions, spawned from an angst toward the Other passed down through generations, was symptomatic of the thinking of white southerners embittered by a 150-year-old defeat. Don’t those dispirited chastened by higher authority attempt to chasten and dispirit others? Don’t white southerners seek to exert superiority over African-Americans because they themselves were made to feel inferior? So this student felt he could put a whole auditorium in its place. You could see the truculence in his demeanor and hear it in his voice. Each time I encounter this brand of hostility, I think of H.L. Mencken.
In 1920, H.L. Mencken, eternal opponent of stupidity, addressed just this type of southern holdover in his glorious essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart.” In it, he argues that the “bankruptcy, demoralization and despair” left in the South in the wake of the Civil War drove the upper crust of southern society northward into the refuge of culture found in the states above Virginia. “The South has simply been drained of all its best blood,” Mencken writes. “The vast hemorrhage of the Civil War half exterminated and wholly paralyzed the old aristocracy, and so left the land to the harsh mercies of the poor white trash, now its masters.” Mencken identifies Georgia specifically as the epitome of bad breeding and ignorance, writing, “If one turns to such a commonwealth as Georgia the picture becomes far darker. There the liberated lower orders of whites have borrowed the worst commercial bounderism of the Yankee and superimposed it upon a culture that, at bottom, is but little removed from savagery.” Furthermore, Mencken says, when the lower orders of white mobilized upward to fill the vacancy of decent human beings lost to northern climes, the white folks that were left had bastardized and in-bred bloodlines whereas the gentry had left behind a class of mulattos born from intercourse between wealthy white males and black slave women. The mulatto class, as relatives of the region’s best genetics, had a greater cultural aesthetic and produced more valuable art—indeed every original form of American music—than did the debased new aristocracy who treated lynching as a sport “because the backward culture of the region denied the populace more seemly recreations.” In Mencken’s mind, the intellectual superiority of the mulatto class, not to mention their better looks, fueled the jealousy and hatred felt by the newly authorized lower-class whites, raising the stakes of racism.
Some of Mencken’s article doesn’t age well, such as when he writes of the Southern mulatto: “Like all other half-breeds he is an unhappy man, with disquieting tendencies toward anti-social habits of thought.” Also, Mencken tends to flatten ethnographic distinctions regionally and racially in a time before sociologists had reliable methods of tracing lineage. And, of course, I don’t share in his complete disdain of Georgian culture. The state did, between then and now, give birth to the estimable Allman Brothers.
Nevertheless, Mencken’s essay sheds light on the castigations implied in the student’s question for Spike Lee. “What are your thoughts on William T. Sherman?” veiled an accusation that Lee, by utilizing the government’s incentive program of “40 acres and a mule,” was celebrating the scorched countryside of 1865 Georgia and mocking the Georgians who assumed authority and to this day hold bitterness toward that mulatto class who received the salubrious genetics of the upper crust. If Lee were to applaud the efforts of General Sherman, his lauding would induce the ire of those southerners galvanized by an engrained acrimony and congregated beneath the Confederate flag. If Lee were to disparage the General, he would have proven the Georgian’s point, admitted to the irony of the name of his production company, and reasserted Caucasian dominance over those from outside the Dear Ol’ Southland. However Lee chose a third option. Lee pointed out that the government never followed through on their promises to the black soldiers, and drew a distinction between the loss of property and the loss of life.
“What do you want me to say? There was a war going on. Slavery had to end,” Lee told the student in front of an audience whose majority probably couldn’t have cared less. “What do I feel about Sherman burning a path of destruction from Atlanta to Savannah? What about 400 years of slavery?” Then Lee used an analogy tying in one of his films, Do the Right Thing, in which a rioting mob burns down the Italian-owned Sal’s pizzeria. Lee said people come up to him all the time asking how he could have let that white man Sal’s lifelong investment go up in flames, while those people ignore the fact that Radio Raheem, a black character, has been choked to death out front by the police. People become so concerned with the loss of property that they forget the loss of life, or forget that a black person’s life is not 3/5ths of a life, but 5/5ths of a life. A whole life. Like Sal’s Pizzeria, all the wealth and material that constitutes the path from Atlanta to Savannah had to burn to make a point that slavery needed to end. Sorry, Georgia, but the Confederates lost. “When I see the stars and bars, that’s just as bad as the Nazi swastika,” Lee said, then added, “People walk around like the Confederates won.” Come on, Georgia. It’s time to give up the gun.
After the talk, my friends and I filtered out of the auditorium and met up at a bar. I mentioned the exchange between Lee and the student to the bartender, expressed my discomfort with the Confederate flag.
“It’s just a piece of fabric,” the bartender said.
My eyes widened.
“Look at it this way: The Confederate government was around for four years. How long has the American flag been flown?”
“233,” I said, after some quick math.
“Right. And black people didn’t get civil rights until the 1960s. So slavery was executed under the American flag for way longer than the Confederate flag.”
“But there’s so much hatred connoted in the Confederate flag.” I said, then decided to turn around and drop the issue. A barroom in Tallahassee is not the place to be discussing the merits and demerits of the stars and bars.
But it got me to thinking. The American flag, though flown throughout the years of oppression and subjugation, maintains within itself an evolving symbolism that grows alongside our definition of what freedom entails and who deserves it. The American flag may not be a perfect representation of universal liberty, as now the culture living under it struggles to assimilate human beings filtering in from south of our border, Muslim-Americans who struggle for belonging in a society still living under the shadow of Puritan paranoia toward other religions and a news media that runs on fear mongering, and finds itself conflicted and bifurcated over progressive family units. But one day, if we overcome our psycho-societal complexes, the stars and stripes could represent totalized liberty. If anything the red, white, and blue, colors that have no determined significance, represent the possibility, the potential for, the yearning toward an unprejudiced and fully realized humanistic reality.
The Confederate flag, however, has no hope for morphing into a worthwhile entity for the growth of our nation. It can only ever represent the Confederate States of America, a government that lasted for four years in the mid-19th Century but whose ideology of a state’s right to allow its citizens to carry on the universally deplorable and morally bankrupt institution of slavery lives on through the symbolism woven into the fabric of the stars and bars.
Then again, just as a faction of unthinking Americans categorically equate the Koran with terrorism, to flatly reject the symbolism connoted in the Confederate flag may be an over-determined reach, like Mencken’s stereotyped ethnographies, that refuses the flag’s message of state’s rights and southern heritage. The KKK sports the flag, but so does the South Carolina Statehouse. Nevertheless, I hope those southerners who slap the Confederate flag on their cars, raise it from their flag poles, and tattoo it on their bodies will keep in mind the symbolism it carries and do so for the right reasons, and not because of a lingering animosity toward blacks and the rest of America because the Union chastened their families during the Civil War. Considering the educational and economic impoverishment that pervades the region, it’s doubtful that the South will rise again. At least I hope it won’t.