I was born and raised in the south, in north Georgia. My family is here, and my roots are here. My grandfather’s middle name was Jackson, because his own grandfather fought in the Civil War with general Stonewall Jackson. As a southerner, I’ve often heard, and still hear, people saying that Confederate symbols, like the battle flag or the enormous carvings on Stone Mountain here in Atlanta, represent “our southern heritage”.
The word “heritage” has positive connotations. When we talk about heritage, we mean something good worth keeping that has been passed on to us, some cultural practice or memory. A person with Irish heritage might feel a desire to visit Ireland because family came from there. If you have Russian heritage, perhaps you feel proud of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. Perhaps you eat caviar.
The claims that Confederate symbols represent southern heritage have multiple problems, starting with referring to them as “southern” in a broad sense. When people say that the Confederate battle flag is “southern heritage” do they mean to say that black southerners support a war that wanted to keep them in slavery, or are they saying that black people are not actually part of the south? The claim of heritage in this case, if it means anything, means “white southern heritage”. Such racism is usually just assumed—because, hey, the south is about being white, right?
If you have some basic capacity for rational thought, or analysis, or even just paying attention in school, you know that history often contains ugly things, but everything that happened in the past is history, whether we like it or not. History, however, is not the same as heritage. Does it require a linguist to explain that these two words are very different? Yet Confederacy supporters act as if they can’t tell the difference.
“We need to remember our history” they say, as if anyone has said otherwise. Of course we need to remember our history…but it would be nice for a change to look at it honestly. Pretending that the Confederacy was a noble undertaking, without seeing that its purpose was to maintain the thunderous horror of slavery, is twisting our history, not “remembering” it.
Occasionally, a different rhetorical tactic is used, so that instead of remembering our history, we are asked to deliberately forget it. In that approach, I’ve heard jaw-dropping nonsense about how the Confederacy was created and the war was fought in support of “states’ rights”. Even that phrase, however, contains a slippery lie with the plural “s” on the word “rights”. There were no rights (plural) being fought over, only one “right”—the right to own human beings. And no such right exists or ever did.
Slavery and racism are our history here in the south. It’s ugly, and it’s depressing, and it’s the truth. That’s my history, and I accept it as a history that runs through my own family, but I am not so pathetic or morally degraded as to say that a war in support of slavery is my heritage.
When you drive through Virginia on interstate 95, you see a sign for the “Stonewall Jackson Shrine” where he died. A “shrine” by definition is a holy place. Contrast this practice with the case of Denmark Vesey, a freed slave in Charleston, South Carolina, who tried to lead a slave rebellion in 1822, but who was caught and hung. There is no statue of Denmark Vesey, a man who died in support of freedom, but there are statues all over the south of leaders of the Confederacy, men who fought to keep the brutality of slavery.
Why is there no statue of a man who tried to lead people to freedom (something we claim to believe in here in America)? It’s a repellently easy answer. Because he was black. I honestly believe that someday, even white southerners will rise up from the sickness that has kept us enthralled for centuries. Until then, we still live in a swamp of racism, and it’s hard to drain the swamp when so many people look at it and think it’s a lawn.
When it comes to being southern, no one speaks for me. I speak for myself, and I say that Stonewall Jackson fighting to keep people enslaved is my history, but Denmark Vesey fighting for freedom is my heritage.