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The afflictions of a Southerner living above the Mason-Dixon line are many, but they have certain compensations. For white Southerners, especially those who have a tendency to think that black Americans are oversensitive and prone to imagining slights, perhaps the most valuable lessons come from being on the receiving end of unthinking prejudice. One can have one’s accent mocked only so many times before some consciousness-raising sets in; and I will always remember the woman at a formal dinner who asked me, “So, how does someone from Alabama get interested in Shakespeare?”

We exiles from Dixie always experience an inner conflict about assimilation. Some of us lose our accents in a matter of months; others assume a more exaggeratedly Southern vocal manner than we ever had, or even heard, down South, and start sounding like casting-call rejects from The Beverly Hillbillies. About a decade ago, when we had been living in Illinois for a year or so, my wife and I heard a lecture by the great literary critic Cleanth Brooks. We noticed that his forty years in New Haven had had no discernible effect on his accent, and decided to ask him how he had avoided Yankification. In the drawling dipthongs of a man making his first trip outside west Tennessee, he said that it was chiefly a matter of being a bad mimic: he could not consciously imitate anyone else’s manner of speaking, and apparently couldn’t do so unconsciously either. More skilled mimics adapt quickly and without trying, and indeed cannot avoid such adapting: soon after we moved north, my wife began to call me “The Collaborator” and “Marshal Pétain.”

As difficult as these aural dilemmas may be, the matter of Southern history is more complicated still. Some years ago I became the faculty sponsor of Wheaton College’s Dixie Club (more formally, the Society for the Preservation of Southern Culture), an institution which had existed thirty years ago but had been in parenthesis since. As four Southern students and my wife and I sat around our dining room table—digesting a meal of country ham, sweet potatoes, collard greens, and corn bread, with banana pudding for dessert and iced tea as the only available beverage—we considered how we wished to represent Southern culture to people whose understanding of our native world was rudimentary at best and often a mere caricature.

But we simultaneously considered our own ambivalence about our regional history, our sense that we could neither accept nor reject it wholly. What we wanted above all was to celebrate those elements of Southern tradition that all Southerners share. Southerners love food, they love music, they love to tell stories; they have a deep attachment to family, and believe that human lives are properly rooted in a particular place. These traits, it seemed to us, cross the boundaries of race, class, and political persuasion. In our case we had the further bond, which we could count on other Southerners in our midst sharing, of Christian faith; and we knew first-hand what Flannery O’Connor meant when she talked of the “Christ-haunted South.” But hovering above our conversation was the dark cloud of Southern history. We all understood that for many of our ancestors the love of all the things just listed was perfectly compatible with slaveholding and legally mandated racism. Given this dark cloud, we mused about (for instance) whether we could as a group sing “Dixie.” The words of the song were inoffensive in themselves, but what did it represent?

One thing was clear to all of us: nothing could be more inimical to the purpose of the Dixie Club than the display of the Confederate battle flag. It is, as it has always been, a divisive symbol: profoundly offensive to almost every black Southerner, and a source of pain to white Southerners who regret the evil institution of slavery (and its Jim Crow aftermath). The flag remains the appropriate symbol of the South, because it provides a visual reminder of the forces that tore our region apart, and are still tearing at the old wounds. But such a symbol was the last thing we wanted for our club—not because it would send the wrong message to the Northerners among whom we were a tiny minority, but because of the painful message it sent to us.

This, as I said, happened several years ago. Now those students who worked with me to found the Dixie Club are graduated, and many of the students who replaced them do not think as we thought then. They have designed a club T-shirt with the Greek initials of the Confederate States of America on the front, and on the back the flags of each state of the Confederacy surrounding the Stars and Bars. These students, in case I need to say it, hold no brief for slavery or racism in any form; they have even added to the front of the shirt, below the Greek initials, the slogan “Heritage not Hatred.” And they are genuinely puzzled that for many others, including me, that is not enough.

The problem here is one of the interpretation of symbols. One of my Southern students insists that the flag does not represent racism or slavery to him; when pushed, he suggests that if it represents such things to other people that’s their problem. In this view, the interpretation of a symbol is purely a matter of personal preference and no one has the right to criticize anyone else’s interpretation. I am afraid that I cannot accept such perspectivism. Symbols have histories; and the world we live in is historical. Whatever I or anyone else might think about the flag, it is a matter of record that it was created to serve as the symbol of an institution whose members disagreed about many things but agreed about the moral and legal acceptability of slave-holding. It is also a matter of record that today’s racists and segregationists still make regular appeals to that flag as the symbol of their cause, though less often and less publicly now than when I was a boy (which may help to explain the difference between my attitude and that of some of my students). That still-living history cannot be erased by waving the magic wand of personal interpretive preference—which, by the way, is a strange magic wand for someone to wave who seeks to represent and defend a traditional way of life.

I have already said that the ineradicable history of that flag does not convict my students of racism. Furthermore, it is perfectly appropriate for them to believe and to contend that this flag need not be associated with racism and slavery, that the flag and the Confederacy have received a bum rap from both historians and the popular press. But until they successfully make that case, they should not wear their shirts. The symbol on the shirt speaks before its wearer does and leaves him unable to make his case for the dignity and value of Southern culture—while simultaneously failing to exhibit the required charity to those of his Christian brothers and sisters who are profoundly offended by that symbol.

Since the Confederacy represents only one moment in Southern history, a more comprehensive symbol should be sought and could, I think, be found. (In the early days of the renovated Dixie Club we chose, with a seriousness I expect few Yankees will appreciate, the black-eyed pea.) The distress others feel when the Stars and Bars is displayed has a legitimate historical foundation; it is neither arbitrary nor capricious, and can be distinguished from, say, the offense some claim to experience because of the Christian connotations in the names of many American cities (especially the various “Sans” and “Santas” of the Spanish West).

Moreover, the principle of charity, which has if anything a particular force in the Christian community—as the apostle Paul says, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith”—requires that we refrain, if we can, from causing our brothers and sisters to stumble. To suggest that people should either learn to live with a symbol they find offensive or else go away strikes me as a manifest failure of charity. For one who makes such a suggestion, the symbol then becomes essential, the common experience of Southerners living in the North—which prompted the existence of the club that the shirt is supposed to represent—merely peripheral. Those who hold their own personal interpretive preferences to be more important than the charitable upbuilding of the community are, I believe, wrong.

I make this argument in the full knowledge that for many people it will be incomprehensible, a pointless railing against an insignificant action. As our collective historical memory grows spottier, the Stars and Bars is likely to become an empty symbol for almost everyone—as it already is for a number of black students on Wheaton’s campus, who don’t think anything in particular when they see that flag because it has played no part in their lives.

I don’t know whether the universalizing of their non-reaction would be a good or bad thing. I have found many occasions over the years to cite the saying that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it; but the current conflict in Bosnia (to cite just one example), with both sides citing the avenging of ancient wrongs as the moral justification for aggression, suggests that those who cannot forget the past may be doomed to repeat it too. Perhaps when the Confederate flag is no more to Americans than a colored pattern on cloth we will be better off. But for now, at least in many parts of this country, the Stars and Bars still does symbolic work, still has consequences in a society whose racial wounds are not yet healed.

There is an interesting book to be written on the afterlife of old symbols, even when only a subculture experiences the historical amnesia: one thinks of the use of crosses as accessories in contemporary fashion design. Or, more ominous still, the friend of Robert Mapplethorpe who said that Christians should appreciate Mapplethorpe’s perverse art because “the Cross is the greatest S&M symbol of all time.” That thought—in which the most agonizing of all deaths is transformed into yet another sexual preference—should remind us that symbols live on, even after their historical contexts are lost. Their meaning and value will then depend on those who choose to appropriate them, as the Nazis appropriated the ancient swastika.

But unless and until this happens, the history of a symbol is an ineradicable part of its meaning. It is thus incumbent upon all of us to know the past uses and abuses of the symbols we employ. Do we avoid studying that past because we do not wish to be contaminated by it? Such a tactic would only work if it were true that “what you don’t know can’t hurt you,” if unseen forces had no power over us—in short, if ignorance were virtue. But just take a walk through the south side of Chicago with the Stars and Bars on your back and see if your good intentions protect you. No, the choice is between being shaped by a history to which we are blind and deaf, or being shaped by a history which, if only in part, we understand. In the latter case alone is there some chance of shaping as well as being shaped, of doing the work of charity which alone will bring about the Kingdom of God.

Alan Jacobs is Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College.