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Of Flags and Symbols

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

I really, really wanted to write about the art of Mesopotamia for my next blog post, especially in light of the destruction of Mesopotamian art and artifacts by the Islamic State, but I have really found myself a wee bit sidetracked by the horrific events of June 17, 2015 when a young man named Dylann Roof sat in Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina before turning his gun on the group. Nine people were murdered that day. Accompanying this news has been the debate about what has come to be known as the Confederate flag, and calls for it to be removed from the state capitol grounds of South Carolina. For those who may not be American, or have not followed the story, South Carolina not only continued to fly the Confederate flag on its state building lawn after the massacre, it was not even flown at half mast.

The Confederate flag has been a subject of much debate in the United States I would argue, since the end of the Civil War. For black people, it represents slavery and a horrible time in United States history. For those who fly it with pride, it is said to represent liberty. The argument has been heated and vehement on both sides. Why is this symbol so polarizing?

As an art historian AND as a Pagan, I am very interested in symbols and what they have represented in the past, what they represent now, and how they might be interpreted in the future. I can’t turn away from these events. The ancient Mesopotamians and their culture will have to wait – American culture and its interpretation are what have my attention at this moment.

Full disclosure: I consider myself a Yankee, and a very liberal one at that. I do not see the term “liberal” as a bad word and proudly consider myself as such. Growing up in Delaware, I did occasionally see the Confederate flag, usually a lone symbol waving rarely on someone’s lawn, or more often on a bumper sticker. I never paid it a great deal of attention, seeing it then more as a symbol for things like southern rock and roll, country music, grits, and people whose accents were different from mine.

As an adult, and as a professor at a historically black university, the Confederate flag has become closely aligned with the swastika for me. Mind you, the swastika did not begin life as a symbol for the Nazi party – it is a bind rune composed of two sowelo runes from the Norse Futhark alphabet, symbolizing the sun. The swastika also has appeared in Native American Indian imagery as a sun symbol, as well as in Indian imagery. In spite of its more ancient origins, however, no one wishing to associate themselves with white supremacy uses a swastika today to symbolize the sun.

In his article,How people convince themselves that the Confederate flag represents freedom, not slavery, Carlos Lozado discusses the history behind the Confederate flag and how it has come to be viewed as a symbol of southern liberty and freedom. He cites the book, The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem, by historian John Costas as stating that Confederate soldiers during the Civil War saw the flag as symbolizing not only pride of place but also the defense of their homes and country from northern invasion.

For those who would argue that the Civil War was about States’ rights, I would agree. It was about individual States’ rights to OWN SLAVES. Please read these words from the official South Carolina Declaration of Secession adopted December 24, 1860:

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.  

The document speaks for itself.

After the secession of South Carolina, the other Confederate states followed suit, using remarkably similar language regarding the holding of slaves. It is difficult for us in the 21st century to comprehend the defense of holding other human beings as property, to be bred and used as chattel, but the seceding states were willing to go to war to defend this way of life. In the article, What This Cruel War Was Over, Ta-nehisi-Coates points out, quite rightly, that slavery was a means to equalize white people. By holding slaves and forcing them to labor on farms and in lesser jobs, white people could have a higher standard of living. People in lower income jobs could still feel a part of a “white aristocracy,” so long as slavery prevailed.

After the end of the Civil War, groups like the Ku Klux Klan came into being to support white supremacy, and the Confederate flag became a symbol of southern “heritage,” and politicians like George Wallace proudly used it as a symbol in their election campaigns.

In the past few days, I have been reading all of these arguments about the Confederate flag, read other arguments stating that it is NOT the Confederate flag, but was instead the battle flag of Northern Virginia. That is indeed the origin of the flag, however one can not deny that it has come to represent the Confederate states. On the face of things, the flag is much like any other. The background is red, and across it is a Saint Andrew’s cross in blue outlined in white. Across the Saint Andrew’s cross are thirteen stars. The thirteen stars represent the thirteen original colonies that formed the United States. On the face of things, it is pretty innocuous. The stars, however, also represent a belief that the northern states had violated the Constitution set forth by the original thirteen states by trying to outlaw slavery for the entire country.

Since its use as the battle flag of Northern Virginia, this flag went on to be adopted by Strom Thurmond in 1948 to protest Harry Truman’s support for civil rights legislation, when he and many other southern Democrats walked out of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia that year. He and his colleagues formed a third party, The State’s Rights Democratic Party, which came to be known as the Dixiecrats. This was an effort to use a third party to throw the next presidential election so that no one candidate would have enough electoral votes to win.

In 1956, the state of Georgia changed its flag from a banner with the state’s seal on the left with a background of blue with two horizontal red stripes and one horizontal white stripe to one with the state seal still on the left and the stars and bars of the Confederate flag where the stripes had been. This was two years after Brown vs. Board of Education had been decided. In 1961, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama at the time, raised the Confederate flag over his capital dome, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. At this point in time, the Ku Klux Klan was also using the flag.  In 1962, he raised it again, perhaps as a means of protest against anti-segregationist policies.

As someone who deals with images of all kinds every day, and someone who is aware of the impact of those images and the messages they send, it is very important to understand how images come to mean different things over time. For those who see the “Stars and Bars” as a symbol of southern American heritage, I implore you to take a good hard look at what has been done with this symbol, as I have outlined. Can you truly deny how damaging it is today, particularly to black citizenry? Symbols are powerful in the same way that words are powerful. It was with good reason that the ancient Egyptians regarded words and images as powerful magic. Now is the time to address these wounds of our past, affecting large populations of our citizens. Not only must we be sensitive to the messages this imagery sends out, but also we need to break any illusions we might have in their regards.

I will return to my usual discussion of art history next time, but thinking about the Islamic State destroying Near Eastern artifacts in some ways parallels this discussion. The Islamic State believes that these ancient images are images of false gods and heretical beliefs, and are unable to see them for the beautiful works of art and history that they are. Extreme beliefs have blinded them to the universal value of art to humanity. Conversely, those who wish to see the Confederate flag continue to be displayed are missing the hurt and harm it causes to so much of the United States. In both cases, a narrow kind of tunnel vision is causing damage, both psychic and physical. 

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Helena Domenic has been an art history nerd for her entire life, having toured the Sistine Chapel at the age of eighteen months. She never quite recovered from that experience (thankfully) and has been seeking out the sacred and profane in art ever since. She's even a real-life art history professor at a Pennsylvania university. She is also a Tarot nerd, having created her own Tarot deck, the Fellowship of the Fool.


  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Wednesday, 24 June 2015

    You've written a very fine piece Helena. Perhaps one of the better things to emerge from the racist terrorism in Charleston is that the mystique of "Southern culture" as symbolized by the flag has been exposed for what it really is.

  • Helena
    http:// ​Helena Thursday, 25 June 2015

    Thank you, Gus! Perhaps there can be a new, better symbol for southern culture to emerge from all of this.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Friday, 26 June 2015

    Rianna's criticism of me below has inspired me to write a piece on just that issue. It will be for W&P and will be up reasonably soon. I suspect it will surprise her and most of my other critics on this issue.

  • Rianna Stone
    Rianna Stone Thursday, 25 June 2015

    The reason why the flag wasn't lowered is because it cannot be lowered without something from the legislature to make it happen. Why they didn't do this I don't know but there it is.

    Also, I'm sick of little snide comments such as Gus' about "Southern culture". What exactly do you know about Southern culture. Do you live there? Have you ever lived there? Have you ever even visited a Southern state? Obviously not. No one in the South denies the amount of racism that is associated with the flag. We are not so blind as to ignore our own history. Apparently the rest of the country can't seem to see past that to realize that the South has actually changed a lot since the 60's. No one is saying it's perfect and we all know that racism hides in all corners...not just in the South. Stop trying to treat us like we are blind to our own history. Trust me, we know our history oh so well. You can't help but know it when you live there, grow up with it and see it on a daily basis.

    The bigger thing is this. I can agree that the flag should probably come off of state government property but stop trying to tell every Southerner that he/she is a racist just because they want to fly the flag. You are right in that symbols are powerful. If they weren't then we wouldn't even be having this conversation. But when it comes to the flag you have to realize that yes, it has been used as a symbol for racism and hatred. It has also been used to symbolize the adventures of good 'ol boys, country music, southern pride, and the history that shaped the South. That flag is woven intimately into Southern history, culture, and pride. For good or ill it is part of the fabric that makes up who and what we are. So you may be able to callously throw it away as a relic of the past but for many Southerners it is still a living breathing thing and maybe that is why it is so difficult to understand our love/hate relationship with it.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Thursday, 25 June 2015

    Well, I was born in Southwestern Virginia, have relatives there I saw at least yearly once I was old enough to drive back there from Kansas, a rather red state and half Southern. or later when I taught College in the East. My favorite relatives lived in Arkansas and were delightful people who were also flaming racists one of whom defended chattel slavery of Blacks, and some of my closer family were only somewhat better. I think I know what I am talking about. Southern culture is exceptionally warm and generous when you are accepted as an equal or, and here I am guessing, know your place. (My relatives were certainly nice to Blacks who did.)

    I also first learned the Southern view of history and then much later in life learned what really happened in the years leading up to the Civil War. I have read 'both sides'. I write about the South in some depth in my book "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine". I'm afraid you strike out on all your attempts to guess my past pr acquaintance with Southern culture.

    The South has changed a lot in good ways since the 60s, and it has not in other respects. The Confederate battle flag was given renewed prominence during the Civil Rights movement which was about nothing but segregation. The Republican Party gave this dark side of Southern culture a new lease on life with its "Southern strategy". I suggest reading Kevin Philips excellent “American Theocracy”. Philips was a key architect of that strategy by the way- he was and probably still is no liberal, but now deeply regrets what happened.

    Assuming you are a Pagan, you will find his discussion of Southern religion especially interesting.

    Your are correct about the flag's ancillary meanings, but not its core one. That Dylan Roof not only repeatedly displayed the flag but was inspired in his beliefs by the Council of Conservative Citizens, who are a prominent organization whose leaders was in the top 1% of contributors to Republican right wingers is in keeping with this analysis.

    Imagine what you would say if an American Muslim did this in a Christian Church and gave credit for his beliefs to a leading American Muslim organization that contributed heavily to politicians who all came from Islamic communities and talked in ways to increase divisions between their supporters and the rest of us. (Like Southern Republicans voting for federal aid to Southern states suffering disasters and against it for Northern ones.)

    Southern culture is not intrinsically bad, but it has been poisoned by slavery, and by the refusal of its elites for over 100 years to come to terms with that great evil, but rather to white wash it with Gone With the Wind crap. You say Southerners know their own history, and I agree. They are steeped in it. But they do not know that Southern politicians starting with Calhoun explicitly repudiated our Declaration of Independence because it argued government should be by consent of the governed. Most do not know the prominent part defending and expanding slavery played in secession resolutions in at least all the states that first seceded. Have you read the Confederacy’s Vice President’s “Cornerston Speech” where he explicitly said the Confederacy was the first government explicitly and rightly founded on slavery of Blacks by Whites. Do you know about the Tulsa Riots of 1921 where the wealthiest Black community in the country was burned down, a great many killed, and no penalties were applied to the White terrorists and murderers? There is so much more.

    My disillusionment with the South's dominant culture was a very painful part of my life, by the way.

    Racism is hardly just a Southern issue, And every race has a dose of it. But only in those who praise the Confederacy as something noble are its most virulent proponents honored with signs, statues, streets, buildings, and that damn flag. And as Roof demonstrates, and not just Roof, the flag helps to inspire the most depraved acts of murder. It is time for Southerners to shine light on aspects of their history that are worthy of pride and emulation and the romanticism about the great lost cause gets in the way.

    As I wrote in the analysis, people in trance with idelogies that blind them to great evils have largely walled themselves off from rational anaolysis, no matter how wonderful they might be as human beings when they are not in trance- as in their family relations. It takes moral revulsion to break through and the defenders of those evils, like FOX, do all they can to defuse such revulsion,

  • Rianna Stone
    Rianna Stone Friday, 26 June 2015

    Perhaps the household I grew up in was the exception then. Racism was not tolerated by my family and no one I knew tolerated it either. I am Pagan but I grew up as a Jehovah's Witness. I never knew a time that I didn't go to church with only white people. Our congregation was always interracial. I was the one always interested in history, not my parents. They were to a point but the didn't stress Civil War history to me. Also, because of their religion they were not involved in politics so I did not have the exposure to either the Dems or the Republicans being "right". In our house they were all wrong. No, I drew my own conclusions as to what the flag meant to me.

    I grew up understanding that it was used to opress others but I did not see the KKK running around burning crosses on people's lawns or hanging the flag from every lamp post. As much as other people do not want to admit it, the flag does have multiple meanings. Yes, it has been used as symbol for racism but it has also become a symbol of strength and pride. To some it represents the spirit of refusing to be told what to do by an overbearing government. It may sound lame but it's true. Personally, I never have been able to stand someone telling me what I can or cannot do. It's a personal flaw. I can't help it.

    I think another thing that should be considered is how this "well meaning" push to strip the flag from all state government buildings has now moved into a mass cultural cleansing. Warner Bros is removing the flag from the General Lee in The Dukes of Hazzard merchandise, Apple has removed anything that has to do with the Civil War from its app store, Google has removed any apps that let you set the flag as a wallpaper from their app store, some people want to ban Gone with the Wind, and the mayor of Memphis wants to disinter Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife and rebury them in a cemetery. People want to rename schools, streets, and anything else that even smells like the Civil War. Some people even want to get rid of any and all Civil War monuments. And all because the media whipped the general public into a frenzy. A frenzy that was uncalled for and now has otherwise rational people clamoring for history to be forgotten and the South's culture and heritage to be re-vamped into their morally superior, politically correct version. This is what I'm angry about. Not about a flag being taken off of state property. I can live with that. What I can't live with is this all out onslaught on Southern culture. I understand your point but my question is, where does it stop?

    I know soon this will slip out of the consciousness of most people but in the meantime it has become more than a little crazy. Gus, I hope to take a look at your book soon and I look forward to reading your article. Inspiration can come from surprising places! Would you mind emailing me a link when it's done so I don't miss it? Just email me at

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Sunday, 28 June 2015

    Rianna- I have just posted my response, inspired largely by your criticisms. I think you might find it rather different than you expect.


  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Saturday, 27 June 2015

    Your initial comment and my reply inspired me to write something for W&P on the flag and Southern culture amnd how Pagans can have a rather unique perspective on it. So most of my answer you'll have to wait for. But two quick points. First, symbols on government property should be able to be appreciated by all citizens and support rather than deny the two most vital principles of equality under the law and government by consent of the governed. The Stars and Bars most obviously do neither.

    Secondly, the Southern elites' way of defining Southern history whitewashes some pretty nasty characters. Lt. Calley of the My Lai massacre deserves his place in history, he in no way deserves statues and other honors. To put it bluntly, Forrest is in the same moral category as Calley, or worse.

    But for more just wait a while.

  • Helena
    http:// ​Helena Monday, 13 July 2015

    I am going to have to check out your response. I have been hanging back a little as I've watched the deluge of information about the flag on the web (and in particular on social media). I am so weary of people defending it and so not getting that this symbol is hurtful for African Americans. Why is that so hard to comprehend? Why are people so defensive and quick to just jump to the "But I'm not a racist" explanation, which is no explanation at all.

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