Flags, Statues, and Apologies

What is the value of an apology? Can repentance come via symbolic gestures? As you sit upon this land taken by coercion and force from Native Nations and worked by the labor of enslaved Africans do you feel a pang of guilt? Is it enough guilt to inspire genuine contrition, or is your hope that the symbolism of a lowered flag can manufacture an emotional sense of sacrifice? In our age of reality television where appearance trumps all and we tend to frame issues and foster solutions that are filled with empty rhetoric can we find real, lasting solutions?

In recent days the battle flag of Northern Virginia has returned to the forefront of American discourse and political posturing. Its defenders have fallen back on the ages old Lost Cause narrative and exclaim with fervor the “heritage not hate” bumper sticker slogan. We are cautioned against the modern sin of political correctness by an undereducated constituency that has based the majority of its political, cultural, and historical perspectives on ideas that can conveniently fit on those selfsame bumper stickers and requires no more effort than to repeat them as some sort of mantra.

The truth is, of course, that no matter what your feelings are for the flag or the soldiers in grey that fought under it, the purpose of the Confederacy was the perpetuation of the institution of slavery and the economic system it supported. No less a voice than Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America declared it in 1861 as the “immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution” and reiterated that it was the “rock upon which the old Union would split.”

The flag itself, though originally a battle flag of the armies defending slavery, would come to symbolize another stage of conflict in the 1950s and 1960s when it was adopted as a symbol of the southern reactionary forces to the emerging Civil Rights movement. All the pictures of KKK rallies prior to this period festooned with American flags and not Confederate ones are irrelevant to this discussion. The merit of the argument against any reverence of the flag is not in question here what is in question are the motives and goals of many of the liberal voices crying out for its removal in every form from the flagpoles of southern capitals to the Dukes of Hazzard lunch boxes.

Across the southern states this argument over flags and symbols expands to include historical figures and crimes encompassing more than just those of the Civil War. Amongst Native Peoples there is probably no more maniacal figure than Andrew Jackson and their campaign to remove his face from the twenty dollar bill blends seamlessly into current discourse. In New Orleans his image goes far beyond common currency with his statue presiding over Jackson Square in the center of the historic French Quarter as well as old military installations named Jackson Barracks and Fort Jackson all eliciting their share of verbal protest.

While I would not miss his effigy in my frequent visits to New Orleans should it be removed, I am not particularly inspired to advocate for that end. To despise the man and his deeds does not equally translate into a sense of oppression by his image. A removal of that image may seem a fitting judgment but I come again to a question of motives and a lack of understanding of the endgame of this current movement.

That Andrew Jackson led forces that saved New Orleans from British occupation and possible annexation in 1815 (though the war was technically over) is a historical reality as well as his administration as the 7th U.S. President. These are the inspirations for the prominence of his imagery. As to his crimes, is it the intent of these historical apologists to return to the Cherokee, the Creeks, and the Seminoles their historic homelands taken by Jacksonian presidential decree? Do they intend to repay British and Spanish interest taken in Florida by the extrajudicial actions by Jackson led forces? What of the millions of slaves worked to death in the agricultural empire of the south that was made possible only by the immoral land acquisitions accomplished by Jackson?

Which brings us back to the old stars and bars and the current indignation over its status and meaning; while thousands of Union soldiers sacrificed their lives in the carnage of the conflict it is debatable as to whether the preservation of the Union was more pressing than the end of slavery. Even if the nobility of the cause is beyond question it is also true that Reconstruction was abandoned in the 1870s allowing a return of the white power structure to the old south and condemning the newly freed slaves to another century of Jim Crow, lynching, and terrorism. The responsibility for these crimes lay on the doorsteps of Washington D.C. and not Richmond, Virginia.

While it was indeed a pleasant sight to see the Confederate flag finally lose its position of sanction on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse what of the crimes it presided over? Is the symbolic gesture of lowering a flag or removing a statue the endgame? Can a simple apology somehow atone for the deaths of millions of Indigenous Peoples or enslaved Africans? Until the conversation moves beyond symbols to genuine repentance, reconciliation, and reparation then we are dealing more with rhetoric than reality.

Michael "T. Mayheart" Dardar was born in the Houma Indian settlement below Golden Meadow, Louisiana. He served for 16 years on the United Houma Nation Tribal Council, retiring in 2010. He currently works with community-based groups advocating for the needs of coastal indigenous communities in south Louisiana. He is the author of Istrouma: A Houma Manifesto. Read other articles by T. Mayheart Dardar, or visit T. Mayheart Dardar's website.