Paul R. Lehman, Innocence, ignorance and the Confederate flagDecember 12, 2011 at 5:39 am | Posted in American Bigotry, blacks, equality, Ethnicity in America, justice, Media and Race, whites | 2 Comments
Tags: African American History, African Americans, American Education, black and white, Byron Thomas, Confederate flag, European Americans, slavery, University of South Carolina
The phrase “a little learning is a dangerous thing” is attributed to Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744), in An Essay on Criticism, 1709. For most people, the point is well taken. However, for others, it falls on deaf ears. A case in point was reported by the Associated Press (12/2/11) when it published “A black college student who drew complaints for displaying a Confederate flag in his window said he sees the banner as a symbol of Southern pride and not racism.” Byron Thomas, a 19-year-old student at a South Carolina University, evidently did not read far enough in American history to discover or gain an understanding of the historical symbolism of the flag, the impact of the flag on many African Americans, and the nature of bigotry.
If Thomas had progressed far enough in his study of history, he would understand that victorious countries do not fly the flags in honor of the countries they defeated, for what should be the obvious reason—they lost the war. In addition, the flag conjures up many negative and painful emotions that could lead to resentment, hatred, and anger. He must acquaint himself with the history before he jumps to the conclusion that no hard will is created by flying the Confederate flag. He needs to read about the Reconstruction period from a number of perspectives—at least from one that tells about the Black Codes and how they were implemented relative to African Americans. He also might want to visit with some mature African Americans for their opinions relative to flying the Confederate flag today.
Thomas needs to know that the Confederate flag is a symbol of the inhumane treatment of African Americans by the South. The South resented the fact that the North would not accept slavery as a feature of American democracy. Having slaves made America appear hypocritical to the world. African Americans were viewed as the primary cause of the war, so the South sought to make them pay by intimidations, discrimination, physical abuse and murder. The Constitution had already defined the slave as less than human –three-fifths a man. The reference to slave in the Constitution was translated as Negroes, blacks, coloreds or any slave of African ancestry. These are a few of the things Thomas needs to know in order for him to gain a better understanding of the symbolism of the Confederate flag.
For many African Americans, seeing the Confederate flag displayed serves as a reminder of the lack of respect that the South had for them as human beings. To display it today would mean that one is not aware of the symbolism it carries or else he or she knows, but still want to communicate that same negative message.
The history associated with the Confederate flag cannot be erased any more than the history associated with the Nazi swastika. To understand and appreciate history, one must first learn it, something Thomas has yet to experience. Had he studies American history and the specific parts played in it by African Americans, he would realize the debt he owes to all the people who sacrificed so that today he can attend a predominantly European American university in the South. He owes it to them and himself to get the best education available to him, but one that includes his story and not just history.
From some of the comments he made concerning the incident, we can surmise his youth and innocence. For example, he said that “he’s unhappy about such things as labels, and he doesn’t like the term “African-American,’ which makes him feel like ‘a half-citizen,’ since he wasn’t born in Africa.” If he would take a moment and think about his self image, he would realize that being labeled as black says absolutely nothing about who he is. The label black, along with Negro, colored, and slave were all given to Africans as well as African Americans by the majority. These labels were given to them to deprive them of the knowledge of who they really were—not labels, but human beings with personal identities that disclosed their ethnicity, culture, and history. One does not have to be born in Germany or England to have ancestry from those countries. The same applies to the continent of Africa.
Thomas mentioned that his parents didn’t like his actions with the flag, which should have given him a clue about the appropriateness of his displaying it in his dorm window. In addition, the school missed a teachable moment when it failed to do its job; first, by telling him to take down the flag, then, by telling him it was okay to put it back in the window. No reason for each action was given. As a result of his ignorance and arrogance, Thomas was made to look like an uninformed young fool. We can only hope that he learns from this experience about acting on too little information.
What Thomas needs to recognize about his actions is that he participates in denigrating himself without knowing it. By displaying the flag in his dorm room he is saying, in essence, that he agrees with all the negative stereotypes of African Americans created by a bigoted South and symbolized by the Confederate flag. He supports all the flag symbolizes. In so doing, he is exposing himself to things which he knows nothing about. Again, the reference to a little learning being a dangerous thing is underscored in the words and action of Thomas. Someone needs to send him an Ebony or a Jet magazine.