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Up until last Wednesday night at about 8 o’clock, I could — that with the right degree or irony and humor — introduce myself as “a white, Christian, Southern bigot,” though sometimes the order of the words change. Most people would laugh, understanding the heavy irony I was employing.
You have to have a well-developed sense of irony and humor to live in the South. Our history and its contradictions are simply too great. That’s what Dylann Roof took away from white southerners last week; it doesn’t compare to the lives he snuffed out in Charleston, but it hurts nonetheless. Dylann Roof took away our right to be ironic about being a southerner and the right to be humorous about it. He may as well have taken away our identity.
Southern identity is a strange thing. The Agrarian philosopher Richard Weaver once said it is almost spiritual, akin to being a Catholic or a Jew. I am not quite sure I would go that far, but I do understand where Weaver was coming from. There are many of us who consider ourselves southern before we consider ourselves American; a “country within a country,” as the historians have put it. I suppose, according to many bloggers this week, that makes us traitors.
The question we should be asking ourselves this week is whether that makes us Dylann Roof. The answer is, maybe. Among the things I have in my home is a brass cast of the Confederate belt buckle my great, great uncle wore at the Battle of Franklin (my brother has the original), probably the bloodiest four hours of the Civil War. I have — in the hot summer, when I can leave my shirt untucked where it cannot be easily seen — worn it. My family on both sides were slaveowners, 28 on my father’s side, slightly more than 30 on my mother’s. That would have put them in the technical definition of the planter class, though there were no columned mansions and mint juleps. It doesn’t matter.
I have never flown the Confederate battle flag in my home, but I have displayed the 1861 sovereignty flag of Florida, my state (see above). I have never been a re-enactor, but I have visited re-enactments. There, I learned just how valuable a sense of irony and humor can be. Most re-enactors are not true believers, but it does get tiresome hearing them argue the Civil War was not about slavery. Yes, yes, I know the stats: most southerners did not own slaves. But the ones who did ran the show. It is ironic, I suppose, that most re-enactors, north or south, want to be Confederates. It is also ironic that the Confederate battle flag, since the 1950s at least, the symbol of racism was also, apparently, one of the favored symbols of Eastern Europeans as the Iron Curtain was wrent in the 1980s and early 1990s. Irony, indeed.
I don’t like notherners trying to tell us what to do. The self-righteous, triumphalist rhetoric of historians like Jim McPherson, David Blight, or Ed Baptist, can get as tiring as listening to the re-enactors. So can accusations of “traitor” against southerners (How’d those 1866 treason trials against Jeff Davis and Robert E. Lee go, again?) It is well to remember that racism and racial violence is and was a national and not just a southern issue, and that Martin Luther King met his greatest frustration once he went to Chicago. I don’t want Yankees and people running for President to tell folks in Columbia, SC, they have to take the flag down from state property. I am pretty angry at the cheap theatrics of Wal-Mart and eBay in announcing that they will not be selling any Confederate flag merchandise, an announcement that neglected to say (on Wal-Mart’s part) they have not restocked such items for months, and which was designed to make both companies feel good about themselves. As one of my friends noted, you can buy porn on E-Bay, but not the Confederate flag (as of Tuesday afternoon, the flag was still available, but the company, will presumably act). The legacy of the Civil War is certainly mixed: we got rid of slavery, but we got the corporate, industrial nation state, in which the most prominent thing for sale seems to be integrity, and everything is exploitable. Irony, indeed.
On the other hand, I very much want South Carolina to take the flag down. The terrorism last Wednesday night was the worst racial hate crime in the South since the assassination of Dr. King. Assuming that the authorities confirm the ownership of Dylann Roof’s website, there is no question that the appropriation of the flag for nearly a century by racists, Kluxers, and terrorists inspired him — indeed, gave him permission — to murder. There was a time when the Confederate battle flag meant heritage. It has not for a long time, and Dylann Roof underlines that fact. One of the most heartening things about Nikki Haley’s comments at her press conference announcing her support for removing the flag, was that it will be a South Carolina decision, made by South Carolinians. We, are unfortunately, already seeing the signs of overreaction from people who exploit such horror, and who demand more. It’s not just Wal-Mart. There is pressure now to change state flags that have a cross on them, whether they resemble the Confederate battle flag or not, and to mess with private property. We will see how that plays out, but I find it difficult to believe that a court which will allow the burning of an individual’s American flag will not allow the display on private property of the Confederate flag, even if you can see it from an interstate. It will be very interesting to see what happens the first time a hotel refuses to rent rooms for the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ convention. Public accomodations. Irony, indeed.
When I first heard what had happened last Wednesday, I said two short prayers. “Please, God, “ I said, “ don’t let him be a white man.” The second prayer was, “please, let him be strung out on drugs, or certifiably insane, or unaware, somehow, of what he did.” God, answered my prayers, of course, but not in the way I wanted. Dylann Roof was white (unless he tells us otherwise), young (a millennial), and was almost certainly not strung out on drugs, and almost certainly not insane. From what he has said, and what he apparently posted on his web site, it is clear that he knew exactly what he doing, and why he was doing it: hatred of black people. If there was any doubt as to what symbols of the Confederacy mean in the 21st century, he swept those doubts away, and every southerner who has ever discounted the meaning of the Confederate flag for black people, or entertained thoughts that, hmm, maybe the Civil War really wasn’t about slavery, is corrupted by what he did. That would be most of us, I suspect. Deep in every human soul, deep in every white southern soul, lies the possibility of a Dylann Roof.
The conservative writer Rod Dreher has written about the gay marriage issue, that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has forced us to make a choice: We can either be good Americans, or we can be good Christians. Dylann Roof has forced us in the South to make a choice, too. We can accept the responsibility for our shame, or we can deny it. The survivors of his victims, who faced him and forgave him on Friday, have shown us the power of grace. May God forgive us, as a people, for creating Dylann Roofs.Published in