For all of their waving charm and aesthetic appeal, flags are really just a kind of shorthand—broad symbols used to communicate quickly and perhaps at a distance, like on a battlefield. Turns out that is their origin. Simple visual proclamations to friends and foe to say “here we are” and “we be we and not ye.” I hadn’t exactly thought about their battlefield banner beginnings until recently.
I was born and raised in Milledgeville, Georgia, and going to school in the 1980s I said the Pledge of Allegiance along with my classmates, facing the American flag with our hands over our hearts, at the start of each day. I liked the rhythm of the words in my mouth in the cadence we were taught—the syntactical pauses inevitably ran “for which it stands” together to almost become one word. It and those other morsels—“and to the Republic,” “indivisible,” “with liberty / and justice for all”—pleased my tongue and my ear, though first-grade me surely didn’t have enough context to understand to what I was making my pledge.
I grew up in the Deep South, but as an adult I’ve lived in Texas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, California, and Alaska, and had extended stints in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. I’ve been to all fifty states—visited each of the stars on our flag—and driven through most on long road trips. I’ve seen cultural differences and similarities. I’ve seen how menus shift as you drive across the country, even in big fast-food chains, and lamented the fact that grits ain’t a national breakfast staple. I’ve learned about weather—dry heat versus the sultry summer I grew up with, and that ten below zero feels remarkably warm after days or weeks of twenty or thirty below. I’ve seen the focus of prejudice and racism shift as I’ve shifted locations. All this travel has given me some perspective.
Now I live in Montana, and I’m gaining new perspective on our country and flags. During my first winter in Montana, during the coldest February on record, I took my not-quite-three-and-a-half-year-old son to the interactive science museum here in our town for some socializing. On that overcast day, with the temperature dancing cheek to cheek with zero, we found ourselves walking from the parking lot in step with another family—a mom, dad, and young son. We were a family of color walking alongside a white family. First, I saw the father’s Realtree or Mossy Oak camo jacket and cap. I noticed he had gray in his beard as I do and thought, incorrectly—as some may think about me—that he could be the granddad. Then I noticed on the front of his cap the Confederate flag or, I guess more properly, the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee’s command. But I spoke to him because why not. I’m a Southerner, and in the South people generally acknowledge each other’s presence.
Of course, the Confederate flag isn’t exactly new or shocking to me. I spent the last quarter of the twentieth century in Georgia, and the Confederate flag adorned all kinds of things there, including our state flag. One of my favorite prime-time shows back then was The Dukes of Hazzard. My cousins liked that show too, and we thought it was neat (maybe even felt something like pride) that this show about reformed moonshiners was set in the fictional Hazzard County, Georgia, and it featured a super-cool car, the General Lee. The General Lee was fast and could do jumps and had a sweet paint job with racing numbers on the doors and a Confederate flag painted on the roof. Even the horn was cool; it played “Dixie” instead of honking. That song was so expressive; it seemed to taunt the crooked authorities and other bad guys while the heroes, the eponymous Duke boys, triumphed. Imagine first encountering this show with little to no historical context.
In elementary school, I don’t remember knowing what the Confederate flag was, or for that matter what the Confederacy was, or that the song the horn played was “Dixie” or even who General Lee was. It was just a cool paint job, horn, and name for a car. Ignorant of history, I just found these sounds, images, characters, and stories appealing. The Duke boys, these two “good ole boys” in their awesome car, were the good guys we rooted for on Friday nights. I have memories from my youth of seeing Confederate flag motifs on T-shirts bearing slogans of Southern pride such as “American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God.”
About a decade ago my older half-brother got a tattoo that he described as a “double cross” for the two T’s that are his initials “with a rebel flag and some red and black Georgia stripes.” The image incorporates only a detail from the flag—part of the X of stars on the blue background. He seemed to be creating his own symbol for the South as he synthesized his own Southern identity. His statement introducing this image was “It’s tha New South, baby!!” He graduated from Nathan B. Forrest (slave trader, Confederate Army general, cavalry strategist, war criminal, and first grand wizard of the KKK) High School. The name of the school, which was established in 1959, was changed in 2014—a reflection of the New South. Forrest shouldn’t be erased from history, but his name also shouldn’t grace a place of education—remembered but not memorialized. I’m not sure whether my half-brother’s inscribing a detail from the battle flag on his skin is an effective reclamation of that symbol or not, but he is sure.
With all this (and years of schooling and conversations with colleagues and friends) as my personal context that February day in Montana, I said something innocuous like “good afternoon” or “it’s a bit chilly today.” The guy had a Southern accent. I don’t, exactly. He responded by commenting on the weather last year, which may have been a you’re-not-from-around-here gambit offered to the Black man in Montana. In fact, we were new here—had just moved that past July. Turned out he was from Arkansas and had only been here a couple of years himself.
Once we were in the museum we kept encountering each other—it’s only so big. We made small talk about kids as parents do in these places. We exchanged sons’ names—my son has a traditional and fairly popular Anglo name. We kept talking about names, and it turned out the guy was a granddad in addition to being the father of the young boy he had with him, and he shared his, I think, bemusement at his older son naming his granddaughter Racely.
“Racely?” I asked.
“Yes, Racely Grace.”
I don’t remember the last name, but Racely Grace does roll off the tongue. Apparently, his son likes racing, and his young granddaughter likes going fast. When he said “racing,” I imagined nascar, but it could be Formula One or Rallying. I shouldn’t assume things, right? As our sons played together, he brought up the boy-ness of boys, and so we talked about the boy-ness of our boys. I ended up feeling that I don’t think about my son’s boy-ness enough. I mean, I think of my son as a singular individual and don’t attribute who he is and what he does to his gender. This guy in his camo Confederate battle flag cap was older than me and had kids older than mine. So he took to telling me, as I’ve found parents do with those with younger children, what I could look forward to as a parent. He landed on the subject of Legos and the progression of boys playing with more and more complicated sets of blocks. At the time I was having fun playing with my son and his Lego Duplos—the Lego blocks for two- to five-year-olds. His explaining the next level up of Legos, which his son was playing with, somehow led to his telling me about his model-building hobby.
He builds model “armor”; he explained he meant World War II armored vehicles. He particularly liked German vehicles. He explained that he appreciated the German engineering—“the Germans built better vehicles” than the Americans. Apparently, our tanks could pound their tanks and not make a dent, unlike ours that did not hold up under attack. We countered this by making a lot of them. As he talked I noticed his brass belt buckle—ovoid with the raised CS—which I recognized and understood to be a Confederate States belt buckle.
In elementary school, I was one of a couple of Black students selected to be placed in a gifted and talented program: Operation Explorers. One of our field trips was to the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. I don’t remember exactly what we were taught about the Civil War and why it was fought, but I remember being fascinated by the idea of war and soldiers. And at the gift shop I bought a packet that contained an antiqued battlefield map, replica Confederate money, and other replica paper artifacts. That stuff is probably still in my parents’ attic. As a fourth grader, I didn’t think too deeply about what that map represented beyond troops on a landscape or what that currency stood for and what those who created those notes hoped to achieve or how that history connected to me and my family that’s been in Georgia since at least around the turn of the nineteenth century—a couple hundred years. I think about that now though.
My encounter with the Confederate battle flag guy in the children’s museum was in February 2019, and August of 2019 would be the four hundredth year since the English privateer, the White Lion, landed at Point Comfort in the Virginia Colony and traded “20 and odd” Africans for supplies. Those Africans’ status in the colony would shift from that of indentured servitude to chattel slavery over the next couple of decades in what would become the United States of America.
Given the Confederate battle flag guy’s interest in German armored vehicles from World War II, I told him about the WWII weaponry and militaria in the Nutter-Shore Memorial Trophy Hall at the Montana State Historical Society. He hadn’t been there yet. There are weapons from all sides of several wars, including German weapons emblazoned with swastikas and SS runes. I didn’t feel I needed to describe these markings to him or use the word “Nazi,” and I found it curious that he didn’t either. He ended up introducing himself to me—offering his name, his hand for shaking, and a “Nice to meet you” as we parted ways—and the unlikely possibility that CS were his initials was shot down. We will probably talk again the next time we see each other in this small town; we had a cordial, I might even venture pleasant, interaction.
As we left the museum that day, I wondered about his flag cap. As a Southerner—the particular Southerner I’ve grown into—I don’t see the Rebel flag and think or feel it stands for Southern heritage or culture or anything beyond the aims of those seceding states, which are clearly articulated in their declarations of secession. The cause was the preservation of the system of slavery that meant my ancestors and their unborn descendants were and could be legally held as property—seen much like livestock rather than people—and forced to labor for someone else’s benefit. When folks say the war was about states’ rights, that was the right—the right to hold people as property, the right for whites to hold Blacks as property—that they were fighting to preserve. That is an extreme of white supremacy. That is the history that flag commemorates.
I tried to imagine our encounter if I’d had what could be considered the Confederate battle flag’s counterpoint flag—the Union flag—on my cap. The Union, the United States government and its army, must have had a flag, and I thought that perhaps during the Civil War that flag would simply be the American flag. And it struck me, in that moment, as I was buckling my son into his car seat, how unpatriotic the “Rebel” flag was and is. I mean, President Andrew Johnson pardoned all soldiers who’d fought on the Confederate side of the war under the “Rebel” flag for committing an act of treason against the United States of America.
A couple of days later, on Presidents’ Day, I heard a radio show that discussed American symbols, including the flag, and it corroborated what I was thinking. Apparently, President Lincoln instructed flag makers on the Union side of this Civil War to keep the stars representing the seceding states on the flag. There were thirty-four states in the United States when those states seeking to perpetuate chattel slavery started the conflict. Because new stars aren’t recognized till Independence Day, the thirty-fourth star, Kansas’s star, was officially added on July 4, 1861. There would continue to be thirty-four stars on the flag until 1863; a thirty-fifth star was added when part of Virginia seceded, forming West Virginia, which was admitted into the United States. In a sense, West Virginia seceded from the Confederacy. I’ve decided that’s a history to be commemorated; the thirty-five–star American flag would be the one I would put on my cap if I were the kind of guy who wears caps with flags on them. As there were no regulations on how the stars were to be arranged on the flag at the time, there were several thirty-five–star patterns created. One version arranged the stars in two concentric circles that I find much more visually appealing than the now prescribed arrangement of the stars in rows. I’m tempted to start using that thirty-five–star flag as a symbol, but flags are complicated. These pieces of visual shorthand can’t really say enough.
And flags change or, rather, are subject to change. As I mentioned before, the Georgia state flag I grew up with featured the Confederate battle flag. We learned the stories behind the Betsy Ross flag with its thirteen stars and the current United States flag and its fifty stars, but how we came to have the state flag I grew up with wasn’t taught in school. Turns out Georgia didn’t have an official flag until 1879. Before that, it had a state seal, which was adopted in 1799, and local militias had to incorporate the coat of arms from the state seal into their hand-sewn banners. That 1879 flag, Georgia’s first official state flag, was modeled on the Stars and Bars, the first national flag of the Confederacy. The Confederacy itself changed its flag several times during the war, and the flag of Robert E. Lee’s army, the Confederate battle flag, was incorporated into subsequent iterations. In 1956 the Georgia General Assembly changed the state flag, replacing the bars on the field with the Confederate battle flag itself. Some lawmakers claimed they wanted to honor Confederate soldiers for the then upcoming centennial of the Civil War. But given that the legislation to change the flag came on the heels of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, placing the Confederate battle flag on the state flag seems to make a pretty clear statement of how those lawmakers and many of their constituency felt about integration. It was an expression of their support of the Confederacy’s white supremacist cause, then in the form of Jim Crow segregation.
As I said, flags are subject to change, and in 2001 the Georgia state flag was changed to a design that removed the Confederate battle flag from its prominent position, but also incorporated smaller versions of the 1956 flag and previous versions of the flag under the words georgia’s history along the bottom of the flag. That flag was replaced in 2004 by a design that draws largely from the design of the first national flag of the Confederacy. So though not the Confederate battle flag, Georgia’s current flag still honors the Confederacy. I’m not sure that a flag is the best place for a history lesson, but I’m certain that a state flag honoring the Confederacy in any way is problematic.
A few days after learning about the Union flag, as I was driving my son to his school, we found ourselves quietly waiting for the traffic light to change. While we sat, a pickup truck bearing two large flags just behind the cab, one on either side mounted on makeshift flagpoles, came through the intersection. The truck was heading up the street with the flags flapping in the wind. “Cool!” My son’s reaction broke our silence. He had lately been pointing out American flags; he liked to see them wave in the breeze and seemed concerned when they just sagged on flagpoles. I immediately recognized one of the flags on the truck as the Confederate battle flag. The American flag is complicated enough to explain, and I wasn’t and am still not sure how to introduce the Confederate battle flag to my son so that he knows what it is, what it stands for, and what kind of threat it should signal to a Black boy in America. The other flag I didn’t know. It was a red cross on a blue canton on a white field. It was striking and a little ominous to my eye in the company of the Confederate battle flag. I wondered whether it was some sort of white supremacy flag that I wasn’t aware of. I was like, “Hello, Rebel flag, who’s your friend? What’s it stand for?” After dropping off my son, I looked it up online. It turned out to be the Christian flag and was meant to be nondenominational, representing all of Christianity and Christendom. It’s an early twentieth-century design. I wondered how the truck driver saw these flags belonging together.
After my encounter with the Confederate battle flag guy at the kids’ science museum, I was left wondering what he meant by the symbols he wore. Were they meant to be inciting? Were they meant to be dog whistles? Was he a white nationalist who was demonstrating that he could be civil to an African American and hence not be racist? Was he a Southerner who saw the flag as a symbol of Southern pride in Southern culture and heritage, believing the war was somehow about that? Is there no other symbol of Southern culture and Southern heritage? Is the South’s identity still oriented around the Civil War—like our flood or fall from grace or birth of the Messiah—as in, antebellum and then after? Was he a Southerner who claimed the flag as a symbol in opposition to the perception that the rest of the country thinks Southerners are unintelligent, ignorant, narrow-minded, and backward? Was his flag the preemptive middle finger flipping off anyone who may look at him with contempt? If this is the sentiment behind claiming that flag or, rather, war banner, then claiming it will not disabuse folks holding negative notions of Southerners of those ideas; it’s more likely to reinforce those impressions. I’m not sure what this particular man’s reasons were, but for me those symbols certainly would undermine any common ground we found as fathers.
A few months later, as I was leaving the science museum once again with my son, we passed another family in the parking lot, and when we walked by their car on the way to ours, I saw a decal on the back. It was the Confederate battle flag with the words my heritage at the top of it and our history at the bottom. I understood those phrases to be connected instead of set in opposition: my heritage and our history. I agree that it is our history, but I wonder what it means to the person displaying that decal to claim that the flag represents their heritage. If sporting that war banner simply says “we fought for something and will again,” then that “something” is important. And whether “history” or “heritage,” the Confederate battle flag is a war banner of those forces who fought for the continued enslavement of African Americans. The and/both-ness of the decal made me think again that present-day flag bearers claiming heritage need to own up to the fact that whatever else they feel their heritage is, it is bound to the white supremacy that the soldiers who fought under that flag fought for. The South has shaped my family and our identities and influenced our narratives for over two centuries; we’re bound to it, and these encounters with the Confederate battle flag move me to think about what narratives I’ll share with my son as we raise him.