Throughout my childhood, my sense of the Confederacy and the South was shaped in fragmented ways by two legendary generals, Lee and Bragg. They remain strangely present with me today as I continue to sort out the meaning of the place I live in. Though back then I lived just a hair south of the Mason Dixon line, the real South was hundreds of miles away and no one in my little, middle-class town waved confederate flags.
I knew of General Lee only as the name of the Dodge Charger that Bo and Luke drove around in a TV show that came to fame in my middle school years. This sleek, bright orange car had a large confederate flag painted on it, and scenes of the Duke boys driving in it at top speed on dirt roads provided entertainment value between the more interesting scenes (to my 13 year old eyes) featuring cousin Daisy Duke. As a result, my vision of this symbol was largely based on cartoonish associations from this show that sought to convey the values of independence, decency, and good old fun.
In the case of General Bragg, the matter was somewhat more complicated as I am a part of the Bragg family line. I grew up believing that General Braxton Bragg was close kin to me. It was one of the ways I connected to the narrative of this country and a heroic imaginary connected to it. Interestingly, no one ever suggested to me as a child that the side for which Bragg was playing was less than admirable. I felt a sense of honor knowing that there was a military fort named after him and I bristled at accounts in history books that suggested that he was not the best or most sober of military commanders. Doing some genealogy work as an adult, it became apparent that Braxton and I might have to go back 400 years or more to find a common branch on the family tree. After this discovery, the power of this symbol felt almost as imaginary as my Hollywood exposure to Lee.
Now I do live and pastor in a real southern town, and we don’t talk much like (or about) the Dukes of Hazzard. We do, however, have some folks with such strong associations with the Confederate flag that they fly it in their front yards and on their truck bumpers. And many of our tallest monuments are dedicated to the southern heroes of that war of northern aggression; names long forgotten, but granite ornamentation that lives on.
It’s staggering to realize that sales of Confederate flags continue to thrive after all of these years. I suspect that the meaning that many people have vested in this flag and these monuments is largely divorced from actual history, as it was for me. Insistence on preserving this grows, rather, from a basic need for a sense of rootedness and status in times when both of these seem for many elusive, in doubt, or under threat.
However, I also know that for many others these symbols correspond directly to personal experiences of violence and racial oppression. Absent such experiences or a fulsome education (my elementary school taught about a “states’ rights” disagreement more than slavery) it becomes all too easy to disassociate the symbols of the Civil War from the hate, the harm, and the divisions they perpetuate.
There is a sense in which childhood is like a collection of small tidbits of experience and information that we attach together and make into something of a tentative self-identity. It’s like a collage project in kindergarten, in which we clip images and words from magazines and glue them to construction paper, creating a picture of “who I am” without yet understanding the nuances of the materials we have assembled. Growing up means fleshing these out as we figure out who we are called to be in relation to real life and to the people with whom we share it.
I think it is invaluable to trace the sources from which we build our identities—our inner worlds and the monuments that populate them. This internal archaeology can be both humbling and disruptive. But it is also serves as a prelude to becoming a more authentic person and more connected to others. Engaging in such processes might just offer us the roots and meaning we long for so deeply.