Thursday, June 25, 2015

Birth of a Flag

The national conversation has suddenly shifted to the removal of the Confederate flag in the wake of the tragic shooting deaths of nine Bible study participants in a Charleston, South Carolina church.  The "stars and bars" of the confederacy still fly above some state capitals in the south and and as part of state flags like Mississippi.
The comparison of that flag to the flag of Nazi Germany is a point well taken.  Why do we still allow one to fly when we'd never dream of letting the other one near a flagpole? Yet the Confederate flag lives on in more than banners.  From Tee-shirts to bumper stickers it rears it's image from coast to coast.  I've seen it used as horse racing silks from an owner/trainer combination whose politics are as dubious as their desire to be identified by that emotional image.
With these calls for removing the flag I hope will come even more calls to re-teach the way we understand the Civil War and the complexities of Reconstruction.  To do this, we'd have to confront America's racist past and how it defines both our history and ourselves.

I had to enter my Junior year of college before I learned all that happened in this country from 1800-1900.  The oversimplified accounts of slavery, secession, and reconstruction,  from high school, gave way to one of the most complicated and fascinating eras since the nation began.
It wasn't until I researched and first saw D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," that I learned and felt the full impact of overt racism in the U.S. of A.
Some years later, I recall taking a group of 10th graders to see the film on a field trip to U C Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive after a special arrangement with the archive to show such a provocative film.  There were other teachers and classes who piggybacked on the opportunity, but they were from other schools and appeared to have much less preparation before seeing this once-banned classic in all it's racist glory.  My class was an African-American history class and just about all the students were Black.  They knew what they were in for.  Still, the film shocks.  Based on a famous 1915 novel by Thomas Dixon  called the Clansman (sic) it's role in determining subsequent racial attitudes cannot be underestimated.  Replete with white actors in blackface, the film is a living document that should never be banned despite the hatred, falsehoods, and pain that accompany it. How can we understand how bad the racism was unless we see for ourselves? Maybe it's time for the nation to go on a field trip...fully prepared.

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