Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Flags, Slavery & History

I might be inserting my foot in my mouth - but I'm going to share my thoughts on the subject of flags and what they represent to me, as well as slavery and history.  I was brought up to respect any flag that was raised.  Dad was a member of the US Navy, other members of the family served in other branches of the United States armed services.  Dad's family has been in the United States since the arrival of the Mayflower;  Mom's family has been in the US since the 1620s in Virginia.  Both sides of my parents families have fought for the United States - both when it was a colony of Great Britain, and once we gained our independence from our mother country.  Members of both families carried arms in our Civil War, and the families fought for both the Union and for the Confederacy.
   Having been born in Tidewater Virginia, and then living in Tennessee, Texas, and Florida, with summers and several years in Virginia mixed in, I've always been proud to be a Southerner.  Southerners are reputed to be the best hosts and hostesses, and as having the best manners, in the United States.  I have also carried on my shoulders the shame of the atrocities that were done in the name of slavery and economics in the South.  The enslavement and abuse of humans is an unforgivable crime.
   The current controversy is over what most people call the flag of the Confederacy - but they are incorrect.  The "Stars and Bars" that fly over the state capitol of South Carolina is a replica of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia that was originally only flown approaching, and in battle, by the men under the command of Robert E. Lee.  The original, unofficial flag of the Confederacy was the Bonnie Blue flag - a medium blue background with a single yellow star on it.  It eventually evolved into the flag of the Confederacy of the United States, and looked like this:
  I, personally, have very different and conflicting feelings regarding the battle flag of the Confederacy.  I know how much it is hated by our African-American citizens - and they have great cause to hate that flag.  I do not disagree with anyone in that feeling.  I am saddened that the display of that flag is still so divisive.  And I am extremely sorry that it is viewed as a sign of white supremacy.  And, adversely, I am proud of all of my relatives who fought for what they believed in during the Civil War.
   One of the hardest things to comprehend is that the Civil War in the United States was not caused by the single issue of slavery or States Rights.  The United States citizenship numbers favored the areas longest "civilized" and industrialized - the northeast and central areas of the country.  Northern states had a higher population, and more representation in the US Congress.  The South was settled later, and was used mainly as the, then, "bread-basket" of the nation.  The importation of slaves began soon after this country was founded.  The South was mainly agricultural, and the huge field plantations prospered - due to the unpaid, unrewarded work of people who were stolen from their homes and shipped to another country, where they became slaves simply because of the color of their skin.  This is something that never should have happened.
   But it did happen, We cannot change history.  We need to examine it, learn from it, and head forward in time with a much better understanding of what caused the past.  Our Civil War was caused by economics, plain and simple; and by the fact the people were comfortable with what was then normal.  
   Slavery has existed throughout history.  In ancient warfare, as clans or tribes moved into a new area, the previous occupants were either killed or enslaved.  Slavery was practiced all over the world - in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.  If your family, group, clan, village or tribe lost a battle to invaders, most of the time, the men were killed and the women and children became slaves. India had slaves; Egypt had slaves; Turkey had slaves; the Roman and Byzantine Empires had slaves; Vikings had slaves; Russians and British had slaves. People with every skin color practiced slavery at one time or another in our history.  It is a hard concept to grasp, but it is true.
   Also, don't forget that odd class of people - the bond servants.  If a person was destitute, had no hope of any inheritance, had no family to care for them, or had debts, that person could, essentially "sell" themselves to a master for a certain term of years, doing designated work for that master, until their debt of servitude was paid.  A lot of people came to America as bond servants, or once they arrived in the Colonies, they found they couldn't cope as a single person, and signed on as a bonds-man, or bonds-woman.  One of my many times great-grandfathers signed on as a bondsman in London, and was shipped to Maryland, where he worked on a tobacco plantation for 7 days a week for 8 years.  At the end of his work term, he was given 10 raw, undeveloped acres and a bolt of cloth for clothing, and released from bondage.  Then he had to build a place for himself to live, clear the land, begin farming, support himself, raise a family, and, hopefully, prosper in the New World.
   Flags began as standards or signals that had a bright color or design on them that indicated a particular group - and usually the first histories of these "flags" dealt with fighting men.  A bronze "flag" on a tall pole that has been dated to 3,000 BC was found in the Middle East.  The ancient Sarmatians flew a dragon-shaped kite, carried by a rider on horseback; the Roman Legions had their Eagles and pennants.  The tricolor of the Netherlands dates back to the rule of Charlemagne; and the flag of Denmark has existed in its current form since 1478. National flags began being adopted by different countries, and their states, in the the late 17th century.
   As I stated previously, I can understand the dislike, distaste, and plain old anguish that seeing the Confederate battle flag can cause.  I don't think that the battle flag should be displayed, except when there is a Civil War reenactment being held.  But, having grown up in the Southern portion of the United States, I can also understand how some people, who have not studied history and whom are sadly biased want to display that battle flag.
    My relatives fought and died on both sides of the Civil War.  Some of our relatives helped run Underground Railroad stations, assisting slaves who wanted freedom.  Some of our relatives owned slaves.  Some of those relatives treated their slaves with great disregard and completely inhumane treatment; some of those relatives did not.  Some relatives were abolitionists.  Some were just concerned with getting a single meal a day.  My relatives ran the gamut from pretty rich to downright poor and homeless, depending on the place, the year, and the weather.
   I am extremely sorry that some of my ancestors actually thought it normal, believed in, and saw nothing wrong with the idea of owning another human being.  I cannot grasp that, myself.  But I am a product of the Baby Boom - I did not grow up in those places and those times when slavery was considered normal; if I had, maybe I would perceive slavery in a different light.  I'd like to think that I would be a better person than that - but I would then have no knowledge of the future, and would probably follow everyone else's thinking.
   Battles have been fought for eons.  Flags and battle standards have flown for thousands of years.  Slavery has existed for eons. The Confederate battle flag has existed for 154 years.  Let us retire it.
    We cannot change the past - but we can change the future.  Let us, and our children, be the ones who actually do make changes.

1 comment:

Lisa I. said...

Thank you! I wish more people knew their history. We are all Americans and should just leave it at that. If we don't learn from the past, it will be repeated. We need to learn and grow.