Six Words: 'Must We Forget Our Confederate Ancestors?'

Oct 21, 2014
Originally published on October 21, 2014 8:55 am

NPR continues a series of conversations from The Race Card Project, where thousands of people have submitted their thoughts on race and cultural identity in six words.

Jesse Dukes does not have Confederate ancestors. But in the time he has spent writing about Civil War re-enactors, he has met many who say they do.

Their perspectives on the Confederate flag and the legacy of their ancestors prompted Dukes, a writer and radio reporter, to share his own six words with the Race Card Project: "Must We Forget Our Confederate Ancestors?"

Dukes, a Southerner himself, embedded last year with a group of Civil War re-enactors at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and wrote about it in a piece for the Virginia Quarterly Review.

"I just wanted to see the spectacle of the thing," he tells NPR Special Correspondent Michele Norris. The event, a re-enactment of one of the Civil War's most famous battles, "was going to be like the Woodstock of re-enacting, is what everyone told me. ... I wanted to sort of understand what they got out of it."

Part of his motivation, Dukes says, was to connect with re-enactors "in an environment where I thought people would be comfortable talking about things like the legacy of slavery, and the legacy of Jim Crow and the legacy of racism."

As it turned out, the people he met weren't particularly comfortable talking about those themes, Dukes says. But they did talk when prompted, and "everybody was kind and everybody was very welcoming," he notes.

Many Confederate re-enactors understand, Dukes says, that the Confederate flag is associated with segregation, the KKK and lynchings. "And invariably people would say, you know, racism was so terrible. It was an abomination. ... But that's not what I'm here to connect with,' " Dukes says.

'A History, Not A Hate, Issue'

Instead, the re-enactors were there to connect with their ancestors, he says. "Maybe not run up that exact same hill, but a simulacrum of that hill with the same sounds and the same shouts and the same visual stimulus — minus the blood and dying. And it still seemed to define their identity."

"I think people tried to distance their ancestors from the guilt associated with slavery, and I also think they tried to implicate everybody else," Dukes says. "So, pointing out, very accurately, that slavery — the economic system — relied on the markets and the textile factories and places like that in the North."

While reporting, Dukes met Sara Smith, a Confederate re-enactor from Dayton, Va. Her great-great-grandfather, Harry N. Smith, fought for the Confederacy at Gettysburg and was wounded in battle.

Sara Smith has Confederate flag stickers on the back of her truck — and says those who see it as a symbol glorifying racism or segregation don't understand the meaning the flag holds for her.

"I think people need to realize ... it's a history, not a hate, issue," Smith told Dukes. "I think too many people get caught up in the symbol. You know, for us, it doesn't mean the same thing it means to other people. The flag that they get so upset over, was actually not a flag. It was a battle flag. It was what you formed off of to know you were on the right side" in battle.

Smith doesn't think her great-great-grandfather was fighting to preserve slavery. To her, it's "the flag her great-great-grandfather carried up that hill in a desperate attempt to maintain his state's freedom from government interference," Dukes says.

And "if her great-great-grandfather was a good, noble, brave person who was wounded and then came home, and still lived to be something like 80, and showed so much bravery on the field, and he could carry that flag, why would it be wrong for her to put it on her vehicle?"

'Willful Innocence'

Dukes describes that perspective as "willful innocence." It's a logic "that says, 'OK, I have the right to love my great-great-grandfather and to admire those things in his life that are admirable, like bravery, like loyalty, like accomplishments, like survival. And because he must have been a good person, then the cause he fought for and the flag that he held must not have been a bad cause.' "

Dukes says that perspective led some of the re-enactors to make the following assertion: "People who are offended by [the flag] just don't understand what the Confederate flag really means."

The Confederate flag holds different significance for other Americans, as well, Dukes says. While some Southerners are well aware that the flag is often perceived as racist — and display it anyway — others display it to demonstrate their mistrust in federal government and as a symbol of resistance to federal regulation.

And for others, Dukes says, the Confederate flag signifies an awareness that rural white Southerners, and rural Americans more generally, are often stereotyped as backward.

"I think the flag has transcended Southern identity to become [linked to] a kind of rural impoverished identity, too," says Dukes, who says he has even seen people display the Confederate flag in rural Maine.

"I think there are poor people in the rural South and North and all over the country who do feel like they're stereotyped and they don't have everything ... including respect ... that's due to them.

"I'm not sure that waving a Confederate flag is a great way to get that respect back — and often it is enacting the stereotype that they're trying to escape — but I do think it's a legitimate complaint nevertheless."

Dukes says he enjoyed meeting re-enactors like Smith, and doesn't "begrudge them their weekends clad in gray, remembering their ancestors, hoisting libations and waving the battle flag," he writes in Virginia Quarterly Review.

But, Dukes writes, "better to roll the flag up at the end of the weekend and leave it in the trunk until the next re-enactment. This is the 21st century, and the Confederate flag has no place in our time."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a new installment this morning from The Race Card Project. People offer a story in six words, and those six words are often just the start of the conversation.

JESSE DUKES: My name is Jesse Dukes. I'm from Charlottesville, Virginia, and my six words are, must we forget our Confederate ancestors.

INSKEEP: Must we forget our Confederate ancestors. Those six words came to radio reporter Jesse Dukes after a trip to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. He was talking with Civil War reenactors for the Virginia Quarterly Review. Dukes does not have Confederate ancestors, so far as he knows, but most of the reenactors he met say they do. NPR's Michele Norris spoke with Jesse Dukes.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: You embedded with a group of Confederate reenactors. You did the Gettysburg reenactment in June of 2013. What is it that you were trying to do, not just as a journalist, but as a Southerner?

DUKES: I think - well, part of it was I just wanted to see the spectacle of the thing because, like, this was going to be, like, the Woodstock of reenacting is what everyone told me. You know, this is the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg. Gettysburg's the most famous battle.

(SOUNDBITE OF REENACTMENT)

NORRIS: What was it like out there on the battlefield?

DUKES: It was - people were shooting actual guns, not loaded, but they were making the same sounds. And all the smoke was coming out, and it was blue. And you couldn't see, and the smoke stung your eyes. And you could smell the gun powder.

(SOUNDBITE OF REENACTMENT)

DUKES: I wanted to sort of understand what they got out of it, and I also wanted to do that in an environment where I thought people would be comfortable talking about things like the legacy of slavery and the legacy of Jim Crow and the legacy of racism.

NORRIS: And were they? Did they talk about those things?

DUKES: Not much (laughter), you know.

NORRIS: But you made them talk about that...

DUKES: Only when I...

NORRIS: ...Because you asked a lot of questions.

DUKES: Only when I brought it up, and people were not super comfortable to talk about it, I don't think. But they did, and I should say everybody was very kind and everybody was very welcoming. And invariably people would say, you know, racism was so terrible. It was an abomination, and it's so terrible that the Confederate flag was used by the segregationist movement and used by the Klan and that it's associated with lynchings and all these things are awful. But that's not what I'm here to connect with, you know, and...

NORRIS: What were they there to connect with then?

DUKES: Well, for one thing, they were there to connect with their ancestors, you know, and just, maybe not run up that exact same hill, but a simulacrum of that hill, with the same sounds and the same shouts and the same visual stimulus, minus the blood and dying. And it still seemed to define who - their identity.

NORRIS: You had a chance to talk to people who suited up not as you did, one time, but do it, you know, often, every weekend and many times a year. What did they tell you?

DUKES: I think people tried to distance their ancestors from the guilt associated with slavery, and I also think they tried to implicate everybody else in - so pointing out very accurately that slavery, the economic system, relied on the markets and the textile factories and places like that in the North. So they pointed things out like that.

NORRIS: There's one woman that you spent time with, Sara Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARA SMITH: I'm Sara Smith, and I'm from Dayton, Virginia. I'm with the Sixth Virginia Company C.

NORRIS: She is in medicine, and she had an interesting story. She said that her family did not own slaves. You described her as someone who every time someone, quote, "took a hit in the reenactment," that she wanted to sort of take on her nurse's role. It's what she does in real life (laughter)...

DUKES: Which is not what she's supposed to do (laughter). She's supposed to stand there, and she actually was holding the flag. And she's supposed to stay there and hold the flag, but she kept wanting to put it down and go make sure they were OK.

NORRIS: Sara Smith's great-great-grandfather, Henry N. Smith, fought in the original battle as a sergeant major for the 25th Virginia. He would've been about 20 at the time and was wounded during the three-day engagement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMITH: He was wounded Gettysburg, 763, served later as captain, Second Company A, 67th Virginia Mountain Infantry.

DUKES: She sees it as the flag her great-great-grandfather carried up a hill in a desperate attempt to maintain his state's freedom from government interference, but she doesn't think that he was fighting to preserve slavery. And so for her to put that flag on her truck...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMITH: They're on the back of my truck, you know. I think people need to realize - and I know it's probably overused, but it's a history, not hate issue.

DUKES: Well, if her great-great-grandfather was a good, noble, brave person who was wounded and then came home and still lived to be something like 80 and shows so much bravery on the field, and he could carry that flag, why would it be wrong for her, you know, to put it on her vehicle?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMITH: I think too many people get, you know, caught up in the symbol. You know, for us it doesn't mean the same thing it means to other people, and I think it's an education piece. The flag that they get so upset over was actually not a flag. It was just - you know, it was a battle flag, you knows. It was what you formed off of to know you were on the right side.

NORRIS: Jesse, you talk about something a few times through this piece. It's quite a long piece, and you mentioned something a couple times, this notion of a willful innocence on the part of the reenactors. Could you explain that?

DUKES: This kind of logic that says, OK, I have the right to love my great-great-grandfather and to admire those things in his life that are admirable, like bravery, like loyalty, like accomplishments, like survival. And because he must've been a good person, then the cause he fought for and the flag that he held must not have been a bad cause. And therefore the symbol of that cause, a symbol of that cause, the Confederate flag can't be offensive to people. And so people who are offended by it just don't understand what the Confederate flag really means. That's what I'm referring to as willful innocence.

NORRIS: You note that for some people, the Confederate flag is an expression of distrust in big government, regulations and gun control. It's a part of the state's rights argument. For others, it signifies awareness that rural Southerners are too often seen as backward and a defiant assertion of pride in a certain kind of whiteness that is dismissed or diminished. As you write, I'm a redneck, and I'm proud of it.

DUKES: Right.

NORRIS: And you said that there are also some Southerners who are perfectly aware of the racist meanings applied to the flag, and they fly that flag proudly anyway.

DUKES: Yeah, and I think if you're not from the South, you tend to assume the last of those. You tend to assume that it's a conscious expression of racism and defiance and maybe a little bit of the second, too. And it's interesting, I remember I used to live in Maine for a few years, and I would see the Confederate flag, like, in rural Maine. And I think it's transcended Southern identity to become kind of rural impoverished identity, too. And I think there are poor people in the rural South and North and all over the country who do feel like they're stereotyped, and they don't have everything that's due to them. And I think that's a legitimate complaint.

NORRIS: Including respect.

DUKES: Including respect. I'm not sure that waving a Confederate flag is a great way to get that respect back, and often it is enacting the stereotype that they are trying to escape. But I do think - I do think it's a legitimate complaint nonetheless.

INSKEEP: That's Jesse Dukes talking with NPR's Michele Norris, founder of The Race Card Project. Find more at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.