Enslaved by Symbols


November 18, 1993|By MATT HUGHES

At first glance, it seems only natural that African-Americans should resent the display of the Confederate flag, especially in its official use as a state symbol. Objecting to the renewal of a patent to the Daughters of the American Revolution, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., claimed that the flag is an insult to black people, causing them ''to suffer the indignity of being reminded time and time again that at one point in this country's history we were human chattel.''

But first glances seldom reveal much. Symbols are not simply observable facts like wrist watches, grocery bags and lawnmowers, upon whose usefulness and function there is general agreement; they are instruments of interpretation. Symbols almost always provide room for negotiation, and if the Confederate flag reminds African-Americans of the days when they were ''human chattel,'' couldn't that be a cause for rejoicing rather than resentment and humiliation? No matter how strongly blacks feel about the racism that still exists in America today, their lot is vastly improved over that of field slaves in 1850.

Symbols are often ambiguous. Old muskets hung over the fireplace are peaceful vestiges of violent usage, tamed to the museum function of display. Not only is the lethal purpose for which they were made no longer relevant, it is now mocked by their conversion into antiquarian artifacts meant to be viewed admiringly, rather than fired at Indians or Redcoats. There is no reason the display of Confederate flags could not evoke a similar response from descendants of slaves; something like the old cigarette slogan: ''You've come a long way, baby.''

Of course, some people will argue that rational analysis has nothing to do with the passionate feelings aroused by an old image. This is true; but it is also true that when we are ruled by our passionate feelings, we are victimized beyond the wildest dreams of Simon Legree. We can't do without our feelings, of course; but we shouldn't be dominated by them, either. As strong as they are, our variously dark and happy moods can't understand one another; they can't even begin to communicate. Each is sure that the others are crazy. And if this is true of moods within ourselves, how much more difficult and uncertain is it for us to base our judgments or make public policy upon raw feeling.

Our feelings need to be answerable to thought, which is to say, ''responsible.'' Nobody believes that this will cause us all to end up agreeing with one another. How could we, when we don't always agree with ourselves? But it's at least possible to domesticate the most extreme of those wild extravagances; if it weren't, I would be wasting my time writing this piece, as you would be in reading it.

As for the negotiability of symbols, their inherent complexity needs to be understood, or they cease being symbols at all, becoming mere signs -- tokens for a ride to some place of feeling that we can't help visiting again and again. This is the most abject slavery, a slavery of the mind, far more pernicious than any other. Real slaves could theoretically escape, and sometimes did; but slaves to feelings and rigid response will carry their chains wherever they go.

Just as some American blacks wear African clothing to symbolize their heritage, so do some Southern whites want to fly the rebel flag. Those symbolic acts are not, of course, the same. The flag evokes the subjugation of an entire race; the African clothing does not. Yet both are stylized observances of past truths, with various mixtures of idealism and make-believe. Destroying the rebel flag will not erase the fact of the long and dismal existence of slavery, in Africa as well as in the United States; nor will preserving it as a symbol bother those who are not enslaved by emotion and who pause to think about it.

Matt Hughes writes from Athens, Ohio.

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