On one of our visits, something in the gift shop caught my eye—Civil War hats with the word “Dogpatch” stitched on the back. As soon as I saw them, I knew I just had to have one. But when I picked the one I wanted, I heard someone mutter that I had chosen the wrong hat. Apparently, I was supposed to pick Confederate gray, but I had chosen Union blue instead. Feeling embarrassed, I paused to consider the gray hat. But then I decided to stick with my first choice. I thought blue was cooler.
I still do.
Having lived my whole life in the American South, the past week has been a little strange. The other day when I called up the front page of the Huffington Post, there were so many thumbnail images of Rebel flags that it looked like an advertisement for the Ku Klux Klan. In place of all the usual stories about presidential candidates being dumb and movie stars experiencing wardrobe malfunctions, there were at least a half-dozen stories spun off from the recent murders in Charleston, South Carolina: “Six Companies ban Confederate Flag Sales;” “Why the Confederate Battle Flag is Even More Racist than You Think;” “Nikki Haley Calls for Confederate Flag to Come Down;” “Huckabee, Santorum Say Confederate Flag is a State Issue.” Reading all these stories about the Confederate flag, I felt like I had gone back in time to my days as a Ph.D. student at the University of Mississippi.
Oxford Town in the afternoon
Ev’rybody singin’ a sorrowful tune
Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon
–”Oxford Town” by Bob Dylan
When I first arrived in Oxford, Mississippi, I was greeted by a giant billboard of a Rebel flag with the slogan, “Heritage Not Hate.” Down there they called it the “Rebel” flag rather than the “Confederate” flag because, as I was repeatedly told, that particular flag was never officially the flag of the Confederacy, but rather the battle flag for the military division of …
Yeah, I didn’t care either. I had grown up in Arkansas, but as I soon discovered, there is a lot of difference between being in the South and being in Mississippi. The University of Mississippi’s sports teams were called the “Rebels,” the school colors—red and blue—were the colors of the Rebel flag, and the school’s mascot was “Colonel Reb,” a cartoonish plantation owner with an honorary Civil War military title. Even the university’s popular nickname, Ole Miss, was tainted. I had always assumed it was a term of endearment—short for “Old Mississippi”—but as I soon learned, it’s actually what slaves called the master’s wife on an antebellum plantation.
As I tried to adjust to life in Oxford, I kept replaying scenes from Mississippi Burning in my head. One day, while driving home, I passed a small church with a sign in the yard—“Burns UM Church.” Next to the name was an image of a cross with a flame. Suddenly, I imagined an overweight white man on horseback holding a torch and hollering, “Grab your hoods, boys! We goin’ ridin’ tonight!” Later, I learned that the “UM” was short for “United Methodist” and the cross with the flame is a common symbol for that branch of Methodism. It was all perfectly innocent, but given the atmosphere, I felt a little paranoia was still justified.
Needless to say, I never really fit in. That’s not to say that everything was terrible. Oxford was actually one of the most progressive towns in Mississippi, and the university’s faculty and the majority of its students were cool. It also boasted an extraordinary literary culture. William Faulkner had called Oxford home for most of his life, Tennessee Williams spent his formative years about an hour to the west in Clarksdale, and John Grisham lived in a giant yellow mansion just off one of the main highways. Oxford’s town square also boasted one of the best independent bookstores in America—Square Books—although as soon as you stepped out the door you were confronted with a larger-than-life statue of a Confederate soldier, dubbed a “Second Place Trophy” by a local journalist.
Over the years, many at the university have fought valiantly to purge some of its racist iconography, successfully banning the use of Rebel flags at football games and replacing Colonel Reb as the mascot. But the neo-Confederates have always lobbied hard against these measures, and some of the attitudes seem so deeply ingrained that it’s hard to imagine them ever changing. One of the most popular slogans comes from an old poem written by an alum: “The University gives a diploma … but one never graduates from Ole Miss.”
That always struck me as a little too much like the Hotel California—“You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” When I finished my dissertation, the university gave me a diploma.
As far as I was concerned, I never attended “Ole Miss.”
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
–from South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein
What surprised me most about the neo-Confederates obsession with the Rebel flag, however, was how relatively new it was. If you’ve read any of the recent pieces floating around in the wake of the Charleston tragedy, you probably know that the flag was all but extinct as a cultural symbol when it was adopted by the segregationists in the late ‘40s. In fact, most of the Southern flags and statues that mar the various capitols, courthouses, and legislative buildings were put in place during the ‘50s and ‘60s in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. The logical fallacy of the “Heritage not Hate” slogan is that it implies that the two terms are mutually exclusive.
Now, following the murders in Charleston, the debates I heard as a graduate student in Oxford have spilled onto the national stage. Some of those segregationist flags are finally starting to come down, and there is new pressure to remove many of the statues of treasonous 19th century politicians from state government buildings. I’d say it’s long past time, but it was already long past time when most of them were installed in the first place.
And as one of the many—perhaps even the majority—of Southerners who has wanted to see these icons removed, I’m trying to celebrate these moral victories, but it’s hard. Nine good people are dead in Charleston, but no one is restoring the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted a couple of years ago. Nine good people are dead in Charleston, but no one is repealing the new discriminatory voting restrictions that are being enacted around the country. Nine good people are dead in Charleston, but police are still killing and brutalizing unarmed African Americans. Nine good people are dead in Charleston, but no one expects to pass even the most common-sense regulations on weapons sales.
In fact, the gun lobby has attempted to use the Charleston murders as an opportunity to boost gun sales, arguing that had the victims all been packing heat at their church service they could’ve taken down the bad guy in a hail of bullets. I seem to remember an old story about some people who came to arrest a popular religious leader a couple of millennia ago. One of the leader’s followers pulled a sword and lopped off a guy’s ear, but the religious leader called him out: “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Funny that the gun lobby ignores that story. I guess it doesn’t help sales.
But I digress. My point is that having lived through these debates about Confederate icons for so long, I’m having trouble taking much satisfaction from these symbolic victories. Part of me fears that taking down all the Confederate flags is just … too easy. It feels like an obvious, quick fix endorsed by conservative politicians to assuage guilt, and it sucks up the energy that might be harnessed to do something more substantive.
I really don’t want to be that guy—you know, the smug one who, no matter what progress is made on a particular issue, always complains that it’s not enough. That kind of argument is always easy to make, and it tends to be self-serving. But as I said, it’s just been hard to take much satisfaction in the small victories. So I’ve been looking to find a different perspective.
If the bad tree is to be destroyed, you must not bury its fruit … You must burn out the roots.
–Swamp Thing #42 by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben
That’s why this past week I decided to re-read Swamp Thing #41-#42, a two-part story from Alan Moore’s legendary Swamp Thing run. The story was part of a longer arc called American Gothic. Moore, Bissette, and Totleben’s American Gothic explored some of the more traditional monsters like vampires, werewolves, and zombies, while simultaneously exposing the dark political underbelly of the American landscape. Much like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, American Gothic reads like a polemic against the conservative Reagan-era of the ‘80s, highlighting the dangers of denying ongoing problems like pollution, sexism, racism, and gun culture.
The two issues I read this week focus on racism. As the Swamp Thing and Abby return to Louisiana, they encounter a film crew shooting a new prime-time television show about plantation life in the antebellum South. As the story progresses, the television actors become possessed by the spirits of the people who lived there before the Civil War, and they begin to re-enact the same old horrors. In keeping with the Gothic theme, the racism appears to be embedded in the soil.
The story isn’t one of Moore’s best from that run—the characters are broadly-written stereotypes—but he does introduce a couple of metaphors that spoke to me this week. In the first issue, as the Swamp Thing encounters a dying bird, he gently envelops it in his mossy chest, telling it not to be afraid “for the universe is kind.” He then explains to Abby that as the bird’s body breaks down, “Death shall nourish life and nothing shall be wasted.” The scene establishes the direct relationship between what is put into the earth and what comes out.
It’s a fairly simple idea—whatever we plant in our culture is what will grow. The corollary would imply that if we plant venom, we will only reap poison. In other words, all those obnoxious, outdated symbols of division that decorate the South can only serve to provoke more division and more hatred. Those symbols act as seed-bearing fruit, planting new generations of poisonous crops.
In the second part of the story, the Swamp Thing explains that all the hatred, racism, and violence has produced the equivalent of a bad tree: “If the bad tree is to be destroyed, you must not bury its fruit … You must burn out the roots.”
Will removing the flags and Confederate statues fix the larger problems of inequality in the United States? No. But maybe it can at least can burn out a few roots.
 When they decided to eliminate Colonel Reb as the school mascot, I signed a petition to adopt “Admiral Ackbar” instead. It would’ve put a whole new spin on “Rebels.”
 Matthew 26: 52.
 Swamp Thing #41.