Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Of heritage, hate and Hazzard

This week, there’s been a big backlash against the Confederate flag (or Confederate battle flag, if you want to split pointless hairs), and there absolutely should be. Why this flag wasn’t excised from every American flagpole before we got to years with 9s in them is beyond me. It is, and always has been, a symbol of treason and racism.

Others disagree, saying that it represents a Southern heritage that encompasses a multitude of cultural traits that aren’t the least bit related to slavery. Even if they were right (and they’re not), it would still be a good idea to reconsider its appropriateness at a time of inflamed, and deadly, racial tension. Just because we’ve accepted display of the flag to some degree in the past doesn’t mean we can’t ever move on. We need to move on. Now. Or, more accurately, generations ago.

I’d like to be able to say that I’ve always hated the Confederate flag and everything it stands for. Indeed, that’s been the case as long as I’ve been aware of its history. Furthermore, no one in my immediate family had any particular love for the banner, and it was always a given with us that the South seceded to preserve slavery and that was stupid. Still, at one point in my life, I equated the Confederate flag with one thing I liked. Again, not because of any of the so-called heritage or politics associated with it, but because of this:

Me at 17, pointing to what I already considered to be an ambiguous piece of Americana.
As a small child, like millions of other small children, my favorite TV show was The Dukes of Hazzard. The centerpiece of that show was the General Lee, a souped-up orange Dodge Charger sporting a giant, honking Confederate flag on its roof. The flag also showed up on the front license plates of police cars and many places where there were walls and banisters. But otherwise, it was rarely, if ever, talked about on the show. At best, it seemed to serve as a signifier that the show was set in the Deep South, as if that wasn’t already obvious.

I went through two phases of Dukes obsession: As a little boy during its original 1979-1985 run (I was born into it) and again as a teenager when TNN put it in heavy rotation (1996-98). I taped the 1997 reunion show and rewatched it until the tape wore out. The picture above is from Christmas Eve 1997, when my brother and I were both gifted General Lee models (and coincidentally was the day before Denver Pyle, who played Uncle Jesse, died). I still catch episodes on CMT occasionally and think they hold up, apart from the use of the flag and the car's name that have little to no bearing on anything going on in the stories.

Dukes itself didn’t delve into racial politics, consistently featuring black characters as friends and villains alike (among them, the only non-bumbling and competent lawman, Sheriff Little of neighboring Chickasaw County). The flag could have been excised from the show entirely and you’d eliminate maybe 95 percent of the show’s offensiveness (the other 5 percent, perhaps, being the characters’ reverence of Confederate figures). 

Between us as kids, my brother and I must have had about nine million toy General Lees (and one General Lee big wheel), every one of which sported the Confederate flag. Even as Southerners ourselves, neither one of us as young boys truly knew what that flag stood for, or who Gen. Robert E. Lee was. We just knew Dukes was a kickass show with a cool car and likable characters, and that playing with toy cars was a blast. (All race cars had loud designs anyway, right?) I vaguely recall a feeling later on that the flag wasn’t something acceptable anywhere else in our home but on the roof of the General, but otherwise it wasn’t a big deal.

I was more preoccupied with scrawling the General Lee's license plate number on a Yahtzee box when I was 4.
The second time around, I knew all about the Confederate flag, and didn’t like it. One of my short-term neighbors had hung a giant version from his banister during a Mardi Gras parade, when he knew a throng of our black neighbors would be standing nearby. The Klan in Akadiana, a KKK public-access show that made national headlines in the late 1990s, filmed a block from my house and employed the flag as a backdrop. Hootie and the Blowfish, a band from Charleston, S.C., and another obsession of mine at the time, had a song called “Drowning” with the lines, “Why is there a rebel flag hanging from the state house walls? / Tired of hearin' this shit about heritage not hate.” My feeling about the flag then was all but undistinguishable from what it is today. I still enjoyed Dukes, but it was a compartmentalized joy-slash-outrage that I chalked up to a pre-enlightened era. At least the show itself wasn’t pining for what many of the flag’s loyalists seemed to. That's why it remains mostly watchable and is probably why even in the less-enlightened late '70s, got on the air at all.

(Tellingly, the model’s box in 1997 had airbrushed the flag off of the car. The decal was included, albeit with one missing star, my brother’s theory being that then no one could say it was the real flag. I didn’t put it on mine. It’s also absent from the current AutoTrader campaign featuring Tom Wopat and John Schneider.)

So to the extent that I ever tolerated the flag, it was because I associated it with the show and its toy counterparts, and all the good times that came with them. Like those who revere the flag for more dubious reasons, I was born into it. But I quickly grew out of it, and now think of the Confederate flag as a stain on an otherwise enduring franchise, just like its continued presence on flagpoles and vehicles is a stain on America. If we could get more people to follow suit on that belief, we’d all be better off.

Take it down.

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