From Alabama to South Carolina to Wal-Mart, the Confederate flag is being removed or denounced in places where just a few weeks ago it flew on government property or was sold to customers. The swiftness of the turnaround following Dylann Roof’s confessed racist murder of nine people in a historically black church in Charleston has been dizzying. One moment government officials and retailers and the mainstream of the Republican party insist that the flag is a neutral symbol of heritage. The next minute Republicans Mitt Romney and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as well as seemingly anyone who can get near a microphone are saying that the flag must go.
The speed of the reversal, and the focus on the flag itself, has provoked some skepticism. The right-wing whackos at the American Thinker, predictably, think it’s ridiculous to link the Confederate flag and racism. But there’s also been some pushback from the left, especially on social media, where many have pointed out that the flag should have been removed long ago, and that taking it down at this point is only, at best, a symbolic victory. Removing the flag can’t revive Dylann Roof’s victims—and indeed the Confederate flag was still flying nearby when the body of one Roof victim, state legislator Clementa Pinckney, was on view in the statehouse. Gun control advocates have argued that a focus on firearms restrictions would do more, practically, to prevent further tragedies than the banning of a piece of cloth, however hateful.
The thing about that piece of cloth though, is it’s not just a symbol; it’s a story. The Confederate flag, where it flies, is a particular narrative about what America is and what it used to be. As Alice Randall’s black Cynara says of her white Confederate lover in the 2001 novel The Wind Done Gone, “Every day it gets hard to see why he can bring his history into my house, but I can’t bring my past.” Whose story is spoken and whose is silenced isn’t just symbolic. It’s power.
Randall’s novel is, of course, a parody/sequel/reworking of Margaret Mitchell’s famous neo-Confederate, KKK apologia, Gone With the Wind. Randall’s heroine and narrator, Cynara, is the black half-sister of GWTW’s Scarlett O'Hara—referred to as “Other” in Randall’s book. The Wind Done Gone is, then, itself a kind of taking down of Confederate symbols—an effort to re-examine and desacralize one of the best-selling books (and most popular films) of all time.
Randall’s novel, which Mitchell’s estate tried unsuccessfully to ban, isn’t just an effort to undermine an icon, though. It also works to show how symbolic representations distort and shape reality. In The Wind Done Gone is a reading of Gone With the Wind that tries to expose everything buried in Mitchell’s story of noble lost causes and happy, loyal slaves.
Mitchell presents the slave Mammy as a devoted member of the family. Randall has Scarlett’s father Gerald sleep with Mammy and contemplate sleeping with his own daughter Cynara, reminding readers that for black people, being “members of the family” in the South was often a euphemism for rape.
Mitchell has Scarlett’s mother involved in a tragic romance before her marriage; her parents unaccountably objected to her marriage to her cousin. In Randall’s version, the reason for the objections become clear; Scarlett’s mother and cousin are both descended from a West Indian slave, and their parents fear that their children will be visibly dark. In other words, Scarlett, like Cynara, is, by Southern standards, black. The great white heroine is not a great white heroine at all; the symbols and stories of racism mean that everybody, white and black, build their lives on lies.
Those lies, Randall suggests, are preserved through blood and murder. In Randall’s novel, Ashley, Scarlett’s vacillating suitor in GWTW, is not just effete, but gay. He is in love with a black male slave, and when the slave alludes to the relationship, Mellie, a courageous icon of southern white womanhood for Mitchell, has the man whipped to death. “A trusted family servant…whispering a family secret (even in passion) was peculiar treachery,“ Cynara says with bitterness. Preserving the myth of Southern purity requires constant sacrifice, and that sacrifice is always in the form of black people’s humanity and black people’s lives.
Dylann Roof told his victims, "You’re raping our women and taking over our country.” Roof didn’t invent that paranoid fantasy. He was simply repeating neo-Confederate myths that justified lynching on the grounds that black men were a threat to white women — neo-Confederate myths notably repeated in Gone With the Wind.
Those myths aren’t concrete; you can’t hold onto them. But, as Randall shows, they still move people—even people who don’t believe in them. In both GWTW and The Wind Done Gone, Scarlett’s husband Rhett dons a Confederate uniform to fight for a cause he intellectually rejects. Symbols inspire people to pick up guns, or whips. Symbols kill.
“It’s a pissed bed on a cold night to read words on paper saying your name and a price,” Cynara says. Words and symbols constrain people; they tell you that this person’s life is important and that person’s is not.
State governments, retailers, and, to some extent, the Republican party as a whole, have in the last week or so come out and admitted that the flag, and the neo-Confederate narrative it represents, are anathema.
They’ve taken the stand, however belated and vacillating, that the enslavement, torture, and murder of black people are more important than the myth of Southern purity and stainless, heroic virtue. Activists have been fighting for decades to get the country to acknowledge that; one protestor, Bree Newsome, climbed a thirty foot flagpole and accepted arrest in order to take down the flag from where it still flies at the South Carolina state Capitol.
The fact that finally the flag may not be long for government property, even in South Carolina, is no small thing. “I wish not to be out of the picture,” Cynara declares. Rewriting Gone With the Wind is a way of showing that black lives matter. So, in a small way, is taking down the Confederate flag.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.