It was probably my second or third day at Rocketship when I noticed the flag flying two stories above Cleveland Ave. on Milwaukee’s Southside, hidden behind two spindly spruce trees. The design itself was unmistakable: a blue St. Andrew ’s cross adorned with thirteen white stars set upon a red background. It was none other than the Confederate battle flag—an icon revered by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and misguided “State’s Righters” and/or “Southern Heritage” fanatics.
As a white man who has spent periods of my life living in rural America, I have become accustomed to seeing the Confederate flag proudly flown on front lawns, re-purposed into bumper stickers, fashioned into bikini bottoms, plastered onto refrigerators, and emblazoned on cheap coffee mugs peddled at road-side flea markets. And while my reaction upon seeing the flag is always negative, I’ve become rather immune to its appearance—a privilege of “immunity” that is impossible for People of Color. The flag symbolizes too much hatred, too much violence, too much bigotry and unaccounted history. It simply cannot be ignored.
The flags calculated existence across the street from my school, however, elicited in me such a visceral reaction that I’ve reflected on the experience for nearly one year and have only now begun to articulate some thoughts. It’s not to say, of course, that the Confederate flag’s existence in other locales is more acceptable. But, within the context of my own life and, more importantly, within the political and cultural context in which this particular flag was flown, its appearance sparked within me a deep reflection on the meaning of the flag in general and, ultimately, why, in the 21st century, white Americans continue to revere and display this symbol that represents pain and suffering for millions.
Flags are powerful symbols. Within the confines of a piece of cloth, people’s national affinities are declared, their cultural identifies, linguistic heritages, and historical experiences are often affirmed. So, it’s easy to see why the Confederate battle flag has become such a touch-point for State’s Rights advocates and Southern Heritage promoters. Those individuals who continue to justify and perpetuate the flag’s existence do so within the framework of historical memory and identity. Whenever the flag comes under attack as an unrequited symbol of slavery and white oppression, their response is often to deflect the charge by claiming the flag is not a symbol of slavery, but is instead an icon of history and Southern cultural identity (regardless of the fact that flag is now flown throughout all 50 states). When I hear this argument, my first question is usually this: But what about now? The Confederacy as a nation is dead. The cultural markers of the Confederacy (plantation-based economies and slavery) are also dead. Its national symbol (the flag) is by all accounts a historical relic. It deserves to be remembered in a museum, as its purpose (to serve as a national symbol for the Confederate States of America) is no longer needed.
The Marquette historian Dr. James Marten argues that the meaning attached to historical symbols can and does change. When white supremacists gather around the bronze bust of a fallen Confederate general, they are redefining the meaning of the historical symbol changing it from a commemoration of the past, to an active representation of their modern ideology (in this case, a worldview fearful and antagonistic to an ethnically and culturally-diverse 21st century America). And the same is true for the flag.
The South-side of Milwaukee is an immigrant enclave. It’s a neighborhood made up of thousands of families working hard to provide a better future for their children. They are roofers, cooks, teachers, police officers, political representatives, and doctors. Rocketship reflects the demographics of our neighborhood. According to the Wisconsin Department of Education, over 97% of our students are of Hispanic/Latino descent. Many of them come from low-income households. Each morning, hundreds of parents drop their kids off at the school. And they drive past that flag, too. I’m sure they see it. And that’s the point of it, right? The person who has chosen to fly that flag, year round, across the street from a school where all of the students are students of color wants to convey a message. It’s not a message that commemorates the fallen soldiers at Antietam or Gettysburg. It’s not a message that celebrates Dixie or the heritage of Scotch-Irish ancestors felling southern pines in the Georgia Piedmont. No. It’s an intimidation piece. The purpose is to remind them of their “supposed” place in the society. Its existence is decidedly modern, commenting upon a political and cultural context relevant to 2018.
Yet, there are other battle flags waving across the street. They wave from the steel rafters of the school’s portico. They adorn the walls of the school and are hooked into the drop-down ceilings of the hallways. They are flags that represent not nation states, but universities. They are symbols with a modern meaning. And much like the flag across the street, they too convey a message to our students (and their parents). And the message is this: You belong. You can succeed. And that your future is the hope of our nation.