When he heard recently that the legislature in Mississippi was considering removing that infamous rebel symbol from the state’s flag, Greg Stewart, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was apoplectic. “You’re asking me to agree that my great-grandparent and great-great-grandparents were monsters,” Stewart wailed.
That has been a typical refrain from neo-Confederates who continue to wrap themselves in that flag and want to keep it flying in all sorts of public places. The flag has nothing to do with slavery, or white supremacy, they insist, but symbolizes instead a respect for ancestors and regional pride.
This latest fight over the Confederate flag has revealed a divide not simply over how it is viewed but how the past itself should be understood. It is a difference between those who view the past as history and those who see it as heritage.
The two terms are often deployed synonymously, but they are, in fact, the opposite of each another. History, as properly understood, is our attempt to reconstruct and understand the events, lives and experiences of those who came before us — the good, the bad and the ugly. History follows rules of evidence and interpretation. Most important, it is debated and revised constantly as new evidence and new ways of interpreting the evidence come to light.
The results of history reveal the complexities and contradictions of the human experience and force us to grapple with nuance and paradox. It is intellectually challenging and can often be deeply unsettling.
Heritage, by contrast, is a mythologized version of the past, stripped of all the unpleasant parts. Heritage remains largely impervious to historical evidence and relies instead on a past-as-we-wish-it-were version of events. It trades in emotions and personal connections, putting itself beyond debate or reproach. History is often not lovable, but everyone loves his or her heritage. That’s why some Southerners can slap a Confederate flag bumper sticker on their pickups that reads “Heritage not Hate.”
Flag-waving Southerners by no means have a monopoly on the heritage racket. Heritage — as opposed to history — museums abound in this country, from the German Heritage Museum in Cincinnati to the Russia Heritage Society of Bismarck, N.D., to the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange, Texas. The museums celebrate the achievements of these different ethnic groups and their contributions to our nation.
So Italian-Americans celebrate Christopher Columbus as part of their heritage because he launched the great age of European expansion and exploration. All historically true. But Columbus also enslaved the native people he found on the island of Hispaniola, beginning an age of slavery in the New World that did not end until the 19th century. Columbus Day events tend to ignore that latter part. History demands that we reckon with both.
There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with celebrating your heritage. Often it’s merely silly or harmless, like the invented tradition of Highland clan tartans in Scotland. After all, the real purpose of heritage is to make people feel good. Who doesn’t love going to an ethnic heritage festival with folk dances and great food?
But things get much stickier when heritage becomes conflated with history. That’s what has happened during this most recent dustup over Confederate symbology. Those who cling to the Confederate flag want their personal, rose-tinted mythologies of Confederate heritage to be taken seriously as history.
People retreat into heritage as a way of feeling better about themselves and resent history as a personal threat to those feelings. As Earnest Fryer, a Georgian, put it in response to the flag controversy, slavery was the “one thing that makes all the rest of my heritage look bad.” Heritage allows you to ignore the stuff that looks bad.
History, on the other hand, doesn’t care about your feelings. It isn’t therapeutic and its job isn’t to make you feel good about yourself, your relatives or the ethnic tribe with which you identify. History forces you to think, to question the assumptions you hold about the past in order to analyze the present more deeply.
Heritage might be easier or more fun, but in the end it is intellectually dishonest, and as the debate over the Confederate flag demonstrates, it can be divisive and destructive.