Misunderstanding a symbol

Growing up in Somerset in the late 1960s meant part of a deeply conservative rural community while also encountering those whose lives and culture were a protest against everything for which the social and political Establishment stood.

The hippies were consciously, deliberately, actively counter cultural. They were conspicuous, demonstrative, loud, garish. They outraged local opinion, challenged all the traditional values. Few people had a good word for them, although were happy to take the money these colourful outsiders brought into our community.

Among the hippies, the flag of the American Confederacy was a common sight. It was a symbol of being opposed to authority, it was a sign of opposition to the government of the United States and its involvement in the war in Vietnam.

In teenage years, Saturday evening television included The Dukes of Hazzard, a drama comedy about two young men in a small community in the American South. The Duke boys drove a high powered car they called the “General Lee.” On the roof of the car was painted a Confederate flag. The Duke brothers spent their time trying to outwit the crooked mayor and sheriff. The Confederate flag was a symbol of being rebellious, of defying authority.

In 1979, going to university in London at the age of eighteen, Freshers’ Week at the London School of Economics included the opportunity to see Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz, a documentary of the farewell concert for The Band. The film confirmed in a teenage mind the notion that the Confederacy could represent those who were oppressed.

Among The Band’s best known songs was The night they drove old Dixie down. The song is a tale told in the first person of the social and economic plight of a poor white Southerner who had fought for the Confederacy. The song was an anthem  of anti-establishment dissent in the 1960s. Joan Baez was among those who recorded the song as a protest against the Federal government, it was her most successful single.

Perhaps the use of the Confederate flag by the hippies was a conscious and deliberate piece of cultural appropriation, but to my teenage self the flag was a sign of rebellion, a sign of dissent from the opinions and the policies of the powerful. It would never have occurred to me that the flag had remained a symbol of prejudice and oppression.

Looking back on those years, I wonder how often now people use symbols and words without being aware of the power of those symbols and words for other people.


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