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The Confederate Flag: Why the Complexities of Slavery Can't Be Reduced to a Scrap of Fabric

Updated on July 30, 2017

Update: Recently, several Confederate War monuments were removed from various locations in the South. I have never lived in the South, so was unaware of the bizarre emotional attachment many white people had to those monuments. Although I am a firm believer in allowing such monuments to remain - I believe it is important to have constant reminders of the atrocities of the past, lest we repeat them - conversations I had with so-called friends led me to believe that the adoration of these monuments by unapologetic racists indeed necessitated their removal.

I do believe, however, that we can remove all the flags and monuments on earth, and still, unwavering racism will live on in the hearts and minds of many. We must never give up the fight against ignorance, intolerance and slavery.

A Sheltered Life


Growing up, I never heard the "n" word. I was so sheltered from racism, in fact, that when I did first hear that word, I didn't know what it meant. I was never taught to think that blacks were below me or that they were inherently criminals. Granted, there weren't a lot of black people in my neighborhood in east Omaha, but when we did get a little black kid in the neighborhood, I was never encouraged or discouraged to play with him and although he wasn't my best friend, I definitely liked him more than the bratty little white girl that lived behind me and constantly got me in trouble over nothing.

I learned much later that this attitude was instilled in my family by my ggg-grandfather, Cornelius Dunham, who had been a "staunch and outspoken Abolitionist," and that he had put the fear of God into anyone who put another race below them, especially the Native Americans and the blacks. He showed immense respect for the Native tribes that lived around him, and he settled in a place in western Iowa that they recommended and approved. There were strict orders, followed by several generations after, to not destroy any Native mounds or other markers found on the land, regardless how inconvenient or impractical it might be to leave them untouched.

White Slavery: Yes, That Is a Thing

Ilya Repin, The Volga Boatmen
Ilya Repin, The Volga Boatmen | Source

When I was in college, I fell in love with Russia.

I had a core language requirement for my degree, and inexplicably, after failing French, I chose Russian. It was like something had reached in and lit a spark in my soul. The next semester, I changed my major and took as many Russian classes as I could, including Russian history.

Of course, Russian history is long and complicated, involving a lot of battles and murders and intrigue, but there was something I learned that no one had ever talked about before: Russia had slaves. And Russia had a lot of slaves.

Before that class, I always thought - had always been taught, through omission - that the United States was the only country in the whole world that ever embraced the institution of slavery. I had taken a class about a year before about the Reconstruction Era, which examined, in immense, intricate, minute and comprehensive detail (let's just say that the professor was a little ... dull) of the how and why the South needed to be humiliated after their loss in the Civil War and why those poor Southerners wouldn't even be using indoor plumbing or electricity today if it hadn't been for the carpetbaggers. But still, they made it seem like slavery was to be found no where else on Earth, and no one else ever treated another human being as badly as those white slave owners treated their black slaves.

And then my Russian history professor, Dr. Mary Kelly, was telling us about slavery in ... Russia. And I remember that my fist thought was, But they didn't have a lot of black people in Russia, did they? And the answer to that is, No, they didn't. Before then, I thought of the slavery question in literal black and white terms. White slave owners, in the southern United States, bringing black people over from Africa in horrific conditions, allowing many of them to die en route.

The idea of slaves in Russia - white people enslaving white people - really bothered me. It wasn't so much that a race was enslaving its own, it was that no one had ever told me about it before. No teacher ever discussed this issue the entire time I was in K-12.

So, you're probably thinking, That's because there weren't nearly as many slaves - serfs - in Russia as there were black slaves in the United States. But see, that's the thing. At the height of slavery in the United States, there were about 4 million slaves in the United States, owned by a very small percentage of the population of our country: about 1.5%. This practice had been going on from what would be considered the "beginning" of America, 1619, or about 150 years.

In contrast, there were 23 million serfs in Russia, most of them ethnic (white) Russians. That is nearly six times the number of black slaves in the United States. And the institution of serfdom had been going on for 800 years, if not longer!

This made me look at our American institution of slavery much more closely, and I was also horrified to discover that black slaves were sold into slavery, in Africa, by other blacks. This was never, ever taught to me in school. Let me tell you what I was told to think: That a bunch of evil-looking white guys, dirty and covered in sweat, were roaming the jungles of Africa (because, you know, Africa is just one huge jungle), capturing people in nets and putting them in boxes, like wild animals. But the truth is so much worse!

Warring tribes selling their captives to complete strangers to be shipped across the ocean, to whatever known horror would await them. And all in the name of money!

All Slavery is Bad, Regardless of Race or Gender

So it sounds like what I'm saying is, "Well, he was doing it, too!" {stomping foot like a toddler} "How come they don't have to pay for what they did? Us white people get blamed for everything."

People of all races have done some pretty awful things to one another; they've done some pretty awful stuff to people of their own kind, even in their own families. The problem with getting mired in those past misdeeds is that we forget that these very same horrors are occurring today.

Every time we obsess over the meaning behind the Confederate flag - which is awful, to be sure - hundreds of girls (and boys!) are sold into sex slavery, shipped around the world for the pleasure of creepy old men. They reach their prime quickly, and then what use are they? The traffickers throw them away or kill them when they have outlived their usefulness, much like the slave owners of the past did.

There are estimates that there are 27 million slaves throughout the world today, and that does not even count all of those in sex slavery, which is hard to track. "Slavery" is described, to soften the idea but not the reality of slavery, in terms of "bonded labor" in places like Pakistan. I just took a quiz on and found out that I have about 72 slaves working for me, building my electronics and making other things I often use in my home.

We get so angry over a flag, screaming with righteous indignation that it "represents slavery." But what about the actual slavery occurring in the shadows of all of our communities that has absolutely nothing to do with this piece of fabric?

Most black people today know racism, but they do not know slavery. Even those black people who faced such terrible discrimination in the south in the 1950s and 1960s - that face discrimination today - do not know slavery. But there are people of all races and both genders who are, today, enslaved by vicious masters, sometimes in cultures that not only turn a blind eye to, but encourage slavery even more so than in the American South or feudal Russia before 1863. There are wild claims of the numbers of Indian children sold into slavery that would put even the number of serfs in Russia to shame.

The Confederate flag may offend, but taking it down does not deliver a blow against slavery. Taking it down doesn't change the past. It is a meaningless act that simply removes the reminder of the atrocities committed in the past that should not be allowed to continue; however, they are allowed to not only continue, but prosper! If anything, if you indeed believe this flag is a symbol of hatred and racism, we should adopt this flag as a reminder that so many people - our own American people - are enslaved every day and we need to do everything in our power to end all slavery, for all people, for all time.


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    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      16 months ago from Beautiful South

      Your article makes so much sense. I am a Southerner, and I was also intrigued with Russia in college history. Half of my history minor was in Russian and Soviet history, and I made a trip to the Soviet Union and got acquainted with the people personally. The serfs you mention were all over feudal Europe, including the British Isles, so slavery of one's own people wasn't just in Russia. It also existed in ancient Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire.

      What I don't understand is the North's hatred of the South. It couldn't be based in slavery of the black race because the Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in the South. The Union states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky were allowed to keep their slaves. Those slaves were freed by Congress under the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Abraham Lincoln didn't give a damn about the slaves.

      Some historians have said the hatred stems from the English who settled in the North and the Scottish who settled in the South. That it was (is) a continuation of the war lost by the Scottish Jacobites to the English. But whatever it is, Confederate flags and monuments are just red flags fanning this hatred, and that is the fault of the bull, not the flag. Most white supremacists groups (Aryan Nation and such) were organized in northern states (look them up), and if not for them, the Ku Klux Klan and southern groups of neo-Nazis probably would have faded out long ago.

      I am not making excuses for racism in the South, just pointing out who keeps pouring kerosene on the fire. Apparently racism in the U.S.A. will not be allowed to end until northerners completely stamp out the descendants of the Scottish Jacobites who settled in this country in a futile attempt to escape the English terror.

      Rewriting our history by taking down all Confederate monuments will not make things better. It will just make new generations of people forget that we ever had slavery in this country. Some people today deny that the Holocaust existed, and some people deny that man set foot on the moon. It was all just a hoax, they say. Without the reminders of the existence of the Confederacy, they will say that about slavery in a couple of generations. Then northerners will have to come up with another reason to hate the South.

    • wrenchBiscuit profile image

      Ronnie wrenchBiscuit 

      6 years ago


      I use very little opinion when commenting on such serious issues. My commentary is based on facts. And those facts are verifiable in the historical record. No amount of fiction, or emotional racist rhetoric that might appeal to Archie Bunker's followers here on Hubpages, could ever mitigate the evil of America. No man, or woman can challenge the truth, and thus, I have clearly owned you and all other apologists.

      I understand the insidious workings of genocide, and I am all too familiar with the apologist rhetoric that you offer here. I would no more expect the average American racist to accept responsibility for the evil perpetrated here, as I would a Nazi to forswear the evil of Nazism.

      If you truly do not understand the connection of the flag to this terrorist act, it is only because you are not educated. Many of you have never heard the word: Semiotics. Semiotics is a discipline that studies symbols, words and their adoptive and adaptive meanings. One of the primary principles of semiotics is that there is never a pure meaning that any symbol carries intrinsically. In other words, a symbol’s meaning is always being redefined, interpreted and evolving. Your apology makes a false assumption about the static nature of symbols . But symbols are fluid, not static. Your arguments are both historically, and scientifically irrelevant.

    • Connie120 profile image


      6 years ago

      Brynn, this is a very thoughtful, and thought-provoking article. I knew white slavery existed, but I didn't know it was common in Russia. Mostly I thought about the white slaves from Ireland and England that were put to work in the British colonies. It is too bad that the media hides the real problems in the world, and continues to foster racial discord by false allegations against the Confederate flag, when there are so many real problems and real slavery in the world. I suppose this culture of made-up victimhood is a big money-maker, so that's why it continues.

      wrenchBiscuit, if the Confederate flag is "connected to a brutal slaying....." it's only because the media has so connected it. Your spouting off of make-believe terms like "institutionalized racism, white privelege, European Invaders, American terrorists" etc, show that you blindly follow the media propaganda. Only ignorance causes the Confederate flag to be considered a "symbol that represents evil."

    • wrenchBiscuit profile image

      Ronnie wrenchBiscuit 

      6 years ago

      I am not surprised that a racist might be impressed with your outlook. However, I am amazed by your "spin", and contradiction.

      " ... The Confederate flag may offend, but taking it down does not deliver a blow against slavery. Taking it down doesn't change the past. It is a meaningless act that simply removes the reminder of the atrocities committed in the past that should not be allowed to continue..."

      First of all, we are not fighting against black slavery in America. This is 2015. People are fighting against a symbol that represents evil, and that has been used for many years by hate groups who have promoted violence , and terrorist acts against blacks. People are standing against a symbol that is recently connected to the brutal slaying of 9 innocent people, and historically speaking, hundreds of thousands.

      Burning all of the images of Jeffery Dahmer isn't going to change the past either, but I certainly don't want to look at his face every time I walk by a government office, or attend a state sponsored event. I'm sure the families of his victims would feel the same way. You're disrespect for those who continue to suffer beneath a yoke of white supremacy is not uncommon here in America. You say removing the flag is a "meaningless act", but then follow with, " that simply removes the reminder of the atrocities committed in the past that should not be allowed to continue...". Wow! Your statement is nothing but a contradiction. How do you suppose that removing the reminder of past atrocities is a meaningless act? Your statement makes no sense whatsoever.

      You try to deflect the issue at hand by talking about slavery worldwide, when what we are dealing with here is institutionalized racism, a system of white supremacy, and a symbol of white privilege and racial hatred. Your meandering rhetoric does not mitigate the evil that has been perpetrated here by European Invaders, and American terrorists for over 500 years.

    • Brett Winn profile image

      Brett Winn 

      6 years ago from US

      OMG ... THANK YOU for pointing out the obvious!!!

      I'm a Southerner, born and bred, and I know what that flag really stands for. However, I wouldn't be caught dead flying it, not because it doesn't fill my heart with longing for what might have been (and had the South won, I'm SURE there would be no slavery today), but because I'd not want to offend people to whom it means something different. (My take on 1 Cor. 8:13: "Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.")

      My facebook post about it a couple of days ago sums it up: "It breaks my heart that this beautiful flag has been appropriated by the politically correct and misinformed to mean what it was never intended to mean."

      Your point however, is even better. It made me instantly think about those poor Christian and Yezidi women in captivity to ISIS. Great job.

    • Brynn Thorssen profile imageAUTHOR

      Carrie Peterson 

      6 years ago from Colorado Springs, CO

      Thank you!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      After so much rhetoric and angry emotion on behalf of people in Charleston who are themselves working hard to maintain a forgiving spirit while calling for righteous judgement against the violent acts of the criminal who murdered their family/friends and harmed even more on many levels, I did not expect this to be such a thoughtful read. Thank you.


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