Response to "The Confederate Flag in East Montreal"

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by Victoria Simmons

This is in response to the 2005 article "The Confederate Flag in East Montreal," by Carrie Rentschler.

In her analysis of the display of the Confederate flag on cars or by construction workers in Montreal, she mentions working‑class masculine identity, but proceeds to link the display to local politics and language and racial issues. Her analysis appears to assume the flag has a monolithic meaning of white supremacy. As a folklorist, I wondered if the author ever stopped to ask people displaying the flag what they thought it symbolized and why they displayed it. Reasons for such displays can be personal and idiosyncratic, and it is amazing how often people have notions of the meaning of symbols that are completely at odds with mainstream understanding. Even if the subject's reasons can be analyzed as not fully conscious or self‑aware, the subject still deserves the opportunity to make his own point of view known.

In Los Angeles I worked for a while with a young man in his late twenties who had recently immigrated from Montreal. He was of French Canadian working‑class origin, but had a generalized North American accent barely identifiable as Canadian. Despite an intimidating appearance, he was a gentle soul who, though literate, regarded himself as apolitical and was primarily interested in hardcore punk rock and its progenitors, his pet budgie, and the Goth‑jewelry‑ making business he was setting up with his Thai‑American bride. He cultivated a "hardcore" appearance: he was covered in tattoos, and wore a painter's cap, full beard, t‑shirt, chain jewelry, baggy denim or khaki shorts, and enormous high‑top sneakers. For him it was a style choice, and not associated with any sort of politics, certainly not white supremacy. This young man told me that when he was a teenager in Montreal, he had a Confederate flag on the wall of his bedroom, and that he wasn't aware of the racial‑political significance of the flag until he moved to the United States. He became aware of the flag from its presence in the packaging of Southern rock albums (Lynard Skynrd, etc.) that he grew up listening to, and he associated it with the sort of "rebel" behavior usually significant to teenage boys‑‑being rowdy and independent‑‑and thus symbolically equivalent to muscle cars, rock 'n' roll music, and Jack Daniels whiskey.

I think there are quite a few males beyond the teenage years who display the flag in this way, and for whom the flag is only controversial in so far as it is associated with rock 'n' roll rebellion. They may be unaware of the more truly controversial nature of the flag, they may be aware of it and not care, or they may find that the political meanings of the flag suit their deeper beliefs, acknowledged or not. But, surely, in failing to ask questions, Ms. Rentschler was leaving out a step in her analysis, and shaping the meaning of the evidence to suit her own interests. Perhaps in many cases that display really is just an expression of working‑class masculine identity, which just happens to be white.

As a side note, there are increasing uses of the flag to reclaim Southern identity as a separate regional identity with shared racial significance, or even just to relax racial tensions by playing with demonized symbols. An example is African American musician Coffey's album "Southern Man," the cover of which reproduces the stars‑on‑saltire‑cross of the Confederate flag in black and white, and the title song of which re‑casts the Southern country boy (always assumed to be white) in black hip hop terms. Certainly, if it is possible to de‑demonize that flag and repurpose it to stand for shared Southern identity, the effort would have to be led by and accepted by Southern African Americans, and a black‑and‑white version of the flag might be the way to go.

This piece generated further comments by Zack Furness, Robert Soza and Carrie Rentschler.

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