Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The symbology of flags

Symbology is the study of symbols within cultural contexts. Modern symbols with which we are familiar are the bald eagle representing the United States, an olive branch representing peace, or a heart representing love. To a larger degree, we employ symbols in the flags that identify our state. Virginia's flag, for example, shows a soldier -- a woman -- standing with her foot on the slain body of a monarch who has lost his crown. The woman, according to the Code of Virginia, is "Virtus the genius of the Commonwealth, dressed as an Amazon." She represents the Roman virtue, Virtus, carrying connotations of valor and courage. The fallen man is Tyranny, representing the Tyrannical Great Britain felled, in part, by Virginia -- notice the man's crown on the ground nearby. Virtus also carries a spear, pointed down into the ground, and a sword, still sheathed, representing authority.

Virginia adopted this flag in 1861 at the beginning of the American Civil War. At the same time, the fledgling Confederate States of America began searching for a flag of their own. General P.G.T. Beauregard proposed an idea for two different flags, one for peace or parades, and one for war or the battlefield. A number of different flags for the various seceded states, and even regimental flags created confusion on the battlefield. Early Confederate battle flags so closely resembled the United States flag, especially in colors, that they could be indistinguishable from one another at a distance.

The flag we know today as the Confederate flag, or Confederate battle flag was never truly used to represent the Confederate states as a nation. It is a blend of elements from Confederate battle flags and Naval Jacks that has come to represent the Confederacy, and the South at large.

Its color elements, a very familiar red, white, and blue originate in the flag of the United States of America. Immediately following secession, there was a great deal of public support for keeping the old US flag, at least in some capacity. The colors remained in use throughout the Confederacy's short history. The number of stars, 13 in all, represent the eleven states of the Confederacy, and two stars to represent Missouri and Kentucky which later joined the Confederacy in disputed agreements. The crossing blue bars form a St. Andrew's cross, also called a saltire, in the shape of an X. This is supposedly the type of cross upon which St. Andrew was crucified. Curiously, there seems to be no specific association between St. Andrew and the Confederacy; it may simply have been an aesthetic choice.

The Confederate flag today carries a complex mix of connotations, ranging from pride and heritage to racism and hate. It means different things to different people, to be sure.

This Saturday, Riddick's Folly will host Abolitionists' Museum, a theatrical work featuring eight historical abolitionists debating the subject of what we call the Confederate flag. It's worth noting that some of these eight figures did not live to even see the flag, and that the others did not live to see it become the somewhat controversial symbol that it has become. In this context, their thoughts seem out of place, or even irrelevant. However, the play, which uses large portions of the characters' writings or speeches, offers them a chance to tell their story in our time, and to offer what thoughts they may have had on this symbol, should they be alive today. A post-show discussion with the audience will follow the performances, allowing an exchange of ideas and a thoughtful dialogue on a subject with no real "right" or "wrong" answers.

Abolitionists' Museum takes place on Saturday, February 21st with performances at 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm at Riddick's Folly.