If This Flag Offends You: Dixie Outfitters and the Meaning of Southern Heritage




If This Flag Offends You: Dixie Outfitters and the Meaning of Southern Heritage by Alan Levinovitz

The Legacy of the Confederate Flag

September 9th, 2013 reset - +

TO AN UNTUTORED YANKEE, Dixie Outfitters looks like a white supremacist gift shop. Crowding the walls, filling display cases, and stacked on tables are belts, mugs, buttons, signs, dog tags, mouse pads, checkbooks, wallets, rear window murals, and piles of shirts, all united in their proud display of the Confederate flag: an ideal place for racists, accidental or otherwise, to accessorize.

I encountered Dixie Outfitters after moving from Chicago to take a job at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The store was a cartoonish confirmation of my ugliest biases against Southern culture. Here on an infant’s onesie was a winged, behaloed pig, Root’n for Jesus; there a bumper sticker asserted that Dixie girls have the best ASSets. Superficial faith and sincere misogyny, side by side. In Confederate gray a soldier aimed his musket at me — DAMN YANKEES! said the t-shirt caption — while behind him flew that awful emblem of slavery and segregation. Worst of all, I thought, the entire operation was allowed to feign normalcy in a local mall, across from Radio Shack and next to Claire’s Boutique.

Had no one complained?

Was all this a significant part of the modern South, my new home?

It seemed entirely possible. Virginia is crisscrossed by roads named in honor of Confederate generals. Schools, too, are named for them, and rebels are a common mascot. Cities are littered with Confederate monuments, which this Yankee first took for the shining bones of a long-dead ideology. But dead it is not, and I soon learned that the holiness of its martyrs lives on in the land they once defended.

The clerk on my first visit to Dixie Outfitters was a friendly middle-aged woman, whose T-shirt featured a golden retriever puppy wearing a Confederate flag bandanna. In a raspy voice, clearly ravaged by cigarettes, she told me I was in one of 10 independently owned and operated franchises located across the southern United States. The co-owner of this franchise was her best friend, who for years sold Dixie Outfitters merchandise at regional festivals before opening up a permanent location in the mall.

As I looked through a catalog of available designs, contemplating an ironic purchase, a mother and her daughter walked in and began to browse in earnest. The girl was no older than eight or nine, and neither of them struck me as the kind of people who would seek out offensive clothing. But there they were, the mother smiling as her young daughter held up a shirt printed with an adorable little cowgirl, dressed in a leather-fringed skirt and jacket, holding a small Confederate flag. The scene was intensely disturbing: a Southern woman encouraging nostalgia for a time when children like her daughter could be bought and sold, provided they were black.

Turning back to the catalogue I discovered a design that incorporated five black men: four painted soldiers in the background, and, in the foreground, what appeared to be a contemporary photograph of a bearded older man, flagpole resting in the crook of his elbow, gazing proudly into the distance. A gold seal read “Black Confederates, the History of the South,” and on the man’s shirt was printed the name H. K. Edgerton.

The Edgerton shirt was part of a series dedicated to revealing suppressed truths about the Civil War, including one with a dour-looking Lincoln next to the following supposed quote:

We didn’t go to war to put down slavery, but to put the flag back, and to act differently at this moment would, I have no doubt, not only weaken our cause but smack of bad faith.

In the end I decided against a shirt and purchased a flag-emblazoned drink cozy that read “If this flag offends you, you need a history lesson.” Well, it did offend me, and I struggled to grasp how anything other than racist ignorance was at work. This struggle led to countless hours of research and interviews, eventually landing me in the tiny town of Odum, Georgia, where I would speak with Dewey Barber himself, founder and CEO of Dixie Outfitters, in an effort to understand the people that buy his products and wear them with pride.

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If you type “black confederates” into Google, one of the hits is a Washington Post article detailing a Virginia textbook scandal. In 2010, the same year that governor Bob McDonnell declared April Confederate History Month, William & Mary Civil War historian Carol Sheriff read an astonishing claim in her daughter’s fourth-grade textbook: “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.”

Sheriff complained, and the resulting investigation revealed that the textbook’s author, Joy Masoff, had relied primarily on the internet for her information, in this case Southern heritage websites with a vested interest in exonerating the Confederacy from charges of racism. But no one at the publisher checked her sources, and just like that, partisan propaganda passed as historical fact.

“People don’t believe in the black Confederate narrative because they’re crazy,” explains historian Kevin Levin. “They believe it because they read it. It’s on a website that looks professional, has all the bells and whistles, and includes images, primary sources of all kinds. How could it not be true?”

Levin’s long-running blog, Civil War Memory, is on the front lines in a battle between established historians and a vocal minority who insist that most academics are biased liberals bent on slandering the South. Dixie Outfitters is a part of this minority, and its company website includes a history section with over eighty links to information about black Confederates.

It’s easy to dismiss such history as disingenuous propaganda, and in certain cases that’s exactly what it is. One widely distributed photograph captioned “1st Louisiana Native Guard” was claimed by its online retailer to depict members of the first all-black Confederate unit. In fact, the image was created by altering a studio photograph of black Union soldiers.

The problem, however, is that not every photograph is a forgery, not every quote is invented (the previous Lincoln quote is authentic), and even with a great deal of training it is difficult to determine what counts as trustworthy analysis of ambiguous historical evidence, and what is motivated deception, especially when it involves a topic so ideologically charged as the Civil War.

For instance, take this passage from an essay by cultural studies scholar Leslie Madsen-Brooks: "[I]t appears no academic historians have subscribed to the narrative that there were thousands of black Confederate soldiers.”

When I first read it, Madsen-Brooks’s claim confirmed the results of my own research. But then I discovered that Harvard historian John Stauffer gave a 2011 talk at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute in which he claimed that between 3,000 and 10,000 black soldiers fought for the Confederacy.

What to believe? Kevin Levin had attended the Harvard lecture and blogged about his objections on Civil War Memory, but Levin is a high school teacher, and Stauffer is a Harvard professor. Madsen-Brooks does not specialize in the Civil War; Stauffer does.

After additional research I settled on my own answer to the question of black Confederates. I believe Levin is more reliable than Stauffer, and I assume there were very few, if any, black Confederate soldiers. Even if they did exist in larger numbers, it would speak only to the complexity of human motivation, not the inclusivity of Confederate ideology.

But for the purposes of assessing Dixie Outfitters and its clientele, the real question is whether reasonable laypeople could disagree about issues such as black Confederates, the meaning of the Confederate flag, and the causes of the Civil War — and whether they could disagree even after doing substantial research. The answer to that question is yes, which means my initial impression of Dixie Outfitters might have been misguided, the product of a Yankee mind eager to connect the Confederate flag with ignorant racists, when for some it actually represents sincere belief in an alternative history and a sign of defiance against people like me.

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Before driving to Dixie Outfitters’s headquarters in Odum, Georgia, I spend a night in Savannah, General Sherman’s Christmas gift to Lincoln in 1864. It’s been less than a month since the Paula Deen debacle, and I drop by her restaurant, The Lady and Sons, expecting a live version of a New York Times photograph that ran with their coverage of Deen: overweight white people lining up to support a fallen icon of culinary excess and racism.

There is no line. A black hostess stands outside and greets a party of three young women, one of whom is also black. It’s as if the city of Savannah has decided to do what the rest of the nation couldn’t: forgive Deen for her sins and move on. While dining at Zunzi’s 2, a South African restaurant, I talk to the bartender about local reactions to Deen’s fall from grace.

“I think most people just don’t care that much,” he says. “We worry about tourism. For people like me, for liberals in Savannah, there’s bigger problems to think about. Worse people out there.”

I ask if those people tend to carry Confederate flags.

“Maybe,” he says,

but I had lots of friends in college with the flag in their rooms. They didn’t think about it too much, just thought it was cool or Southern or whatever. I mean, when I was there, Mississippi’s mascot was Colonel Reb. Doesn’t mean all the football fans were racist.

He pauses to pour a drink before turning back to me.

“See, the real bad guys aren’t so obvious. They wear red ties and flag pins on their lapels.”

The next morning I set out for Odum. Like many Southern thoroughfares, the road from Savannah to Odum is lined with pine trees and poverty. Swaths of forest are punctuated by rundown trailer parks, vacant lots, and endless hand-painted placards advertising land for sale, as if the countryside is still recovering from the economic devastation wrought by Sherman’s March to the Sea. Occasionally there’s a barren field of stumps, a sign that some lucky landowner managed to sell his trees to a Georgia pulp mill, just like the mill that employed Dewey Barber for 13 years before he quit to try his luck in the silk-screen T-shirt business.

I meet the 65-year-old Barber in the lobby of his headquarters, a 25,000-square-foot gray building with "Barber and Company" printed on the façade. He’s dressed in shorts and a faded Dixie Outfitters T-shirt, an outfit that’s incongruous given his immaculate handlebar moustache and neatly parted hair.

After a tour of the factory floor we sit down in Barber’s office, which is decorated with a combination of Confederate memorabilia and family photos. Behind his desk hang three framed prints: First Battle Flags, which depicts the First Army of Northern Virginia; La Belle Rebelle, a portrait of famed Confederate spy Maria “Belle” Boyd; and a painting of Stonewall Jackson’s funeral. In an alcove to my left is a bust of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early member of the Klan, which stands next to a photograph of a Little League team. Barber’s son Wesley, a massive bodybuilder, has his own desk in the corner where he works on new designs while downing weight-gain shakes.

The oldest of five children, Dewey Barber was born in 1947, in Acme, North Carolina. Both of his parents worked in factories, his mother as a seamstress and his father shoveling sulfur in a fertilizer plant. Determined to escape poverty, Barber saved up 2,000 dollars working in grocery stores and tobacco fields, enough to cover costs when he enrolled at North Carolina State, the first in his family to attend college. Somewhat ruefully he admits that he chose his major by looking at the starting salaries of NCS graduates — the major with the highest average salary was chemical engineering, and that was that.

“After college I ended up at the pulp mill,” Barber says in a charming drawl, referring to a steam-belching monstrosity the size of Odum that I’d passed on the road from Savannah. “I was a process engineer there for 13 years. The money was good but it was kind of unfulfilling. I felt like I was wasting my life.”

Presented with an opportunity to get into silk-screening, Barber quit his job, mortgaged his house, and invested the money in printing equipment and a building. At first business was slow, a hodgepodge of jobs for local churches and sports teams. But then he discovered transfers. Unlike printed T-shirts, which require an initial investment of four to five dollars, transfer papers cost only 15 cents to make, which allows for high-volume production without too much up-front capital. Through a local connection, Barber began supplying transfer papers to the Myrtle Beach tourist industry, and his profit margins soared.

But despite his newfound success, Barber’s heart wasn’t in Myrtle Beach. It was in the South.

“One day, suddenly it hit me,” says Barber.

This was in 1997. All around, I could see the Confederate flag was being used in a warped way, a convoluted way. It was not used in the context that all of us in the South, normal people, really think of it. For us it’s an icon for the way we live. So I came up with the idea of putting it with images that portrayed that. The first Dixie Outfitters shirt, it was just a deer, jumping out of an oval, and in the background was a Confederate flag. I made another with a bass, and I gave the shirts to some friends of mine who were doing a festival.

The shirts took off. Mall kiosks, festival vendors, tourist shops, everyone was clamoring for designs that incorporated the battle flag. Dixie Outfitters’s first franchise opened in Tifton, Georgia, in 2006, and nine more followed, including the one in Harrisonburg.

I ask Barber why he thinks the line was so successful.

It appeals to a community of people that are like thinkers. We share the same feelings of injustice that’s been perpetrated on the Southern people. The South’s always been a unique area. The culture that the Yankees destroyed was a genteel culture. The ladies had the big hats, the gentlemen were gentlemen. It’s about being gentlemen and ladylike.

For most of our conversation Barber remains soft-spoken. He appears genuinely apologetic for the more combative Dixie Outfitters designs, the market for which he attributes to rebellious teens that enjoy stirring up trouble. It’s only when I ask about popular perceptions of the South that he raises his voice.

To start with, they think we’re ignorant. They’ve got this stereotype. These liberals, they don’t want us to stereotype anybody, but they love to stereotype us. The media and the liberals love to marginalize their opponent, call him names, and the biggest one is racist.

Barber’s frustration with hypocritical liberals, a hallmark of neo-Confederate rhetoric, has been exacerbated by a number of school bans on Confederate flag apparel. A South Carolina case that dates back 10 years, Hardwick v. Heyward, was recently decided by the Fourth Circuit court in favor of the Latta, South Carolina high school, and the decision has Barber incensed.

“This is one of the greatest injustices ever,” he says.

To tell a child that is proud of his ancestors, that your ancestors and the life they gave and the beliefs they had are so horrendous you can’t even wear a shirt that depicts their heritage? It destroys their self-worth. If you wear a Confederate flag, if a minority person says I’m offended, you have to go change your shirt and hang your head.

Barber claims he was unaware that the school in question had also banned Malcolm X shirts, and it is at this point in our conversation that his view of history starts to look Orwellian. Missing are any facts that would complicate the gloriousness of Southern heritage and the barbarity of its critics. Rather than admitting and denouncing racist aspects of Southern history, Barber has instead elected to believe they don’t exist.

“There’s really no radical Southern groups that I’m aware of,” he says.

I mean, first thing you’ll think about is the KKK, but that’s not a Southern group. It’s all over the country. And it’s a really small group, and we don’t even support them. They’ve besmirched and done a lot of harm to our flag, and they’re basically our enemies, just like they are for most people.

When I mention the flag’s prominence at anti-desegregation rallies Barber seems confused, and he shifts quickly into a discussion of states’ rights.

“I’m not all that familiar with desegregation and recent history,” he tells me, somewhat incredibly, given that North Carolina was struggling with desegregation right when he would have been attending high school. “There are various reasons I’m sure the South didn’t want to desegregate. We didn’t want the federal government forcing us to do things we didn’t want, for one.”

I point out that Kirk Lyons, lead counsel for the prosecution in many of the Confederate flag–ban cases, has been profiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white supremacist lawyer, involved in defending a host of unsavory characters including former Klan members.

“The North did the exact same things that we did,” Barber insists, and gestures to a bookshelf above his desk.

I’ve got a book here called Complicity, written by some people in Rhode Island. The slaves were all brought in to New York. Washington, DC, was built on the backs of slaves, and so was New York City. See, liberals try to put a humanitarian face on the War of Northern Aggression, like it was all about slavery. But the crux of it was money and power. Just like today, when politicians go into Iraq and say chemical weapons, and it was really all about the oil.

Barber believes the flag has been maligned by overly censorial liberals intent on stereotyping Southerners.

“Why can’t we use our flag?” he asks.

Because the NAACP, a liberal fringe group, says it’s racist? They don’t know anything about our flag, about my family. It may mean that to Jesse Jackson, because that’s what makes him money. If I want to put a Nazi flag on my shirt and wear it around, I should be allowed to. That’s freedom of speech. If there was a kid in school who was a skinhead racist, I would want him to wear his garb. If it was a swastika, let him wear it. At least I’d know where he’s coming from. And I’d rather have him wearing it than building a bomb at home, wearing it there.

Eventually I bring up H. K. Edgerton, the mysterious man featured on Dixie Outfitters’s black Confederate t-shirt. In prior research I’d learned that Edgerton is something of a Dave Chappelle skit come to life. A regular speaker at neo-Confederate rallies, Edgerton once called slavery “an institution of learning" for blacks, and he continues his activism despite an incident in which two Klansmen shot up his cousin’s house.

Barber shrugs off the shooting.

You’re saying the white supremacists don’t like him? They probably don’t like anyone who isn’t white. But H. K. doesn’t care about that. He’s one of the most loving, forgiving people I’ve ever met. He’s given up all of his worldly possessions for his cause. Every day he goes out to a bridge in Asheville and marches with that flag. He’s a true hero.

Throughout the interview young boys and girls have been running in and out of the office, the children of Barber’s two sons, Rhett and Wesley, and his daughter, Sali, all of whom are involved with the company. The grandchildren refer affectionately to Barber as Poppa, and it might be their presence that inspires his final explanation of why he cares so much about the Confederate flag and Southern heritage.

“I feel it way down there, in my heart,” says Barber.

To me it’s like when you’re a kid, and you get punished for something you didn’t do. That’s the worst whipping you could get. And since 1861, in Reconstruction, in the media, we’re getting whipped for something we didn’t do, and that’s slavery. Our people were terrorized by Sherman and the Union Army. I don’t know a lot of history, but in American history, that’s the worst episode of terrorism I can imagine. Now we get called racist and ignorant, and they ban our flag and our history. We keep getting whipped for things that aren’t our fault.

With that, we head out for lunch at a chain called Western Sizzlin’. Barber talks about bass fishing and Wesley’s bodybuilding, and I tell him a little of my own life story. Before we part ways, I let him know he might not like some of what I’m going to write.

“That’s fine,” he says.

Maybe you can contribute to some understanding on both sides. You know, that’s what I’d like to see as well. It’s not black and white always. There’s a lot of shades of gray in there. If you understand shades of gray, it’s easier to get the truth.

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For William Ferris, senior associate director at the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC Chapel Hill, there are no shades of gray when it comes to the meaning of the Confederate flag.

“It’s a symbol of slavery, which is anathema not only to blacks, but most whites,” he tells me, his Southern drawl as charming as Barber’s.

To use that as a symbol of Southern pride, it’s like a German saying they’re using the swastika to talk about German pride. That doesn’t ring very warmly in the ears of Jewish families.

Yet while Ferris ascribes a specific meaning to the Confederate flag, he also acknowledges that the meaning of certain symbols and ideas depends on who deploys them.

“Is Southern pride a racist idea?” he asks.

Well, first you need to ask yourself, “Who’s using the phrase? Are they black or white?” Very few blacks talk about Southern heritage or Southern pride because they assume the word Southern is used to reference white. If Jesse Jackson is using it, it’s inclusive. There’s nothing wrong with pride and heritage. The word Southern is simply a reality. But if those phrases are used in a way that excludes the world of blacks, then that’s inappropriate.

Of course, what’s true of Southern pride can also be true of symbols such as the Confederate flag or the swastika. That’s why Germany’s 2007 proposal to ban any display of the swastika across the European Union met with widespread resistance from Hindu groups, who argued that the swastika was a 5,000-year-old symbol of peace, only recently hijacked by the Nazis. In a move similar to Barber’s defense of the Confederate flag, the Hindu Forum of Britain likened banning the swastika to banning the cross because it had been used by the KKK.

It’s tempting to assert that, unlike the swastika, there are no plausible alternative meanings of the Confederate flag. I have come to realize that’s not the case. On this point it’s worth quoting at length from John Coski’s seminal study, The Confederate Battle Flag:

The modern debate over the flag is inherently flawed and unproductive because opposing sides create false dichotomies — arguing that the war was or was not about slavery and that the flag is or is not a symbol of slavery. Both sides distort the historical record and try to impose simplicity on an ambiguous past […]

Southerners justifiably believed that interference with slavery was a violation of a constitutional and customary understanding upon which the nation was founded. The flags of the Confederacy were, therefore, symbols of resistance to this violation. As a battle flag, the St. Andrew’s cross battle flag accumulated additional layers of meaning related to duty, soldierly valor, ancestry, heritage, and tradition. This accumulation of meanings has taken on a life of its own — a life that we must understand and appreciate in the quest to understand attitudes toward the battle flag. If we are to understand why people today defend the battle flag and why they resent the categorical denunciation of it as only a symbol of slavery and racism, we must be able to understand how a flag so closely associated with the defense of slavery could also be, for many people past and present, a symbol of liberty, courage, and commitment.

Despite what Yankees like myself might think, Dewey Barber can be legitimately proud of Confederate soldiers: their courage, their commitment, their military prowess, the lives they gave for what were often noble reasons. Like many defeated peoples, these soldiers, their families, and their descendants created a mythic vision of history in which the worldly victors suffered, and continue to suffer, a total moral defeat. The so-called Myth of the Lost Cause is racist history, insofar as racist history systematically diminishes or ignores the experiences of an entire race. But people who subscribe to (or even write) racist history are not necessarily racist, just as people who subscribe to classist history are not necessarily classist. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States demonstrated that traditional history had long been told from the perspective of elites, but it did not demonstrate that those who believed traditional history were elitists. Similarly, Southerners who embrace neo-Confederate myths and fly Confederate flags are not, necessarily, racists. The Dixie Outfitters drink cozy recommended a history lesson, but what it should have recommended were lessons in semiotics and psychology.

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After returning from Georgia I pay another visit to my local Dixie Outfitters to meet the owners, Frank and Melody. They are about Dewey Barber’s age, and much of what I hear from them is now familiar. They complain about how a school in our district once banned a student from wearing T-shirts bought at their store. They stress the inclusiveness of Southern heritage. They, too, are upset by accusations of racism.

“You hear people walk by saying, 'Hey, that’s the Klan store, the racist store,'” says Melody. “But it’s not.”

“We got plain prints, Christian prints, American prints,” says Frank, and for the first time I notice that a substantial number of items don’t feature the Confederate flag. “Everyone’s welcome here. Even if they come in looking for trouble, I just tell them what we’re about, tell them the history.”

As with Dewey Barber, I want to explain, with due respect, why some people find Dixie Outfitters threatening and offensive, and I can’t find the right formulation. But then I find myself telling them about my seatmate on the plane ride back from Georgia, a Latino jewelry salesman from Texas named Angel.

Angel told me that once, as a teenager, he had been filling up his car at a gas station when a pickup truck pulled in to the adjacent pump.

“There was a Confederate flag in the back window,” Angel recalled.

I didn’t think it was a big deal or anything. I’d seen them before, and I knew people with those kind of shirts. But then I saw a bumper sticker that said, "I hunt black and tans," and I got the hell out of there.

As it happens, Dixie Outfitters sells a nearly identical bumper sticker, and I point it out to Frank and Melody. Their version reads, “Black and tan, the hunter’s choice,” and next to the words is a picture of a hound dog.

I watch it dawn on them that a Latino teenager could only read the sticker one way, and it doesn’t involve hunting wild game with black and tan colored hounds.

“Oh my lands!” gasps Melody, and puts a hand to her mouth.

Frank shakes his head in disbelief. “He didn’t know what kind of hunting it was. Course he didn’t.”

At one point I would have read the sticker just the way Angel did. I would have assumed that Frank and Melody were faking, that they also understood hunting black and tans as a veiled threat and didn’t want to admit it. Now, however, I’ve come to suspect that, like Dewey Barber’s myopic perception of liberal Yankees, my own assumptions about certain Southerners and their symbols are born of a one-sided ideology that I would do best to question. The drink cozy succeeded. I am no longer offended by the Confederate flag — not, at least, without a good deal of additional context.

¤

Alan Levinovitz is assistant professor of Chinese philosophy and religion at James Madison University

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