Another South Carolina Flag Flap

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Let me give you a brief rundown on South Carolina’s latest flag flap. Yes, we’ve got a new one even though we’re still squabbling over the old one; the Confederate flag on State Capitol grounds. I’m sure most of you know the NAACP is conducting an ongoing tourism boycott of the State until the flag is removed. But, to the NAACP’s annoyance, the number of tourists visiting the State has increased over prior years. However, according to reports filed with the State, donations received by the NAACP’s South Carolina branch have tripled since it began its boycott, probably because of national media coverage. So we shouldn’t expect the boycott to end until the contributions dry up.

Our new flag flap, I should say "flags flap," concerns complaints from the Gullahs, who were among the first African slaves to be brought to the South Carolina Lowcountry. Located primarily in the Charleston and Beaufort area, the Gullahs rigidly protect their heritage that includes a unique dialect and African folkways virtually unchanged over the years. Their preservation efforts are assisted by generous government grants.

George Gershwin studied the Gullahs during a summer spent in Charleston in the mid 1930s and his blend of African tunes, jazz, Jewish chant and Jewish melodies produced the popular folk opera, "Porgy and Bess." Gershwin’s folk opera gave the Gullahs national recognition and an annual Gullah Festival is held in Beaufort’s Waterfront Park that attracts visitors from all around the nation. Strolling through the decorated booths you will encounter all things African, including traditional garb, foods, paintings, statuettes, music, musical instruments and books. And, of course, African flags.

Recently the Beaufort Chamber of Commerce decided to create yet another heritage festival. This new celebration would honor those who have inhabited and influenced Beaufort in its nearly 500-year existence. According to the Chamber: "the area has been enriched by the influences of these countries through history, culture, cuisine, and the arts." The four countries are Spain, England, France and Scotland and the festival is called, "Flags Over Beaufort." Colorful brochures and posters depict the flags of these four nations.

Representatives from these nations are visiting the city at different times to share their culture. Scottish bagpipe players will entertain; the Royal Shakespeare Company will perform one of the Bard’s plays and Beaufort will celebrate the 1825 visit of the Marquis de Lafayette. In addition to each nation’s cuisine, the festival will also offer French wine tastings, a variety of English ales and samples of single-malt Scotch whiskies.

The Flags Over Beaufort festival began with the hoisting of the flags of these four countries. These colorful banners now fly beside the American flag and the South Carolina flag in the Waterfront Park. Needless to say, the Confederate flag may no longer be publicly displayed in the City, although Beaufort was once an integral part of the Old Confederacy.

The raising of the flags has raised the eyebrows of the Gullahs. When they learned that the purpose of the Flags Over Beaufort Festival was to celebrate cultures that had influenced the City, they looked in vain for African flags. An area magazine, Lowcountry Weekly, reports that the Gullahs complained that "there are no immediate surviving Spanish or French influences left in the Lowcountry, no ethnic minority, and no real legacy to those days of Conquistadors and New World Imperialism."

But the Gullahs primary criticism was (yes, I know you’ve already guessed) that the Festival was "an attempt to celebrate the institutions, nations, and European men whose flagships came carrying hundreds of thousands of Africans in bondage; whose presence spelled the end of the many American indigenous peoples; and whose role in the New World had nothing to do with the enlightened experiment of the Founding Fathers or the bold quests for freedom that followed with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr."

So far I haven’t heard a reaction from the Chamber of Commerce or the City fathers. The only response I’ve read is from a man who was heavily involved with arts and entertainment in Beaufort. Incredibly, his comments are almost apologetic; a cowering acquiescence to the accusations: "Why not rethink the Flags Over Beaufort mistake? Why not build an annual celebration based on Beaufort’s more recent and enduring history? When done right, civic celebrations provoke thought and dialogue and help us grow as people and build a unique sense of place."

Let me translate: The problem with the Flags Over Beaufort Festival is that it only provides an opportunity for people to celebrate together and have a good time but it does not encourage them to confront the Lowcountry’s legacy of slavery or its pockets of racism.

This current "flags flap" is not a major controversy but it will be interesting to see how it unfolds. The question is whether small groups, like the Gullahs, are able to redefine the meanings of City festivals to suit their preconceptions and political agendas. The Flags Over Beaufort festival is not about slavery or oppression. There is much more to England and France than the slave trade and it is time to stop viewing everything through the prism of slavery. We will see if the City fathers defend the flag festival or cave-in to the Gullahs baseless objections.

Gail Jarvis [send him mail] is a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, an unreconstructed Southerner, and an opponent of big government.

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