By Victor D. Infante
When I was a kid, I used to draw my own superheroes. Most of them were riffs on existing comic book or movie characters, of course, with the backstory and the iconography mixed and matched with whatever was in my head just that minute. For instance, I mashed up Knight Rider with Kitty Pryde from The Uncanny X-Men to create a super cool car that could phase through solid objects. I also turned one of the menacing robots from Disney’s Black Hole movie into a superhero simply because I thought the action figure looked cooler standing with the good guys. It’s all a bunch of dada in hindsight, but some of the ideas have kept, and I may even make an attempt at writing them for real some day.
One of the ones I won’t try to bring back, however, was Captain Confederacy, a Superman ripoff with a Confederate flag on his chest and a cape. I was something like 8 years old, and had no idea what that symbol meant, I just knew it represented the South, and that it was on the top of the General Lee on The Dukes of Hazzard. I liked the Dukes – in all honesty, I still have a soft spot for them – and the South obviously deserved its own superhero – why did they have to all be in New York City? – so it seemed like a natural. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t already been created!
A few decades on from a ’70s childhood, and I feel a little seasick when I think of that character, even if he did fly and shoot laser beams from his hands. In the hands of a child, it was devoid of symbolism. It meant nothing, except a fondness for them Dukes. But does a lack of awareness of a symbol’s meaning and history rob it of power? Perhaps on a micro scale, but that’s not the scale we live on. We can’t be a society of children, oblivious to what’s come before us and blind to the resonance of symbols.
These days, it’s easy for me to see what the Confederate Flag represents and what it’s always represented: Slavery and treason. We got to the current conversation about the symbol because nine people died in a racially motivated massacre in an African-American church, and when the governor spoke to address the tragedy, all of the flags on the statehouse were lowered to half-staff except one. Whatever nonsense excuses that have been bandied about since, the power of that moment of symbolism was clear to anyone who didn’t wish to remain willfully blind.
This is the lesson of art: Symbols have meanings, whether you know them or not. They react with the culture. That reaction is what we’re seeing now, and as much as I would love to be able to mix and match the pieces of the culture I want to keep – remove the flags from government property, for instance, but be blissfully oblivious when it’s on the heroes’ car on The Dukes of Hazzard, I’m afraid I’m no longer a child, and can’t turn the knowledge of what the symbol means off.