OK–I’ll give you three guesses: where was the picture above taken?
If you guessed Santa Barbara D’Oeste, Brazil, you hit it on the nose. One of the more odd Civil-War-related articles I’ve seen in a while was carried by USA Today over the weekend. (You can read it here.) The article, titled “Why These Brazilians Love the Confederate Flag,” was timed to coincide with an annual festival in this south Brazilian city sponsored by the Fraternidade Descendencia Americana.
The F.D.A. is an organization of descendants of southern Confederates who emigrated to Brazil at the close of the Civil War. The “Confederados,” as they are known locally, gather each spring to celebrate their Confederate heritage. They dress up like rebel soldiers and southern belles, consume large quantities of fried chicken and watermelon, and proudly exhibit Confederate flags–lots of them.
The thrust of the article–written, for reasons that I can’t explain, by a British-born sports writer–is to stress that the Confederate battle flag means something very different in Brazil than it does in the United States. Here the flag has long been divisive, hailed by defenders as a reminder of a proud heritage, descried by critics as a symbol of hate.
This is not the case in Santa Barbara D’Oueste, apparently. Everyone interviewed–from the president of the Fraternidade Descendencia Americana to a local historian to nine-year-old Bruno Lucke–agree that the flag carries no racist connotations whatever. “To me,” little Bruno says, “the flag is a symbol of love.”
I wouldn’t read this piece expecting to learn much about either the recent or the distant past of the United States. The author alludes to Dylann Roof as a 21-year-old who “allegedly” gunned down black worshipers in Charleston last year after posing with the rebel flag. (Why “allegedly”? Does anyone doubt this?) He cites unnamed “historians” to contend that Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (founder of the Ku Klux Klan) “in later life . . . fought racism.” (This is a silly claim that professional historians don’t take seriously.) Above all, he accepts uncritically the Confederados’ claim that the presence of slavery had nothing to do with their ancestors’ choice of Brazil as their new home. In 1866 Brazil was the last remaining nation in the western hemisphere where slavery was legal, and historians agree that the desire to distance themselves from free blacks was “almost universal” among Confederate emigres.
On the plus side, the story does remind us that contemporary context is hugely important in determining how historical symbols are remembered. The Brazilian Confederados’ memory of their noble Confederate heritage is as flawed and fantastic as anything you could find in the U. S. South today (e.g., among groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the League of the South). The difference is that, four thousand miles farther south, no one in Santa Barbara D’Oueste seems to care.