That thing about the Acadiana flag isn’t really about the flag

Rick Swanson's second idea for a more inclusive regional flag. Courtesy Rick Swanson

Political science professor Rick Swanson kicked up a hornet’s nest when he rolled out a suggestion for a new, more inclusive regional flag. The problem is he chose a beloved symbol, the Acadian flaga, to beta test his idea. The reaction was predictable: a mix of how-dare you’s, schoolyard invective, and accusations of carpetbagger meddling and academic social engineering. In short, Swanson was told to take his idea and shove it.

A civil rights researcher, Swanson has spent the better part of the last two years probing Acadiana’s racial scars and open wounds in public presentations. I can testify to being raised in the myth that Swanson aims to dispel: That Acadiana doesn’t have a race problem. What Swanson has faced, presentation after presentation, is an understandable cognitive dissonance. How can I be both a good person and a party to a history of segregation, oppression and slavery? No wonder the reactions are visceral.

This week, Swanson and I spoke about his proposal and the knee-jerk response he received. He admits a “misstep” in first suggesting alterations to the Acadian flag designed in the 1960s to promote the heritage and identity of the Cajun people and mark the 200th anniversary of the arrival of this region. “Region” is the operative word here.

Acadiana is relatively unique in that it has an official regional flag, which was adopted by an act of the state Legislature in the 1974, at the onset of the Cajun Renaissance. (It’s worth noting that the geonym “Acadiana,” coined in the 1960s, is not without its own controversy viz. inclusion. Even geographically, Acadiana is an artifice of the 20th century.) Swanson doesn’t want to infringe on any community’s right to assemble and identify. But the game is entirely different when a symbol is formally adopted by a government.

But never mind the flag for a minute. Swanson’s project is much bigger than that. And in our chat, he beat a steady refrain about his message: This region has ignored the contributions of African Americans to our shared and official story. For his part, the flag issue is a sliver of a much larger cultural problem that’s persisted for generations and isn’t confined to 20th century identity politics.

CM: This flag proposal seems to be a natural extension in a way of what you’ve been working on in public for a couple of years now.

RS: Right, well, my particular areas of expertise for education are civil rights and civil liberties including civil rights history. I have always studied the larger civil rights history of the United States as a whole and the South as a whole, and I’d never really focused on the history of our region.

A couple years ago, I had been asked to give a presentation on black civil rights history in our region, so I began to do research and as I began to look through the history books and do other research, I discovered that black history in our region has been systematically marginalized, excluded and even falsified, and so I began to give these presentations trying to correct the very wrong myths of black history or just our region’s history. I found that it wasn’t just the way that history was told in books and, in many cases, some museums — not all but in some — a lot of the symbols like monuments and murals and even the fact that we have no flag for all of our region where the flag was designed to include both people of Acadian descent, African descent, and others such as Lebanese, German, Irish, Italian, Southeast Asian… that there wasn’t a flag that was inclusive, but specifically that no flag was designed to include everyone in our region, including African Americans. But again, that was just a symptom of a much larger problem of the systematic exclusion, very purposefully, at least for about 100 years after the Civil War, purposeful exclusion of African Americans from telling our history.

So, this isn’t necessarily about an injustice that you perceive in a flag?  

No, it’s a symptom of a much larger problem. And again, the injustice is not in the Cajun flag. My first design, I tried to pay honor to the beauty of the Cajun flag, but that led a lot of people to misunderstand or misperceive that I was actually trying to redesign the Cajun flag itself, which was never my intent. So, that’s when I came up with the design with the three vertical stripes, so that it would be distinct from the Cajun flag, but the lack of an all-inclusive regional flag. We don’t have a flag in our region where everyone can point to and say, you know, that represents our region and the design elements, whatever they may be, were designed to include everyone.

Sort of like the United States of America. There’s no particular ethnic symbol in there. It just represents everyone. It represents the idea of freedom and liberty and democracy, but we don’t have a regional flag for south Louisiana that represents the idea of the “cultural gumbo,” the very broad, diverse cultural gumbo we have.

Swanson’s TEDxVermilionStreet presentation from 2017

Is it common for regions to have flags? I don’t know that when I lived in Georgia, for instance, there was a Dekalb County flag.

Oh, there probably was, but that was specifically for that county. It was more like a government symbol, but you’re right, as far as a broader region. When I looked this up, New England has a flag, and somebody designed it, but it’s not flown that much. Appalachia, someone recently designed a flag for the Appalachian region that hasn’t really caught on.

So, we’re unique in the sense that we have a very strong regional identity, but we don’t have a flag that was designed specifically for the purpose of representing all of the heritages that contribute to that unique regional identity.

There’s obviously been some pushback on this idea. But I saw one interaction where a fella on Facebook seemed upset about your flag idea, but once he understood that you weren’t really trying to change the Acadian flag, he was on board.

That has uniformly been my experience. Once somebody understands the nature of the proposal, that it’s creating a new additional flag separate and distinct from any of the pre-existing flags we have right now, they uniformly agree with the goal. And they uniformly say it’s a good thing to be inclusive in our symbols and how can we make our community welcoming and inclusive for everyone. Uniformly, once they understood the proposal, they agree. *Laughs* And I have uniformly urged those people to go public that they agree.

I could hear someone making the argument that the reason Acadiana has a unique regional identity is because the Acadian people or the Creole people are unique in the scope of the American story. You could understand where that flag must have come from originally, the Acadiana flag.

Well, it’s very complicated but again, I don’t want my broader point to get lost.

The Cajun flag was designed specifically to represent the heritage of the Acadian people. The Creole flag was designed specifically to represent the heritage of the Creole people, and the region’s Native American tribes have designed flags to specifically represent their tribes. There’s even a German-Louisianian symbol. What we lack is a common symbol.

The closest thing I think we have would be the Festival International swirl, which has become popular recently, and it’s beautiful, and that really is sort of culturally neutral, so everyone who goes to the festival, whether you’re a musical performance or the different acts or the tourists, can all say — and I looked it up, I couldn’t find what the swirl specifically means but — it can be taken to mean the swirling of cultures, the coming together into this one synergy, something new and special and unique. So, something like that is what I’m referring to.

But again, I think this is still losing the broader point here, that this is just a symbol of a much greater problem, which has been the systematic exclusion and marginalization specifically of African Americans in this region’s history. We still have segregated neighborhoods. We still have segregated schools. African Americans are still not equally participatory. They’re still excluded from a lot of our area.

For example, we still have segregated Mardi Gras. And that’s leftover from segregation, you know? Why do we still have separate white and black Mardi Gras crews? That is a residual lingering effect going back to the 1950s and earlier. And so, yet another example is the way we tell our history. For example, just last night I was reading a fairly popular history book of our region that came out in just the last 20 years, not something from the early 1900s. It’s a couple hundred pages, and there was only two pages that talked about the contributions of enslaved Africans to the culture of our region and everything else was pretty much French, Spanish, German, Italian, Irish and so on.

So, if you were reading this history book, you would think that there was almost no black people here. It made them almost invisible. You would think there was almost no black people, almost no slavery, and that’s the broader point I tried to make in my TEDxVermilionStreet talk a year ago. There are people who have been made invisible, and in the past, it was very purposeful and intentional, but the problem now is that these myths of just a lack of existence or a lack of contributions have sort of carried over into today. So now when people tell our region’s history — it’s very innocently done in most cases — but they don’t realize that they are continuing the exclusion of this historical contribution of African Americans.

We have all these monuments to white Confederate soldiers, but we have no monuments to Union soldiers who came from our region. There’s no Union monuments, even though a lot of our Union soldiers came from these parishes, and they were mostly black and they were mostly formerly enslaved men who then joined the Union army, and there’s no monuments to them. So, the people who were fighting for the liberation of themselves and their fellow African Americans, their fellow enslaved people, we have no monuments to them, yet we have monuments to the people that fought to enslave them, to keep them enslaved. Why is that?

When all of our community looks like our festivals, that’s when we will have achieved something incredible.

I’m not sure I have a good answer for that.  

That’s the point. I’m trying to get people to ask that question. Why is it we have monuments to celebrate people who fought to keep people enslaved, but no monuments to the enslaved people who were fighting for their liberation?

A lot of folks would look at your work as an agitation, the idea being that no one had a problem with this before, why do we have a problem with it now?

That’s because they weren’t aware. You talk to people in the African American community and other people of other ethnicities. You ask them and they say I don’t have a flag that represents me. I’m not a part of that flag. They just figure there’s no hope; there’s no point in asking for a flag that includes them as well. I can imagine some people being demoralized saying there’s no point in even trying because nobody’s going to listen to me if they haven’t listened to me for 100 years.

I like to use this example in my talks: If you go to your home and you look through your family’s photo albums and all your family’s photo albums leave you out of the photo. And then their house, the roof springs a leak, and they ask you for help to fix the roof. How likely are you wanting to help them fix the leaky roof? We have a wonderful community. It can be improved. If you don’t make people feel included they’re not gonna help you on solving those problems and that’s going to hurt everyone. So it’s just foolish to exclude people. It means you’re not tapping all the maximum amount of resources, talent and creativity to help come up with some shared common solutions to make our community better.

As a kid, I remember some folks complaining about the name “Cajundome” on a show on AOC. At the time I thought,  “Why are they so angry about this?” There’s a tension between an official celebration of a specific culture and use of it for branding. As soon as you create a government or social mark that says this is the official story, that’s when things get dicey. And you see that a lot in how we sell the region. The mayor, for instance, gives out “Honorary Cajun” diplomas to contributors not born here.

I understand that. People can act with the best of intentions. As I did in trying to propose a flag that’s more inclusive and it got misunderstood. Here’s a good way to look at it. We say we have this great cultural gumbo, which we do, a very unique cultural gumbo, and we have flags that represent different ingredients of that gumbo, the Acadians, the Creoles, the Native American tribes. But we don’t have a flag that represents the gumbo as whole. and that’s all I’m suggesting. Let’s have a flag that represents the entire gumbo.

We do a good job of that when it’s time to celebrate these things. Like Festival International. We’re not a hateful people, and we can commune well when we designate time to be diverse. Do we struggle with diversity more than other places?

You always have these tensions; the question is how you overcome them. It’s almost like church. People show up for church for one hour a week and then they go on and forget anything about—  well, some people — forget about God, forget about religion. These festivals tend be almost like our churches. We come together, and we act as one, and then we go our separate ways. When all of our community looks like our festivals, that’s when we will have achieved something incredible.