This comes around to a thought about the Confederate flag; stick with me while I get there. Or skip this altogether!
I had an eye-opening time in Ironwood, Michigan, this past week at my family reunion. Ironwood is the ancestral home of my mother's family, where my great-grandparents settled after emigrating from Cornwall. Like a lot of the Cornish, Thomas James Voyce landed in Ironwood to mine the rich iron deposits of the Gogebic Range, which extends across northern Wisconsin and Michigan. The Cornish were experienced hard-rock miners, and we're also joined by Finns, Italians, Swedes and Poles.
My great grandfather, proving no dummy, figured out how to get out of the mine by first going off to the Spanish-American War and then coming back to farm. Many people died in those mines. There were cave-ins, collapsed or blocked shafts, and heroic rescues. Just looking at old photographs of the miners at work, or miners resting at one of the many saloons in Ironwood, made it clear to me that this was work no person could help but hate. Even at rest they looked miserable and tired and in pain.
My great grandfather went by James, like my grandfather, who it's said I closely resemble. James-the-great-grandfather stayed out of the mines after the war, had various jobs, farmed, ran the A&P distributorship out of the family house on Lake Street, and served on the city council. During the Depression he served as Poor Commissioner, rounding up and storing food for redistribution. He was apparently well-acquainted with the local Ojibwa people during that time, and received a carved and painted bow and leather quiver from some Ojibwa elders, a bow I've inherited and used. This is my heritage, whatever that means. Thousands of people with roots in that area have similar heritages.
On our last night, we headed over to the town cemetery to see the Voyce graves. On the way we passed a house flying two Confederate battle flags, one emblazoned with the words "Heritage Not Hate."
I spent a long time after that thinking about what "heritage" means. Surely the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia has no part of the specific heritage of Ironwood, Michigan. It's not the flag of the Cornish, or the Finns, or the Poles. Michigan was an unwaveringly pro-Union state, and its political leaders were outspoken opponents of the Confederacy. Men from Ironwood served in some of the most famous Union regiments.
The Iron mines quit being profitable after World War II and were largely shut down by the early 1960s. The population of Ironwood now is 1/10th what it was at the height of the Iron Rush. It's been suffering a depression for decades. Members of my family who grew up there, people of my generation, say they can hardly bear to return. Too sad. The area depends on tourism, primarily skiing, between January and March.
What heritage were those people referring to with their flag waving from the porch of their house? Not the heritage of immigration and mining, not the heritage of boom and bust, not the heritage of the Ojibwa or Cornish or Finns.
What heritage then? Is poor, white and hopeless a "heritage"? Does poor/white/hopeless explain the infiltration of the enemy's flag into Ironwood, one of the least Southern and whitest places I've ever been?
I choose to hope that my great grandfather, the poor commissioner, would not have approved. But then, most of his family left.