Confederate statues and the day of reckoning … from symbolism to substance

Earlier this month, in Richmond, cce3a16c-4ae1-46ae-b447-003f2caaa949Virginia, the statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was toppled. It had stood on Monument Avenue since 1907. Virginia’s governor had already announced he would remove the 60-foot tall statue of Robert E. Lee, the figurative centerpiece of this avenue dedicated to Confederate leaders. But as evidenced by the messages written on that statue over the last few weeks, the Governor’s announcement was too little, too late for those protesting the brutal murder of George Floyd and championing what is beginning to be fully understood: Black Lives Matter.

Any child of the South, as I am, knows the statues weren’t only to celebrate the leadership of the Confederacy. The statues were to celebrate white supremacy. Most of these icons were erected between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. They were intended to underscore that the South may have lost the war, but in other ways, they had won. The sentiments of the South—the true belief of most white leaders across America at the time — was that white supremacy/leadership would not be threatened by the mere act of ending slavery. That message was delivered powerfully through legislation and actions — Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the prominence of the Ku Klux Klan — along with the construction of these massive statues.

Now, roughly a century after that period in history, citizens are calling for a reckoning. The Jim Crow laws, lynchings and prominence of white supremacy have been largely camouflaged in modern times, as Michelle Alexander revealed in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Policies and practices to maintain the predominance of white rule, white privilege, white supremacy have been prettied up, as my Dad used to say. Look carefully though, and you can see where and how institutions and systems routinely give white people advantages over black people.

Map of the Confederate Statues in America. Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019
Map of Confederate statues in US, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019

But you don’t have to delve deeply for symbols of the Confederacy. Confederate statues are abundant. Confederate flags are flown proudly across the country, even included in the Mississippi state flag. The image is displayed on bumper stickers and incorporated into clothing.  The statues and Confederate memorabilia were/are intended as a reminder of the underpinnings of the Old South and that the South — at least its philosophy on race — could rise again.  But, today, in many quarters, even that iconography is beginning to be relegated to the past.

In 1945, after World War II, the Allies banned all symbols of the Nazi regime. Flags were destroyed. Statues were taken down. Displaying the swastika was declared a crime. Nazis deemed criminals were sought, arrested and tried at Nuremberg. Everything that celebrated Hitler and his thinking disappeared from Germany. There was clarity. The philosophy of white Aryan superiority might continue to live in the psyches of some Germans. But, there would be no public venues created to celebrate what the government saw as the most shameful time in its nation’s history.

When an end to apartheid came to South Africa, there were trials—truth and reconciliation. The oppressed and the oppressor were brought together to acknowledge the pain and try to move the country to heal.

In the (re)United States, not only were there no real punishments* for the South after the war, the sentiments of the South seemed to shape the post-war values of the entire country. The government of America has never addressed the racial core of the Civil War. That’s the crux of the issue:  America has never come to terms with slavery as this country’s original sin nor has it recognized the ongoing subjugation of black people.

Maybe until now.

Today, we, the people, are proclaiming it is time for that day of reckoning. The tearing down of these statues is a beginning, moving the country from the symbolic dismantling of the Confederacy to substance: an examination and re-calibration of all the elements of America: health care, education, housing laws and practices, banking and business, the judicial system, and so much more. All that underpins how America operates and ensures the advantaging of one race over another must change.

The dictionary says that the day of reckoning is “the time when one is called on to account for one’s actions, to pay one’s debts, or to fulfill one’s promises or obligations.” That sounds right to me.

 

*Note: The forty acres promised to formerly enslaved people to start their new lives was to come from 400,000 acres confiscated from Southern landowners by the federal government. That would have constituted a punishment, maybe even the beginning of reparations, but that land was ultimately returned to the original owners.

 

 

The Day … The Moment

This month, on June 19th—Juneteenth—many in the black community will celebrate the end of slavery. In a twisted chain of events, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were the last in the country to learn their freedom had been granted. While emancipation was effective on January 1, 1863, Union soldiers didn’t bring the message to Texas until June 19, 1865, almost two-and-a-half years later. That was the moment.

derek chauvinWill the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin also be remembered as the moment? Will May 25, 2020 stand as the day when America finally understood racism and bias are real, the tipping point, the day leading to racial justice, not just for Floyd, but for all African Americans?

The image of Chauvin, with his hand casually in his pocket as he pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck until he died, could be the picture marking a racial epiphany for America. When I watched the videos of Floyd’s murder, I thought of the grainy images from a century ago of smiling white families, ‘enjoying’ the prospect of a lynching. In case you missed that in history, men, women, and children often came out on a Sunday afternoon to be ‘entertained’ by a human being twisting at the end of a hangman’s rope.

Black bodies swinging in the summer breezeStrange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…” sang Billie Holiday in 1939.

The song’s lyrics originated as a poem – ‘Bitter Fruit’—written by Jewish-American writer, teacher, and songwriter Abel Meeropol. Helynching wrote it in 1937 as a protest against lynching. Although fearing reprisal, Holiday sang the piece with specific rules for that part of her performance. There must be reverence. She would close with it; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on her face, and there would be no encore.

Eighty-one years later, was Chauvin—sensing his own limelight—offering a macabre form of sick entertainment, and conscious of it? Mesmerizing the crowd, showing the power he had over George Floyd as he cavalierly murdered an unarmed, handcuffed man? Black oppression is real. Has white America finally got it?

I think—I hope—so. I see and hear a difference in the language used and actions taken. Sadly, the event isn’t substantively different from so many in the past and the marchers with uplifted signs may seem the same, but the responses by those in power seem different. I see chiefs of police kneeling in solidarity with peaceful protesters. News commentators acknowledge that most protesters are nonviolent, but agitators have been LDN-L-PROTEST-LA-0601brought in to foment hate and destruction. I hear elected officials stating the unrest in their cities and states has been brewing for decades as racism and bias have gone unacknowledged and unaddressed. I see Facebook posts asking how white allies can be engaged. People are looking not just at what happened, but why it happened and they are calling for change.

It is far too early to know where these responses may lead. But I don’t recall this level of what seems to be racial understanding being revealed in the past. Are these just platitudes, idle gestures? Maybe. I hope not. I prefer to think there was a confluence of events, a perfect storm. The pandemic with the resulting unemployment of thousands already underemployed. The murder of Ahmaud Arbery in February. Breonna Taylor, killed in her home in Louisville in March. The racial profiling of Christian Cooper combined with the killing of George Floyd. All have revealed—powerfully and clearly—racial injustice in America. I feel a difference. I pray this is not merely my hope. This has to be real. America cannot continue as it is.

We know our country has been flawed from its beginning. Founded on racism and bias in favor of wealthy white men. That faulty foundation has remained stable for centuries. The cracks and fissures now seem too large to ignore. We may finally be ready to address the original sin and the decades-long repercussions.

I am fully committed to envisioning and creating a racially just, racially equitable America. The time is now, this is the moment.

I am my brother’s keeper, Part 2

Story Interrupted by Tragedy

I was about to push “send” on part 2 of a blog planned to honor my Native American grandmother, on today, her birthday. While a tribute to her, the message was twofold: Native peoples have been marginalized almost to the point of annihilation and we must all speak up when we see injustice. That message is important and will still be posted. But, how could I post that message without first acknowledging the most recent horrors against black people.

George Floyd and Christian Cooper.

There has been a flood of outrage at the murder of George Floyd and the malicious behavior directed against Christian Cooper. Through immediate actions and words, many are living out the expression, “my brother’s keeper.” That is good.  But once again, racism — power and privilege — was at the core.  Regardless of the fact that George Floyd was on the ground, handcuffed, saying he couldn’t breathe, and that the officer knew the incident was being recorded, that yet-to-be-named Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for at least five minutes until he was dead. Regardless of the fact that Christian Cooper was only asking Amy Cooper (no relation) to leash her dog so he could bird watch, with forethought and calculation, she called the police, positioning herself as the proverbial (white) damsel-in-distress threatened by a black man. Both the white police officer and the white dog walker instinctively understood and acted on their power, their societal position, their white privilege.

We are our brothers’ keepers. We must take responsibility and transform our world into candle and curtainwhat it should be. The officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck and those who stood by and watched have been fired. Will they now be charged with murder? The dog walker has been fired from her job. Now what?  Justice for George Floyd and Christian Cooper will be just that, justice for Floyd and Cooper, vitally important, but still only justice in two isolated, specific incidents.

Racial justice will occur when we look at, and change, the systems that create the police officers who seem not to fear killing an unarmed man or the bias that shone proudly as Amy Cooper told Christian Cooper what she would say on her call to the police. Racism and bias are fundamental in America. They are the foundation that gives structure to America — our (in)justice system, education system, health care system, the list goes on.  And the bias is so embedded in all that we see and do – our culture – that we have to work at catching ourselves and others as those often far-too-subtle words and actions are revealed.

Systemic/structural racism and implicit bias are real. George Floyd’s murderer and Amy Cooper are just the most recent ones to pull back the curtain.

 

 

 

 

I am my brother’s keeper. What about you? Part 1

“With enough butter, anything is good,” said noted chef Julia Child. I agree, in moderation that is. Throughout my lifetime, Land O’Lakes has been my family’s preferred brand of butter. If that hadn’t been the case, I might have missed the recent tweet from land o lakes butterEdgar Villanueva, lauding the company for removing what he called a “racist Native American image.” That bright yellow packaging caught my eye in my Twitter feed.

Edgar Villanueva is a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina. I point that out because unless you are a member of the affronted group, it is sometimes difficult to see racial offenses. The young Native woman who, until February, was centered on the Land O’Lakes package, offended him. Even within the oppressed group, the stereotype is sometimes missed. Think how many times you have read about Natives saying that the Indian-related names of sports teams are not slurs. I suspect, that like many, they have internalized their own oppression, a condition in which marginalized groups accept what the dominant society believes about them, like Stockholm Syndrome. They live and breathe the same media messages as everyone else.  Sometimes they don’t even see the racism, at least not immediately. It often takes someone to point out the stereotypes and their impact — an Edgar Villanueva, for example.

A few years ago, at the height of the conversation about the name of the football team in my city, Washington, DC, I attended a seminar at the National Museum of the American Indian. “From Tarzan to Tonto” explored stereotypes as distinct and ubiquitous as the savage Indian warrior to the beautiful—and submissive—Indian maiden (the logo of Land O’Lakes). The images are everywhere, most of us just don’t see them. And when wetarzan-flyer-final1-840x531 do, we think many are benign. But as I know, and you do too probably, any image that reinforces negative characteristics, particularly without a counterweight of accurate depictions, is not benevolent.

If you are of a certain age, you probably grew up watching Western movies or Western-themed television shows. The Indian was either attacking the white settlers or was the humble, and often monosyllabic, sidekick to the white star. All these images planted in you… specific thoughts and ‘truths’ about Native peoples.

Never did you routinely see images portraying the viciousness of white settlers as they took over the land of the Natives. Or the inhumanity of the U.S. government forcing Indian children into residential schools with the explicit purpose: ‘kill the Indian in him and save the man.’

Today, without the periodic attention given to the names of sports teams, I suspect most rarely think about Native populations. American Indians are perceived as historical, a people of the past. And, largely, they almost are — they were separated, their land taken, their cultural dances and religious ceremonies prohibited by law. Their sense of self almost obliterated by a country intent on their annihilation or certainly their full assimilation. Without the somewhat recent convening of multiple tribes to protest the Keystone pipeline, many people may not have thought about Native populations in any sense of the present. I am thinking about Native peoples … now. It’s recent though, a new reality for me.

Sticks and stones—the weight of them over generations—not only hurt our bones, they hurt our souls. And a picture, negative to race or creed —whether intentionally or inadvertently — does have power greater than a thousand words. Be the change you want to see in the world.

NOTE: Part 2 of this post focused on American Natives will be live on May 27, 2020, my maternal grandmother’s birthday.