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.

 

 

Why I Wrote Daughters of the Dream: An Anniversary Story

Sometimes parts of your world connect in ways that are only clear in hindsight.

It happened seven years ago. It was February 2012 when I started to write Daughters of the Dream. Initially, it had been my friend Renee’s idea to write a book about our lifelong friendship — eight girls as we grew to become women —  but she didn’t have the time; so it became my project. New author, same focus. Then, on February 26, 2012, a tragedy happened. Trayvon Martin was killed.  His death changed the story.

My son, AJ, was roughly the same age as Trayvon (born 366 days apart). I kept seeing AJ in that situation and knew only fate had led Trayvon, not my son, to that horrible destiny. About a month after his murder, I wrote a post for The Daily WRAG, the blog produced by my organization, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. In the post titled “Trayvon Martin, Silent. We Must Speak” I openly shared my feelings about Trayvon’s murder and discussed talking with my son about how he should negotiate everyday life events, like driving- and shopping-while-black, to lessen the likelihood of a similar situation and threat to his safety.

Following the post, many white colleagues expressed surprise I still had to talk with my son about discrete behaviors because of his race. That is when I knew it. They perceived me to be like them. They thought my life experience was like theirs. In some ways, we may have presented to be similar—education, family background, community standing—but our worlds were very different.

tlc. bookOnly in hindsight did I recognize these factors as  all contributing to how I approached the book: Trayvon’s death, my WRAG blog post on his death, and then my clarity on the lack of understanding of what my world is like from some of my white colleagues. And lastly, it was February, Black History Month. Subconsciously, I was processing all of this as I began to write Daughters of the Dream., a book initially only about a lifelong friendship.

The first conscious shift from a focus solely on friendship was my decision to frame our story within the context of black history. My structured education on black historical facts stopped when I left segregated Albert V. Norrell Elementary School, but at least I had had that foundation along with a black family and a black community that ingrained in me an understanding of the accomplishments and challenges facing black people.  As I wrote, I wondered how, or if, white people learned black history,  that is black history at any depth.  I knew that they got the high level information: slavery occurred, it was terrible, maybe something about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, then the exceptionalism of Frederick Douglass, skip to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, maybe Malcolm X, and then the election of Barack Obama. Perhaps they received a quick introduction to a few other black leaders during Black History Month, but there was no immersion in facts about the black experience in white people’s day-to-day education.

The recent incident in Virginia, my home state, of a picture unearthed of someone in blackface and someone else dressed as a hate-filled Klansman revealed a lack of understanding of the viciousness of such imagery, or maybe it revealed a more base lack of caring.  Perhaps if those in the picture had an underpinning of knowledge about black contributions to America and clarity about the oppression and degradation of blacks by whites, their actions, and those of others, would have been different – perhaps. For far too many white Americans, their knowledge about African-Americans is  very limited, coming primarily from personal experiences or the media. Far too many in white America still do not understand black Americans.

I wanted to use my book to introduce white readers to ordinary black people, living everyday lives. I wanted them to see that there were families free of the pathology they so often heard about from the national media and, at one time, even from leading sociologists and psychologists.  I wanted them to see parents who were not living in deprivation, but who worked through their daily lives in the positions available to them while preparing their children to rise to the next rung of societal opportunity. And, I wanted them to see those children as adults, similar to them, but with issues of race and racism swirling about them everyday, realities of which many white readers may be unaware.

And, I wanted black readers, particularly younger ones, to recognize another aspect of black history from what they typically learn. I tried to reinforce that the struggles of Selma and Birmingham were real, violent, and important, but so too was the gentler resistance of the Richmond34 protesting the segregationist practices of the two major Richmond department stores or the get-out-the-vote efforts of the Crusade for Voters working to elect leaders who would understand and represent the issues of all Richmonders.  The fight for racial equity has taken different paths, but all black people have been a part of the fight.

As I wrote  our story, I recognized that over the years, whenever my girlfriends and I gathered, we would go to a black-themed art exhibit or see a black-themed movie. We would follow that with lunch at a black-owned or Southern-themed restaurant. And, always our talk was, and is, of some current event that affects black people. Why? We are always thirsty for black culture, knowledge, and for balance. We swim in a white world,  moving upstream against  erroneous white narratives of criminality, dysfunction, incompetence, and immorality. Our group offers a needed space to process the events of our world, to re-fuel our souls, and to develop the inner strength to go on.

So, yes Daughters of the Dream captures our friendship, but it also captures our history, our normalcy, and our desire to shape America to be the country that recognizes all who built it and all who contribute to its place in the world.  We may not all have been visible, named leaders, but each of us played, and continues to play, a part in the ongoing push for racial justice.