I am a Southerner. Specifically, I am a Black Southerner. I know mine is not the image which America’s cultural imagination conjures when it imagines the South. Insofar as a West African like me is considered in the Southern context, it is as a happy darky, doggishly shuffling along behind a grey clad colonel and his Southern belle. I am the grinning bearer of lemonade, the singer of empty songs, the live-action lawn jockey always ready with a clever, yet servile, unthreatening word. The affairs of the broader world do not concern me, I “aim to please and am pleased to aim.” In the idea of Southern-ness which prevails, I am Southern only in the sense that an Arabian horse is Arabian or Germany’s Black Forest is German, I add to the region’s peculiar charm, but I am no part of the human world. If this sounds like harsh exaggeration, consider how frequently the Confederate flag is defended as a symbol of “Southern heritage” and consider how often this is found credible by White non-Southerners. Could such a conception of Southern heritage prevail if I were kept in mind? I was born in Columbia, South Carolina on the banks of the brown Congaree, and I spent my carefree early years along the long, black Edisto. Orangeburg, South Carolina has been the seat of my mother’s family from time immemorial. From summers spent visiting my father’s people, I cherish the memory of long evenings playing out behind a little, old church in the pitch black Georgia night, with great, lanky pines as silent spectators. I am as Southern as they come, more Southern than most perhaps, the Confederate flag does not represent me, it was never meant to and it never can.
When my family and I travel from Nashville back to Orangeburg, we travel through Atlanta and Augusta, though this is hardly the direct way and adds to the length of our trip. We do so because, the one time we traveled the more direct way, we found ourselves outside the belt of majority Black counties which bisects the Southland, and here, it seemed in many places that every house flew a Confederate flag. We had exited the comfortable bosom of the warm, hospitable South and entered flamboyantly hostile territory. Each flag flying thoughtlessly in the breeze threatened harm and signaled violent un-welcome. You cannot accuse me of not understanding this symbol of the Confederacy, I learned from my parents and grandparents what that flag meant, they learned from their parents going back to over a century before the stars and bars ever saw daylight. This learning came as a matter of survival. For 300 years, our very lives have depended on being able to understand what White Southerners mean for us to understand. For my grandparents and 15 generations before them, failing to effectively stay on the favorable or at least neutral side of White intentions meant state sanctioned torture and death. They passed this knowledge down to my parents and I, not always in words, yet constantly in that strange process by which children in their existential preoccupations tend to echo their parents. But my idea of the flag is not simply a result of unspoken understandings. Simple reason tells you that people fly flags to signal support for what those flags represent. What can be meant by the flag of a republic which lived and died to save African slavery, except that African slavery was worthy to begin and worthy to be continued?
What can the confederate flag say to a descendant of African slaves except: “Your freedom makes you my enemy.” I said that the sense of unsafety which comes from the flag is not primarily rooted in unspoken understandings; this is true, what the great unspoken gives us is not an intellectual argument for why the flag signals the enemy camp, but that the enemy camp is to be feared. That one must not antagonize the White folks, though the last documented lynching happened 60 years ago or more. For they have not forgotten their old ways and we may find ourselves again in a hell beyond our imagining if we insist too much upon our humanity. This is what the Confederate flag represents. What I have said of the Confederate flag can be said 10 times over of the hundreds of stone monuments to the Confederacy across the South. First, let me dispense with a foolish notion which opposes the simple truth: The Confederate States of America was brought into being to defend the enslavement of Africans. You will find this sentiment expressed in every, single, ordinance of secession. In exemplar, Mississippi’s read:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”
Alexander Stephens, vice president and lauded intellectual apologist for the Confederacy in his most famous oration, known as the Cornerstone speech spoke with honest clarity: “Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Such clarity is rarely encountered and we must not lightly toss it away. Let it therefore be established, that the Confederate States of America were established to provide a haven for perpetual bondage. The Confederacy was defeated, we hope definitively though many White Southerners promise otherwise proclaiming: “The South shall rise again!” But for now, there is no Confederacy. So why do these statues matter? They matter, for a reason rooted in the sin of omission which must be committed in order to consider the Confederate flag a symbol of “Southern heritage,” worthy of ostentatious display. In truth, both the statues and the flags do represent a Southern heritage, White as well as Black. They represent in common a heritage of unspeakable suffering caused by unconscionable brutality, a heritage which proclaims the writer of this essay a sub-human ape unfit to walk the earth except as chattel.
This history is with us today, it does not need statues to preserve it, it is re-written every single hour of every single day in thousands of jail cells and court houses. Millions of children live in unremitting poverty in loud homage to this history. Southern legislators conspire against my right to vote with this history imprinted upon their hearts. Dylann Roof defiled a house of God when he fired this history into the Reverend Clementa Pickney and his flock, in the form of hollow point bullets. Insofar as the statues might preserve this history, they do so not as records of what might be forgotten, but as silent ideological sentinels, manning the Confederacy’s last fortress. In order for slavery to persist 250 years, my humanity had to be denied, I had to be thought of as more animal than man. For Jim Crow to flourish for 100 years, I had to be thought of as irredeemably filthy and as a vicious beast which could be checked only by legal subjugation backed up with unspeakable violence. In order for the South to be what it is now, for today to echo the past, the past must keep something of the appearance it had to those who perpetrated and profited from its brutal exactions. Last year, I wrote an essay in response to a White woman’s complaint about the increasingly central role slavery has begun to assume in tours of antebellum plantations. I argued that African slavery’s was the central narrative of these places and so African slavery must be central in the retelling. She disagreed, because she was incapable of imagining Africans at the center of anything. These plantations were built by Africans, the wealth they produced was labored into existence by Africans. The great majority of the humans that inhabited these plantations, were Africans. Yet, for her, to talk about these Africans is an unwelcome intrusion. Beliefs enable other beliefs. And the only way one can consider the foundational population of a place intrusive is if you think that population doesn’t count. That’s what this statue debate is about, finally deciding that Black people count, at the risk of sounding trite, it is about whether or not Black lives will finally matter in America, even, at long last, in the South. Ah, but some say: “These statues are history, and we are preserving history.”
The past is simply what has already happened, it is there whether we engage it or not and therefore doesn’t need preservation. History is our engagement with the past, it is the story we tell, what we choose to honor and what we choose to revile. To preserve these statues is to continue to engage this part of the American past by lionizing those who took a stand for bondage and inhumanity. Statues are symbols of honor, not significance. Simply being a major personage in history does not tend to earn one a statue, if it did, the world would be choked with monuments. Surely, King George III was a significant figure in American history, where are his statues? What about the thousands of British soldiers that died in the counterrevolution? Only the hopelessly ignorant think that statues are history, statues are political statements, enduring symbols of what we value. To draw on Supreme Court justice William Brennan’s insight about the constitution: The significance of these statues lies not in any meaning they may have had in a world which is dead and gone. We discover their meaning anew with every generation and in maintaining them we become a part of the statement they make. Which is not to say that they have ceased honoring what they were originally intended to honor simply because we claim we do not want to honor those things. Just as the meaning of constitutional provisions evolves within the context of the words which make them up, the stories we tell evolve in the context of our physical memorials.. If the 1st amendment is to mean anything, it cannot mean that it is illegal to drink grape soda on Tuesday. The constitution is a framework for social evolution, just as monuments provide a framework for our evolving conception of the past. We define ourselves in relation to the constitution; just as we do in relation to the built environment. What the constitution and our statues say and do not say keeps us tethered to certain principles and it is only by slow straining against them in an effort to stretch them that we can make changes under them. In the case of the constitution, we find that certain great principles, like the freedom of speech, help rather than hinder the eternal pursuit of justice. Other provisions, like the 3/5s clause, we have chosen to render obsolete by amendment. In the case of Confederate statues, the meaning which they have is clear to all who see them standing pristine and unmolested in our most cherished civic spaces. To see Robert E. Lee sitting self-assured upon his horse, gazing fixedly into the distance is to see him as the people that erected the monument to him saw him, a formidable bulwark against the startling innovation which proclaimed humanity and equality for Negroes.
These statues remain what they were intended to be, the bronze and granite representatives of a world not quite dead and gone. What they proclaimed when they were built is what Lee proclaimed with his sword, that Africans are to be forever considered no part of the human world. What they proclaim to me as I gaze upon them is that I do not matter, that I exist in the body politic by mere sufferance not by right.
What these statues say to me is what they were meant to say, that 250 years of slavery was not long enough, that my freedom is an abomination, that I am fit to be crushed beneath Jefferson Davis’s heel as my ancestors were. Why else would one choose to honor a man whose greatest achievement by far was leading the armies of enslavement? Symbols mean things, however much we want to deny this whensoever it suits us. Symbols mean things, that’s why we create them, that’s also why we destroy them. The Confederacy’s statues were created to carry its message forward to countless generations yet unborn. Wherever they exist in a place of honor, we are supporting this sick goal. I would never want to erase the history of slavery, I’ve devoted my life to understanding it and perfecting the narrative which is crafted about it, in order to give to unborn generations something better than what I received. Why don’t Southern municipalities choose to tell this story with monuments commemorating the quarter millennium struggle to survive and abolish slavery? Wouldn’t monuments to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and even Nat Turner more effectively spark the conversation which defenders of Confederate statues claim to want to spark? Is this not why there is a Holocaust memorial in Washington D.C. but no memorial to Hitler or Goebbels? The reasoning which opposes the demolishers in this debate defies reason. That statues of slaves and abolitionists might replace statues to Lee and Davis has never occurred to the defenders of Confederate statues for the same reason that someone like me does not spring to mind when one imagines the archetypal Southerner. In America, in the South, I simply don’t count. Even removing every one of these statues will not at one stroke erase the legacy they were meant to preserve, but removal is a welcome symbol that we are ready to start this long and arduous process.