Confederacy Torn: A War of Ancestral Symbols

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2013 by Kontra
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I grew up in the first state ever to secede from the Union. It was on the shore of South Carolina that my parents purchased me the only Confederate flag image I have ever owned: a raft on which I rode the waves of Myrtle and Lion’s beaches. Though I only personally handled this symbol during the humid southern summers, it surrounded me at all times. In fact, the Dixie flag flew over the South Carolina statehouse until the dawning of the 21st century, and while it can no longer be seen flapping in the breeze above the capital, it still sits on the lawn of the building.

I now live in Richmond, Virginia, a city positively saturated in Civil War history and legend.  (Let there be no doubt: I am a Southerner.)  It is here, in the capital of the Confederacy, that the ideological warfare surrounding the flag has found its latest incarnation.  As fall rolled across the Eastern Seaboard, two symbols were simultaneously hoisted over the city.

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The first, a Southern Cross raised alongside Interstate 95, which now connects Richmond to the former Union capital of Washington, D.C. It was displayed by the Virginia Flaggers, a group that considers flying the flag “a way to protect and defend all Confederate heritage,”  openly rejecting the notion that it is, for them, a symbol of racism or slavery. “Heritage not hate,” as the saying goes.

The second: the Stars and Stripes. This (much larger) American flag was hung from a construction crane downtown in protest of the Confederate display. United RVA, the organization who paid for the display, gave interviews to local news channels to explain:

“We have a flag that unifies all of us here in Richmond, Virginia, and it’s the American flag. The Confederate flag is a symbol that at best divides our community, and at worst is a symbol of hatred, slavery, racism and oppression.”

 The lines are drawn, as they have been for some time. On one side, the claim that the Confederate flag cannot possibly be extricated from slavery and racism.  On the other, the claim that the two do not necessarily have any connection at all.  But if I am permitted a moment’s digression, I wish to propose that both sides of this debate have fallen victim to dangerous illusions: the supposed universality, simplicity and permanence of symbolic meanings.

Symbols Are Not Universal

Hearing these debates as an anti-racist Southerner tears a rift between my experience and my intellect. On the one hand, I spent the first half of my life around people who casually displayed the flag the way my sister and I did as children, running along the beach and bobbing in the ocean. My parents certainly held no openly racist ideas that I could determine at that age (or today), nor did most of the people who had Rebel flag stickers in the back of their vehicle windows, for example. It was a regional identifier of pride, a fuck-yeah/fuck-you redneck attitude—and to a lesser degree, advocacy of decentralized government—more than any identification with whiteness or derision of blackness. During those years, I wouldn’t have thought twice about seeing a person of color displaying one. (It’s possible that I did.)  I know that it’s possible to separate the symbol from race, because I did.

As I traveled and expanded my social circles during my early adult years, I had to accustom myself to the negative assumptions that people living outside (and those from outside) my region made about those who identified with the flag. I had to force myself to consider that it was once indeed the symbol of a group of people who, generally, believed in the institution of slavery and the inferiority of other races. And as time went on, I had to accept that some people who do hold racist beliefs gravitate towards symbols from a time when those beliefs were more common.

I had to consciously accept, in a way that the Virginia Flaggers refuse to, how the Confederate flag became a symbol for resistance to desegregation in the South only a few decades ago, and what that means for people of color who are old enough to still remember that, whose families are part of this community.  What abstract sense of honor or ancestral connection is worth triggering emotional responses to such experiences? Won’t the American flag suffice?

But it’s more complicated than that.


Symbols Are Not Simple

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The first battle of the Civil War—and the birth of the American flag’s modern importance—occurred at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, where I grew up. A Southern officer named Major Robert Anderson became a traitor to the Confederacy soon after South Carolina seceded when he occupied Fort Sumter with his garrison of troops, running (what we now call) the American flag up the pole and determining to hold the fort for the Union army. The Civil War had begun and the solidification of the Star-Spangled Banner as a nationalist symbol had been cemented.

“Before that day, the flag had served mostly as a military ensign or a convenient marking of American territory, flown from forts, embassies, and ships, and displayed on special occasions like American Independence day. But in the weeks after Major Anderson’s surprising stand, it became something different. Suddenly the Stars and Stripes flew—as it does today, and especially as it did after the September 11th attacks in 2001—from houses, from storefronts, from churches; above the village greens and college quads.” -Goodheart, 1861: The Civil War Awakening

But before the Yanks start cheering, take note: Major Robert Anderson was not only an openly pro-slavery racist, but a slave-owner.

To repeat: We have a racist slaveholder fighting against the Confederacy under the American flag in the opening battle of the war. Can it really be said, then, that racism or slavery is inherently linked to one particular flag? If so, which one? Does it matter that our nationalist flag has since been used as a banner for conquests, coups, preemptive invasions, resource extraction and straightforward destruction of non-whites?

Is it possible that in an attempt to show the Virginia Flaggers that it’s time to move on, to step beyond a war that is generations past, United RVA has brought us back to the very beginning in the most explicit way they possibly could: us versus them, battle of the same old flags?

The Confederate history groups in Richmond claim that they are absolutely able to honor their direct ancestors via the symbolism of a flag without honoring every single thing they did or believed in. Is this true? If not, does that mean that other Americans must abandon the Stars and Stripes for our ancestors’ use of weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Or for supporting brutal dictators all over the world? For training Latin American warlords at the School of the Americas?

If it is compassionate to sacrifice the symbol of the Confederacy to people who lived through the desegregation of the south, how much more carefully must we tuck away the American flag in sight of a man from Fallujah, a child of the Japanese internment, a Palestinian woman whose house was bulldozed by US-financed equipment?

I will doubtlessly be despised for finding nuance where others see clear-cut moral certitude.  (This is, in fact, the nature of moral certitude.) If I mention, for example, that General Robert E. Lee was an abolitionist—that he called slavery a “moral and political evil”; that he was originally a Union general who was loathe to go to war but refused to allow his own Virginia statesmen to die; that his family worked to free slaves and provide them safe passage back to Africa while educating other slaves at an illegal school—I am virtually guaranteed to be called a racist slavery apologist.

And that would be somewhat fair. He actually thought that slavery was worse for white people than for blacks, and that only the slow Christianization of Africans would ready them for civilized coexistence—a theory readily provided by the Bible’s explicit instructions on how to handle slaves, and the promulgation of those directives through the church. (If mere symbols like the flags can be racist, precisely how racist does this make the Bible?)

Reality is complicated. Simplistic views on either side will not suffice.

Symbols Are Not Permanent

Finally, let us look at symbols in another context. If I were to point out that Guy Fawkes, current worldwide symbol of liberation and transparency, was an objectionable theocrat who fought for the Spanish Catholic empire to brutally repress the Dutch independence movement, it will be suggested that the modern interpretation of his persona is what really matters. Even the descendants of the Dutch freedom fighters he murdered have donned Guy Fawkes masks in demonstrations over the past 5 years.

Consider the morphology mashup represented by this aggressive image, which was published when the Virginia Flaggers announced their plan to raise the Confederate flag in Richmond:

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A totally recontextualized symbolic character burning another recontextualized symbol because he doesn’t believe it’s possible to recontextualize symbols.

Fascinating.

It is easy to forget, trapped (as we all must be) in a specific time and place, that the meanings of social and political symbols are not fixed. They are fluid, shifting and most importantly, personal. Frankly, I no longer have use for them as rallying or flash points. They can be momentarily useful as emblems of ideas, but are inevitably mired in human complexities impossible to represent in simple visual cues. They will inevitably mutate and they will inevitably offend.

I am no longer interested in being united by imagery and symbols.  I’m interested in ideas.  To the Virginia Flaggers and United RVA, I humbly suggest Thomas Paine as a starting point:

“The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

McQuinn Flees Shockoe Stadium Questions, Literally

Posted in Articles, Other Media on September 18, 2013 by Kontra


Who knew that Delegate Delores McQuinn could move so fast?

At the latest meeting of the Slave Trail Commission, McQuinn (who chairs the commission) practically sprinted for the door moments before the public comment/question period.

I’d brought my video camera along to record audio, and when she started for the door, I pointed the camera in her general direction, but she was gone.  She moved so quickly that even after pursuing her out the door, I only found her assistant standing in the parking lot on a cell phone, calling to tell her all the things she’d forgotten in her hurry to escape.

Reporters from several news organizations, including The Virginia Defender, Style Weekly and WRIR, had shown up to question the commission about why it has expressed no position on the proposed baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom.

It’s no secret that the mayor is about to officially announce his plan to build a stadium there.  The Richmond Times-Dispatch has already reported that his ideological partner in the project, H. Louis Salomonsky, recently purchased the final piece of property necessary to complete the construction.  We know these two have their minds made up.

Conspicuously silent on the matter has been the city’s taxpayer-funded Slave Trail Commission, which was created to “preserve the history of slavery in Richmond”.  The silence has caused some to question how the commission could be indifferent to whether a massive, city-changing structure (and its accompanying structures) would be dropped into the most historic slave-related area in the city.  Shockoe Bottom is not only the site of slave auctions, burial grounds and the slave trail itself, but an area that birthed an entire slave-trade-related economic infrastructure that was key to the development of Richmond as a city.

Style Weekly managed to get a quote from McQuinn later, but the resulting article is sure to put political pressure on the commission.

The Virginia Defender wrote a scathing piece about Salomonsky and the entire project.

By the end of the meeting McQuinn escaped from, the co-chair promised that we would be informed of whether the commission would have an official opinion on the ballpark at their next meeting, during the first week in October.

Open Source RVA Interviews #OpposeTRAP

Posted in Other Media with tags , , , , , , on September 18, 2013 by Kontra

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Yes, the legal battle over the fate of Virginia’s abortion clinics is ongoing.  In this radio broadcast, Richmond’s own Open Source RVA interviews Molly Vick, cofounder and director of Oppose TRAP about the latest developments in the struggle to retain reproductive rights in the state.

The Intersection of Guns, Race & Abortion: Everyone Misses Again

Posted in Articles on September 14, 2013 by Kontra

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[ This article dedicated to the young black man on the 1600 block of West Grace that's always open carrying his pistol.  Word. ]

Pro-choice and pro-gun rights sentiments are the oil and water of sociopolitics.  Not only shall the two never mix, but ever will they be at odds, counterpoints of disparate cultures in seemingly unrelated debates.

I’ve written before that if I had a dollar for every time some gun-grabbing Democratic politician tried to convince Americans that “nobody’s trying to take your guns”, I would be financially secure.  Moreover, If I also had a dollar for every time some right-wing pundit acted utterly confused about how liberals can decry gun rights while supporting abortion (“the genocide of more than 1 million children every year”), I wouldn’t ever have to worry about paying my rent again.

Cases in point:

Sarah Silverman, offensive comedian extraordinaire, has recently released a satirical video titled “The Black NRA”, which overtly suggests that the NRA (which, it’s true, is the oldest civil rights organization in the country) would be terrified – absolutely terrified – if all shades of nonviolent, law-abiding American citizens, including young black males, actually carried firearms.  This is not only a shameless, generalized accusation of racism against more than 5 million citizens who pay dues (and many more who support the NRA’s general agenda), but a display of total ignorance of the NRA, which has always supported and encouraged young black males to avail themselves the civil right of firearm ownership.

Had Silverman (and/or her apparently clueless Hollywood costars) done any research at all, it would have been interesting to hear them address why one of the NRA’s most visible spokespeople, Colion Noir, is a young black male who deals not only with issues of firearms, but their intersection with race on a regular basis.  Or the plethora of historical ties of gun control with racism.  Or the fact that the NRA was formed by abolitionists who always welcomed people of color.  (Or, you know, any suggestion concerning the actual merit of this video’s message.)

But they’re just comedians, right?  If they don’t make any sense, it’s okay.  You’re just supposed to laugh.

Some young black folks decided to take an alternate approach, and released their own scathing critique of the video.

It hits on the video, the race-baiting of the Trayvon case, and some facts I’ve already mentioned.  The smile on my face as I first watched this video was difficult to hide.

Right up until I got to 2 minutes and 40 seconds in.  Cue the facepalm as these guys revert to the old Republican argument about Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, attempting a genocide of people of color through the strategic promotion of abortion.  (The video devolves from there into more false Democrat/Republican dichotomy.)

Will this never stop?  Am I doomed to wallow in the swampland between worlds of people who are unable to deal with facts?

Richmond, Virginia (where I live) has been drawn into this debate yet again recently, as commuters on Interstate 95 have been driving by this billboard:

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This billboard is an advertisement for a meeting organized by fundamentalist Christians for the explicit purpose of perpetuating the myth advanced by the young men in the preceding video.

Local reaction to the billboard by all parties can only be described as utterly depressing.  Liberals and particular groups of black folks had their delicate sensibilities offended by the word “negro”, wailing about its “racism” without even bothering to determine that the “Negro Project” is a proper name for (who would have guessed it?) an actual project instituted by Margaret Sanger in an age when the word was not considered offensive.

Some publications, like the increasingly mediocre Style Weekly, have attempted to cover this story without actually covering it.  The latest article by Tom Nash somehow hoped to address the controversy of the billboard by joining in the ignorance of people who were offended by it.  It literally does not even mention (did Nash even bother to find out?) what the Negro Project was, or actually address any arguments about whether the concept was racist.  It simply interviewed a couple of people who disagreed on whether the billboard was racist.  Presumably, this is what passes for reporting.

For those offended, it is uncertain whether it would have mattered that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not only a recipient of the Sanger Award in 1966, but that he lauded her work openly in his acceptance speech.  Or that Sanger’s clinics in Harlem were praised by W. E. B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP.  We don’t know whether these things would have mattered because people who get offended at words without taking the time to understand their origin or meaning are not known to spend much time reading or reflecting.

Almost the entire core of the controversy surrounding the Negro Project is centered around the Sanger quote spoken in the video:
“We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”

This has been represented, notably by Angela Davis, with Sanger as mustachioed villain, rubbing her hands together maniacally as she plots the extermination of non-whites. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for those who are incensed by the quote, Sanger wrote this in a personal letter as an example of what wasn’t happening, and how important it would be that, given the sensitivity of the issue of abortion at the time, to make sure that no one got this impression.  If this case of mistaken intention were to appear in a stage comedy rather than an important historical context, it would indeed be comical.

Sanger’s quote regarding the actual reason for the project is less often related. She considered the lack of reproductive options for black people in America a serious impediment to reducing cycles of poverty, calling them “a group notoriously underprivileged and handicapped to a large measure by a ‘caste’ system that operates as an added weight upon their efforts to get a fair share of the better things in life. To give them the means of helping themselves is perhaps the richest gift of all. We believe birth control knowledge brought to this group, is the most direct, constructive aid that can be given them to improve their immediate situation.”

Count the ironies:  Sanger specifies what isn’t happening and how important it is that people not even consider such a thing.  But the very people she was trying to help believe exactly that because she took the time to specify how it should not be viewed.  The Christian right comes along for the ride not only because they believe in the magical implantation of undefined “souls” in clumps of cells at conception, but because they could use the PR on the racial front.  This backfires when the Christians are then criticized as racist for writing a proper noun by liberals who would probably support the Negro Project’s agenda in the first place.

Of course, reality is always complicated.  Sanger is no saint.  She was a fan of negative eugenics and the sterilization of people with genetic, incurable disabilities.  The fact that she didn’t involve black people in the Negro Project until well after its inception, and mostly for public relations purposes, reeks of what we would now consider a “white savior complex”.  But a genocidal racist she was not.

The intersection between guns, race and abortion goes far deeper than I have addressed here. I’m going to leave that more intricate discussion to my acquaintance, Richmonder Matt Siegel.  In 2009 he wrote a fantastic article titled “Gun Control, Class War and Partial Birth Abortions” for American Gun Culture Report, which I trust will make crystal clear the ways in which these topics are inherently linked in our sociopolitical consciousness.

Read Matt’s article in PDF here to better understand how these issues interrelate.

“Banning guns has always been seen as a liberal position, but banning abortion is a typical conservative stand.  However, they’re both actually the same issue because they’re being marketed to us identically.  If you want to know where the Partial Birth Abortion Ban of 2003 came from, you have to look no further than the currently expired Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.”

Joe Threat Tribute Show

Posted in Other Media on September 14, 2013 by Kontra

A tribute to Richmond rapper Joe Threat who recently passed away. Much love to the performers I missed.

The Nile
Richmond, VA
09/07/13

Nat Turner: A Symposium on Slavery in Southeastern Virginia

Posted in Other Media on September 14, 2013 by Kontra

Weekly Sedition: Lucasville Revisited

Posted in Weekly Sedition with tags , , , , , , on August 28, 2013 by Kontra

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As five death row inmates near their executions for participation in the Lucasville prison uprising, I speak to one of them from the supermax facility where he is held.  He draws connections between the events there and the current hunger strikes at Pelican Bay and talks about his successful law suit and hunger strike to end indefinite detention without due process in Ohio.  A brief synopsis of a complicated event and information about how you can find out more.

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