Reality Vs. Distraction
So needless to say, the South is deeply embroiled. As the Confederate flag came down in South Carolina last week, now all the traditional symbols of Confederate power are being questioned. Groups across the entire region are petitioning to have statues removed, even digging up graves of Confederate soldiers.
And of course there are a loyal few who are protesting these removals. I get it, in some ways – I mean, if we remove these symbols how will we remember where we came from? And if we are in danger of forgetting history, aren’t we doomed to repeat it?
I grew up hearing all that, too. I grew up believing that flag represented heritage. My cousin sent me a private message the other day, informing me of my own grandfather’s great-grandfather, who was a soldier in the Confederate army. My cousin claims he never owned slaves, never was interested in politics or whatever, that he just fought to protect what was his. (I never knew this ancestor, and I’m pretty sure my cousin never knew him either, so I’m not sure how he is able to make those assumptions, but those are his words, not mine).
On the other side of this is one of my Facebook friends, Ladale Benson, who wrote yesterday:
What does it mean for me to know that my Great (3x) grandfather possibly died in the trail of tears? My genetic and physical make-up being predominantly influenced by my African heritage, with a touch of native blood, situates me in time and space a certain way, that automatically challenges the norm. This simple analysis is where I find the instinctual calling to resistance. This is one place I find my spiritual cry for justice.
Ladale identifies as Black, but recognizes the diversity in his heritage, and the point of his post was to acknowledge the pain within both of parts of his ancestral heritage. He shares in the pain of his Black grandfathers, who were brought to this country in chains and built this country as unpaid slave workers. He shares the pain of Native American history, in which Red bodies were driven out of this country by bullets and ammo. Yes, these things happened prior to our existence, but the signs and evidence remain with us – Native American people are all but extinct. Black persons in America are still being imprisoned and still face systemic and institutional oppression simply because they are Black.
So I stand in the midst of this – on one side are my white friends and family who take pride in our heritage. Having a soldier who fought bravely in the Confederate army is a symbol of power and pride for white families in the South. But for persons of color the realities of that War meant pain and suffering. Black families were separated by force in the building of this country; white families chose to divide themselves over the right to exploit Black bodies. Native American families were completely eradicated because they did not “fit in” with manifest destiny.
To me the flag is an easy symbol, right? Sure, take it down, but I can still fly it on my car or on the front of my house, and I will, says the white Southern. You can take a flag, but you can’t take my pride in my family heritage, or, in other words, I still hold power in this country and I still have the right to view our history through my own privilege. That privilege tells me that the Civil War was necessary to protect our freedoms – a freedom that included and was built upon exploiting and oppressing Black and Native bodies.
But – but – but – they exclaim – our country was founded on “Christian” principles. Um ok, think that if you wish, but also understand that it was money and wealth that brought whites to this side of the Atlantic. Religion became a convenient cover. The founding of America quickly became a cesspool of human trading – the routes of trafficking thousands of African peoples is well-documented and the South is located squarely in the middle of those routes. And there is nothing Christian about the ownership of bodies.
So religion and this flag become the distraction from reality. In the end, removing the flag will do very little to change reality in America. Religion will do very little to change reality in America – if it made a difference then founding America as a “Christian nation” would have never included owning Black bodies or massacring Native bodies!
But, my cousin says, our forefather never owned a slave. Yep. Perhaps that is the truth. But here’s the cliché of the day – you never had to own a slave to be complicit in the economic system that relied on slavery to function. This soldier, Berryman Glasgow, had to buy feed and seed from someone. Any horses or cattle he owned, came from somewhere. The flour he used to bake his bread came from somewhere, processed from some plant somewhere. And the wood he built his house with, also was more than likely bought from somewhere else. All those industries were reliant on slave labor. Unpaid slaves built the railroads themselves, which were the primary means of shipping supplies. Slaves who never received a penny of reimbursement for their labor, and who are barely recognized when we view the Confederate flag.
Years ago I worked for Forsyth County, the seat of which lies in Winston Salem, NC, and happens to be home of RJR Nabisco. RJR = Reynolds Tobacco, Winston brand cigarettes, Winston cup racing. RJR built an empire in this little area, and tobacco money built the roads, tobacco money paid the taxes for the courthouse to operate, tobacco money kept this economy afloat. When I worked for Forsyth County employees could still smoke at their desk – because tobacco money paid for that desk. When Hanes Mall proposed a smoke-free policy, people boycotted the mall – because tobacco money built that mall.
All the white people in Winston Salem supported the tobacco industry. Many of them had parents and grandparents who had worked in the tobacco industry for years, had retired from tobacco industry, had generated wealth from tobacco industry. I’ve come to realize that RJR was a white empire – Winston’s white people worked there, held blue collar jobs there, took pride in their work there. To be sure, RJR never paid people very much, and you sure can’t say that anyone who worked in tobacco was wealthy, and most of the people who worked in RJR were actually quite poor.
But tobacco and furniture were the mills that white people could work in and still have pride. I know this first hand. My grandparents worked tobacco and furniture. North Carolina in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s was mostly tobacco and furniture and textiles. That was what you did if you didn’t go to college. You worked the mill life. It wasn’t going to make you rich, but you could live off that and if you were lucky, you might get a pension. In the 1980’s, the furniture industry collapsed and my grandparents lost their pension. They had worked for White’s of Mebane for 20+ years, and Hickory White bought out White’s in a capitalistic venture. In the process of that buyout, they conveniently let all their long-time employees, the ones closest to pension, go.
Everything my grandparents had worked so hard for was gone. There was no generational wealth to pass along. Their retirement possibilities vanished before their eyes.
Now don’t get me wrong. Black people worked in those mills too. I was always amazed that Grandma worked with Black people, but she still used language like, “Oh no, you don’t want to be friends with those people.” My Grandma was known to be the one who prayed all through church. She prayed for everybody. She loved everybody. But the big secret was that she still saw Black people as “those people.” I wondered how she could work with Black people, but not be their friends and not talk with them. But truthfully, she didn’t work “with them.” The Blacks held different jobs than she did. They worked different hours than she did. She could hold herself as better than them, because the system allowed her to.
This is where it gets tough, my friends. As poor as my grandparents were, they told themselves at least they weren’t Black. We might have been poor, but we didn’t live in the ghetto. We might have been poor, but we didn’t need food stamps. We might have been poor, but at least we had weekends off to go to church and at least we worked first shift.
What the hell does any of this have to do with that damn flag? Well, we justify our existence and our “heritage” in order to build ourselves up. In the process of flying that flag, we rewrite history, our own personal family histories, as something to be proud of. My family’s work history is something to be proud of – my grandmother spent many years sanding beautiful furniture pieces by hand. She would never be able to afford those beautiful pieces she worked so hard on, but she had pride in her work. But even in her hard work was a painful reality. She was complicit in a system that allowed her to see herself as better than others, simply because she was white.
Regarding the flag, we do the same thing. Having family members that gave their lives in the name of freedom is something to be proud of. But we tend to forget that the Civil War was not fought for freedom for all, nor did it mean freedom for all. And we especially tend to forget that whether the war was fought over slavery or tariffs, it still was fought in order to uphold an economic system that was based on exploiting and othering bodies for monetary profit.
And when we insist on flying that flag, knowing that Black and Native bodies were killed over it without the promise of freedom, we deny that painful part of our history. You know, the painful part where we have to acknowledge that we are part of a system that abuses people. And then we have to admit that we are all abused, somewhat, by this system. My grandma was never paid fully what she was worth. But it was ok, because at least she got to do the honorable work (ie, she didn’t have to mop floors or pick cotton). So that flag represents a sort of false honor – at least our (white) ancestors fought with bravery for freedom and what they thought was right, never mind the bodies they abused in that process.
In fact, we deny so much that persons of color were abused in this system, that we still refuse to hear them when they insist that flag being flown is an insult to them. We deny their reality, in order to build our own (false) reality. This is why removing that flag won’t really change anything – we will find other ways to deny that reality so we can make up our own reality. We already deny reality in many different ways, every single day, just driving to the grocery store. We deny it simply because, in our inner selves, we still consider persons of color “those people.” That has never really changed, even two generations later.