Nothing is Impossible: Black History and Black Futures as a Flag Falls

Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate Flag at the South Carolina state capitol. Photo by Adam Anderson.

At dawn on June 27, 2015, Bree Newsome (with support from local activists) scaled the flag pole in front of South Carolina’s courthouse in Charleston. She took down the Confederate flag. Her spotter, James Ian Tyson, dressed as a construction worker, supported her from the ground as she went up and remained as a handful of police officers appeared and surrounded him until she came down. Bree was immediately arrested.

In the continued aftermath of the Charleston massacre, as black communities across the country struggled to hold space for death and disaster (once again), and make sense of another terrorizing attack on their humanity (once again), Bree’s act of defiance (courageous in the extreme and accomplished with the support of local activists) lifted spirits around the country and the world. I know I was waaayyyyyy up (felt blessed). I wasn’t the only one:

By 11 am, the flag was back up–in time to wave over a Confederate flag rally—causing a Ferguson activist to remark on Twitter that Mike Brown was on the ground longer than the flag was off the pole.

By 6 pm, Bree was out of jail, thanks in part to crowdfunded bail support organized by Ferguson Action and Color of Change.

Two days later, her statement, exclusive to Blue Nation Review, included these words:

“I removed the flag not only in defiance of those who enslaved my ancestors in the southern United States, but also in defiance of the oppression that continues against black people globally in 2015, including the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the Dominican Republic. I did it in solidarity with the South African students who toppled a statue of the white supremacist, colonialist Cecil Rhodes. I did it for all the fierce black women on the front lines of the movement and for all the little black girls who are watching us. I did it because I am free.”

Four days later, on July 1, Bree wrote:

On July 10, just shy of two weeks after Bree scaled the pole, South Carolina voted and (with fanfare) finally brought down the Confederate flag.

Actions and symbols matter. My AAIHS colleague Brian Purnell has already outlined the history of the Stars and Bars in the North, as a symbol of racialized segregation and a stubborn determination on behalf white supremacists to deny black people in the United States access to rights, resources, or acknowledge black humanity:

Nowadays, some white Southerners (and black ones too) say that the flag serves as a symbol of their heritage. It honors their ancestors. They argue that the Confederate flag does not stand for slavery; even though that flag flew over armies that marched to create a new nation built to preserve white supremacy and racial slavery.

Eric Foner, interviewed in the wake of the Charleston massacre, pointed to the flag’s history as an expression and avowal of white supremacy:

As you know, and as it has been reported many times, the Confederate flag was only put up on top of the Statehouse in South Carolina in 1962. It was put there as a rebuke to the civil rights movement. It was not a long-standing commemoration of Southern heritage. It was a purely political act to show black people in South Carolina who was in charge.

And Eugene Robinson, son of South Carolina, wrote this week:

And no amount of revisionist claptrap can change the fact that the flag was hoisted at the capitol in Columbia in 1961 and kept flying not to honor some gauzy vision of Southern valor but to resist the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation. The flag meant whites-only schools, whites-only public accommodations, whites-only voter rolls. It represented white power and privilege over subjugated African Americans. It was used by the murderous terrorists of the Ku Klux Klan — and by an ignorant young white supremacist who allegedly took nine innocent lives at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

So there is no question removing the flag from a former center of the Confederacy has meaning.

There is also no question, as my AAIHS colleague Noelle Trent has noted, taking down the flag does not solve racial inequality or prevent black violence:

The act of removing the Confederate flag from various venues and merchandise does not lessen the legacy of racism in the country, and all of the ideologies it would embody. Something must arise in its place. There must be a concerted effort to engage with the country’s history and racial legacy while also progressing forward with substantive change. The substantive change advocated by people like Medgar Evers and Thurgood Marshall.

The timeline around Bree Newsome, her action and her arrest, her organized and community funded bail support and subsequent release, her statement on her action and her reflection on the McKinney girl, suggests some of this same tension—triumph immediately followed by resurgence of white supremacist symbology, freedom followed by an acknowledgement of continued violence against black women and girls.

Meanwhile, the state legislature removed the flag with almost no mention of Bree’s magnificent feat, a tiny bit of erasure of black women’s history which we cannot let stand and which allows elected officials across the state, white and black, male and female, to claim the removal of the flag as their success as a state, their racial reconciliation. And it is and it is not.

We remember. Her action mattered. Actions matter. History matters. Black thought matters.

Bree removing the flag in an act of defiance isn’t the same as the state removing the flag. Through her action, and through the actions and organizing of insurgent #blacklivesmatter activists, in Marcia Chatelain’s #FergusonSyllabus, in grassroots historic commemorations and community rituals like Maafa in New Orleans, we find the seed of what “progressing forward with substantive change” looks like.

The first step is what leads to climbing a flag pole. The first step is labor, love, and, as Robin Kelley encouraged at the Stephanie Camp symposium at the University of Washington, theorizing in the communities we reside and alongside activists on the ground. It is showing up as a participant and an actor. It is holding space. It is in acts of radical love and trust, as Kristie Dotson has described. Discussing what it means to do and be a black feminist philosopher, in a text that could read the same for black feminist historians by simply replacing a word, Dotson writes:

“Doing black philosophy, in general, and black feminist philosophy, in particular, requires one to trust that our ancestors have indeed thrown their theoretical production (i.e., their practice and their principles) into this century, as we, by engaging in black theoretical production and beyond, throw ourselves into future centuries.”

Bree’s act, in an antiblack and violent context as the United States in the era of Ferguson and Dylan Roof has proven to be, was as radical an act of love and trust as those of an enslaved woman named California, who posted “amalgamation prints” or abolitionist-related drawings around her cabin. California, too, had “an idea that she is free.” California, too, pissed certain people off because she would do “as she pleases.” And, but for the radical love and daring (re: Dotson) of black female historian Stephanie Camp, in the historical narrative, California’s act of defiance would be usurped by slaveowner prerogative and written out of time as irrelevant, only an isolated case, not enough of a source. In truth, acts of constitutional emancipation have overshadowed actions like hers. But, as with Bree, California’s challenge and risk was also a seed. It both preceded and nurtured the cataclysm that would lead to the end of slavery in the United States.

The one seems so small in the shadow of the other–abolitionist print material in the hands of the enslaved and the abolition of slavery. But that is because we forget that we deal in impossible things.

As AAIHS colleague Guy Emerson Mount has already noted, black diasporic people have long dealt in impossible things:

For historians, this state of affairs is particularly stupefying to say the least. Even the most cursory study of black intellectual history will show that the thoughts of African Americans, both high and low, on everything from empire, to citizenship, to human rights and especially to scientific conceptions of race have proven themselves to be accurate and prophetic time and time again. As if by clockwork, each generation of black thinkers is dismissed as crazy, irrational, and self-interested only to be redeemed and celebrated a generation later by mainstream America as the visionary vanguards and the moral centers of the nation as a whole. To borrow from Bob Marley borrowing from the Bible: “as it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end.”

For black women scholars, as educators, organizers, human beings, this has been especially true. “We specialize in the wholly impossible” was a phrase coined by 19th century black educator and activist Nannie Helen Burroughs and returned to use by black women historians Darlene Clark Hine, Wilma King, Linda Reed as the title of their 1995 reader, We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women’s History. 

Watching the discussion around the Confederate flag occur from New Orleans, seeing covers of the South Carolina Post and Courier circulate on Twitter, knowing on July 9, the day before South Carolina brought their Confederate flag down, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for “a 60 day discussion period on relocating four Confederate monuments across the city,” I’ve been struck by how impossible some things have seemed. Impossible for some to imagine we could just take the flag down, much less that it would be taken down by a young black woman in full climbing gear. Impossible for the city of New Orleans to remove Robert E. Lee from his lofty height on the circle St. Charles Ave, a campaign which has gone on for years, and which seems to be coming full circle in just the last few days. Impossible, for some historians, to believe black people, as philosophers, intellectuals, and stewards of their history for centuries, won’t somehow remember to commemorate the violence against them (and their resistance to it and, where applicable, their triumph over it) if these symbols are taken down.

If these small acts are impossible, no wonder it seems impossible for police to stop killing or to not exist. Impossible for prisons to be abolished and not exist.

Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole to take down a flag that has flown continuously over the South Carolina statehouse since 1961. In 1847, California kept amalgamation prints in her cabin. It is a radical act to trust that these everyday impossibilities, made possible and necessary in black women’s hands, are more than just flashy moments. That they should not be erased from the script and should actually be central and causal to, for example, state officials’ decision to remove the flag. That they should be elevated. That what happened outside the statehouse—Bree and beyond–is crucial to what movement making, community building, and social justice is doing to make the world we want to live in, perhaps more than what happened inside the statehouse. That black women must be centered in all of these acts and actions because they are central. “A voice interrupts, says she.”

And it is an act of black intellectual history and our responsibility to see the long trajectory of actions that seem small, seem impossible, coming to fruition in black women’s hands as knit with what seems like huge and impossible change but is really only just waiting in the wings.

~ This post written by Jessica Marie Johnson, Assistant Professor of History at Michigan State University, originally appeared at the African American History Intellectual Society (AAHIS) blog and is re-posted here with permission.

Being Part of a Biracial Family, It’s Just the Reality

“Being part of a biracial family, it’s just the reality,” Christopher Colbert, the father of the six-year-old Grace Colbert star of a Cheerio’s commercial featuring a biracial family, told MSNBC last June shortly after the commercial aired. “We’re also part of the face of America.”

This short video clip (5:56) of the Colbert family’s courage in the face of racist reaction to the commercial featuring their daughter is today’s resistance to racism feature:

According to Census data, among opposite-sex married couples, one in 10 (5.4 million couples) are interracial, a 28% jump since 2000. In 2010, 18% of heterosexual unmarried couples were of different races (1.2 million couples) and 21% of same-sex couples (133,477 couples) were mixed.

The number of mixed-race babies has also climbed over the past decade. More than 7 percent of the 3.5 million children born in the year before the 2010 Census were of two or more races, up from barely 5 percent a decade earlier.

 

Challenging White Supremacy Workshops

Fridays here at the RR blog we’re highlighting different forms of resistance. Today, the spotlight is on the Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) workshops which began in 1993, working in the broad-based radical, multi-racial community of the San Francisco Bay Area.
CWS_Logo
Sharon Martinas and Mickey Ellinger co-founded the Challenging White Supremacy workshop in 1993, after participating in an Undoing Racism Workshop created by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a national anti-racist training organization.

Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) workshops organizers Martinas and Ellinger believe that the most effective way to create fundamental social change in the U.S. is by building mass-based, multi-racial grassroots movements led by radical activists of color. They also believe that the major barrier to creating these movements is racism or white supremacy.

CWS workshops were designed by a group of white anti-racist organizers and rooted in a commitment to help white social justice activists become principled and effective anti-racist organizers — both to challenge our white privilege and to work for racial justice in all our social justice work.

Martinas and Ellinger think that anti-racist training and organizing with white social justice activists complements and supports grassroots organizing and leadership development in communities of color, and that both kinds of work are necessary to help build mass-based, multi-racial social justice movements.

This booklet, “Passing It On” (pdf), explains the CWS workshops in more detail, and many more resources at their website.

Both Sharon and Mickey were deeply influenced by Third World national liberation movements, inside the U.S. and internationally, in the 1960’s and 1970’s and became committed to organizing white social justice activists in solidarity with these movements. While the CWS workshops ended in 2005, their commitment to anti-racist solidarity practice continues to this day through ongoing activism, particularly focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

 

Honoring Indigenous Women: Resisting V-Day, OBR and Carceral Feminism

Today is February 14, traditionally marked as Valentine’s Day. For more than 20 years, Indigenous Women in Canada have led Women’s Memorial Marches to signify the strength of decolonization and the power of Indigenous Women’s leadership. Known as the “Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” (#MMIW), the commemoration has its origins in tragic events of January 1991 a woman was murdered on Powell Street in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. Her murder in particular acted as a catalyst and  February 14 became a day of remembrance and mourning. This year marches are held across the lands and each march reflects the nuances and complexities of the particular region with the common goals of expressing, community, compassion, and connection for all women. February 14 marks a day to protest the forces of colonization, misogyny, poverty, racism and to celebrate survival, resistance, struggle and solidarity and to make visible these forces and women’s resistance.

Justice for MM Indigenous Women

(Image source)

Here is a collection of blogs by women on “Why I March”:

While this memorial commemoration was well-established in Canada, a number of individuals and organizations have chosen to link February 14 to their own lobbying for women-themed causes, most notably Eve Ensler’s campaigns V-Day and her more recent endeavor One Billion Rising (OBR). Many indigenous women in the US and beyond are not only standing in solidarity with indigenous women of Canada on February 14, they are actively resisting the Ensler-industrial-complex of events. A leader in this resistance is Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk), who writes:

We love the idea of using Valentine’s Day to talk about what respect and consent look like and how we can stand up against sexual violence. However, due to the mistreatment and disrespect of women of color, indigenous women, and queer women by Eve Ensler and the V-Day campaign, we can no longer support her work.

In an Open Letter to Eve Ensler Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk) says, in part, the following:

This all started because on Twitter, I addressed some issues that I had with V-Day, your organization, and the way it treated Indigenous women in Canada. I said that you are racist and dismissive of Indigenous people. You wrote to me that you were upset that I would suggest this, and not even 24 hours later you were on the Joy Behar Show referring to your chemotherapy treatment as a “Shamanistic exercise”.

Your organization took a photo of Ashley Callingbull, and used it to promote V-Day Canada and One Billion Rising, without her consent. You then wrote the word “vanishing” on the photo, and implied that Indigenous women are disappearing, and inherently suggested that we are in some type of dire need of your saving. You then said that Indigenous women were V-Day Canada’s “spotlight”. V-Day completely ignored the fact that February 14th is an iconic day for Indigenous women in Canada, and marches, vigils, and rallies had already been happening for decades to honor the missing and murdered Indigenous women. You repeatedly in our conversation insisted that you had absolutely no idea that these events were already taking place. So then, what were you spotlighting? When Kelleigh brought up that it was problematic for you to be completely unaware that this date is important to the women you’re spotlighting, your managing director Cecile Lipworth became extremely defensive and responded with “Well, every date on the Calendar has importance.” This is not an acceptable response.

When women in Canada brought up these exact issues, V-Day responded to them by deleting the comment threads that were on Facebook. For a person and organization who works to end violence against women, this is certainly the opposite of that. Although I’m specifically addressing V-Day, this is not an isolated incident. This is something that Indigenous women constantly face. This erasure of identity and white, colonial, feminism is in fact, a form of violence against us. The exploitation and cultural appropriation creates and excuses the violence done to us.

When I told you that your white, colonial, feminism is hurting us, you started crying. Eve, you are not the victim here. This is also part of the pattern which is a problem: Indigenous women are constantly trying to explain all of these issues, and are constantly met with “Why are you attacking me?!” This is not being a good ally.

In my view, Lauren Chief Elk speaks the truth here. Her critique of Ensler’s work is a clear illustration of the #troublewithwhitewomen I have been attempting to articulate in the Tuesday series.

Eve Ensler

 

(Image source)

Ensler and her organizations are part of what many have begun to name as “carceral feminism, much of it around claims about “trafficking.” In a recent peer-reviewed article in Signs, scholar Elizabeth Bernstein writes:

“…feminist and evangelical Christian activists have directed increasing attention toward the “traffic in women” as a dangerous manifestation of global gender inequalities. Despite renowned disagreements around the politics of sex and gender, these groups have come together to advocate for harsher penalties against traffickers, prostitutes’ customers, and nations deemed to be taking insufficient steps to stem the flow of trafficked women. In this essay, I argue that what has served to unite this coalition of ‘strange bedfellows’ is not simply an underlying commitment to conservative ideals of sexuality, as previous commentators have offered, but an equally significant commitment to carceral paradigms of justice and to militarized humanitarianism as the preeminent mode of engagement by the state.”

To put it more plainly, what the focus on incarceration as a solution to gender inequalities does is both insufficient to address the problems that women (of all races) are confronted with and shifts them on to another system of oppression that literally consumes the bodies of black and brown men. The blog Prison Culture puts this succinctly here:

I’m a feminist and a prison abolitionist. I have previously mentioned that there was actually a time when prison abolition was a feminist concern. Times have changed and it’s more likely that you’ll find feminists calling for more & longer prison sentences than for an end to them. One Billion Rising for Justice seems to want to hew to some feminists’ histories of resisting the carceral state. Unfortunately, it falls way, way short.

Indeed, it does fall way, way short. Today, I stand in solidarity with indigenous women, #MMIW marches, and against the rise of carceral feminism.

Resisting Racism through Comedy

On Fridays, we’re bringing you innovative ways to think about resisting racism. We’ve written here before about comedy as a way to resist racism. One of the best people at using the weapon of comedy these days is Hari Kondabolu. Kondabolu is a Brooklyn-based, Queens-raised comic who has been described by Timeout NY as “smart, analytical and rising.” In this short clip (14:13) from a BBC show, you’ll see why he’s so good.  (warning for some profanity)

Happy Friday!

The Superbowl Ad You Won’t See, but Should

The National Congress of American Indians did not have the funds to run this ad during the Super Bowl. You should watch it and share it anyway.

Want to get involved? Here’s how to contact the DC team, the NFL, and the DC team’s hometown paper: DC Team @redskinsFacebook.com/redskins http://www.redskins.com/footer/contact-us.html Roger Goodell & NFL @NFL @NFLcommishhttps://www.facebook.com/NFL Washington Post DC’s hometown paper is still using the R-word in its coverage of the team.

More ways to take action at ChangeTheMascot.org

 

~ originally posted at Films for Action 

Everyday Racism: First Mobile App to ‘Step into another Skin’

Racism happens in everyday encounters, in interactions between people.  Resistance to everyday racism happens everyday, too.  Now, there’s an app for that, too.

A new app for iOS and Android that enables you to expand your understanding of everyday racism by experiencing some of what it’s like in Australia as an Indian student, a Muslim woman or an Aboriginal man. The app, called Everyday Racism, has just been released this week and is available now for free for iOS and Android.

 

Everyday Racism App

The idea behind the Everyday Racism  game/education style app is that players are challenged to  live a week in ‘someone else’s skin.’

The app a joint initiative by national anti-racism charity All Together Now, the University of Western Sydney, University of Melbourne and Deakin University.  the University of Western Sydney, Deakin University and Melbourne University are behind this project and the content of the everyday racism app has been developed based on ground-breaking research in the field of racism and anti-racism. A group of 8 panelists from diverse ethnicities have been consulted to make sure the app would be based on real-life experiences of everyday racism in Australia.

How do you think you might use the app? Download it and let us know what you think.

Defending Democracy: Past and Present

Assaults on democracy are proliferating across the country in a variety of measures designed to reduce the electorate and defund public education. Political leaders who favor stricter voter ID laws that make it harder for poorer Americans and immigrants to vote, and who advocate drastic cuts to public education and to government-supported student loans, do so out of desire to keep the poorer classes alienated from the political system. This is nothing new in American history.

When the electorate was first expanded beyond the upper classes in the 19th century, elites openly disparaged the participation of poor and uneducated voters. First, working class white men—especially European immigrants—were enfranchised despite the outrage and disgust of many white Americans who feared the “corruption” of the ballot box by “ignorant” voters during the Jacksonian era. Then, after the momentous events of the Civil War, African Americans were enfranchised through state laws and Federal Constitutional Amendments during Reconstruction. Opposition to blacks voting echoed earlier concerns about the white workers’ “unfitness” for the ballot box due to their lack of education, economic dependence, and supposed susceptibility to corruption and demagoguery.But the greatest fear of all was usually unspoken: that politicians might cater to their interests and popularly elected government might actually enact policies that favor someone other than the wealthiest elites.

I wrote a biography of Albion W. Tourgée, a forgotten civil rights champion who fought relentlessly in 19th century America to protect the right to vote for poor white and black Americans, and who advocated robust state and Federal funding to public education.

He believed these two issues were inseparable. Without serious public investment in the education of the electorate, the great democratic experiment of the United States would fail. How can the people rule without the literacy skills required to stay informed, and the civic knowledge of the law, the government and the economy needed to understand their situation? Tourgée wrote:

“if our Government is founded upon the true principles of democracy, if self-government is a possibility to any great nation, then it is of the utmost importance that every individual constituting the governing power in such nation should be not only honest and patriotic and courageous, but that he should have the knowledge to inform his honesty, knowledge to sustain his patriotism, knowledge to direct his courage. The ignorant man is as the breath of life to the nostrils of the demagogue. He is the material which the ambitious and unscrupulous leader uses to promote his own unrighteous ends.”

For decades, Tourgée fought to expand public education—especially among former slaves in the South. In 1868, he was one of the authors of the North Carolina State Constitution that requires that the state provide free public education from grammar school through university, open to all citizens of the state. Education fostered a common culture, as well as a more intelligent citizenry, and encouraged citizens to be active participants in civic life. Education was also to be an antidote to the feelings of alienation and resentment that came from exclusion and enforced ignorance.

Those in favor of placing restrictions on the ballot in Tourgée’s time argued for such devices as literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent the ignorant and the poor from exercising the right to vote. By the 1890s, these restrictions became commonplace, especially but not exclusively in the Jim Crow South, and they were used to purge the particularly undesirable voters from the rolls—including most non-whites and known radicals. Supporters of these ostensibly “color-blind” voting restrictions claimed that they would protect the integrity of the ballot box while providing incentive for the “deserving” to get educated so they could attain voting rights. But, Tourgée knew better. The purpose was not to create an incentive to get educated, but rather to exclude, disempower and demoralize:

“The whole theory of republican government is based on the idea that the distribution of sovereign power enables every man to do something toward securing his own rights and remedying his own wrongs, or what he conceives to be his rights or believes to be his wrongs. It is a piece of protective armor, intended to equalize the weak with the strong. It is always the poor, the weak, and the ignorant who are the victims of oppression. To such the ballot is at once a sword and shield. The untrained soldier may injure his friend as often as his foe, or even hurt himself oftener still, with his weapon of celestial temper, but he will at least be able to defend himself . . . and the ballot is the only weapon with which poverty and ignorance may even blindly defend themselves. It is their only hope. Unfortunately, intelligence does not always imply righteousness or justice; and even against the best, the lowest and meanest of every land need always stand upon their guard.”

Once again, using transparently facetious arguments, the wealthy and powerful are trying to curb the voting rights and the educational opportunities of the poor. The struggles of a century ago continue today.

~ Mark Elliott is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Color Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson (Oxford 2006) and co-editor with John David Smith of Undaunted Radical: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgée (LSU 2010).