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I talk with black folks a lot — black residents of the Mississippi Delta, where I collect oral histories; black students at the University of Mississippi where I am an assistant professor; and, on most days, my older brother.
“The Charlottesville thing don’t really do nothing for me,” he recounted in a recent conversation. “What’s happening in Charlottesville, that’s not shocking. That’s been happening. Whether a statue is standing or a flag is waving, it’s been happening. They just showing it on the news now.”
Offered plainly and with little hesitation, his comments are emblematic of how many black Americans view this moment of heightened conflict surrounding Confederate statues, monuments and other symbols. In a new Quinnipiac poll, the vast majority of black respondents said they support the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces around the country. At the same time, in my conversations, black folks often express an intentioned ambivalence on the issue, noting that what seems to be a new and increasingly taut degree of racial tension and animus in the United States simply isn’t new.
Black Americans are well-practiced at confronting the sobering, traumatic and often violent consequences of American racism. They do it daily. And black Southerners know the histories that gave rise to songs like “Dixie” and signs like the Confederate battle emblem better than the white Americans who sing the lyrics and wave the flag. For this reason, the question of whether to support or oppose the removal of Confederate statues and monuments is an easy one. Let them fall.
Yet black Americans are often employing a more complicated calculus when expressing their views about Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, “Silent Sam” and Confederate flags. They allow that the statues and symbols matter. Indeed, they matter quite a lot. But they matter not only because they remind the nation of its own dark history — slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow. They are also signposts that tell of the present-day perils of American racism — Ferguson, Charleston, Sandra Bland.
Yes, black Americans widely decry the presence of the hundreds of memorials to unimpressive Confederate generals across the country, but they rarely do so without also citing the system of violence and exploitation that those generals once fought to maintain — the system of violence and exploitation that still echoes in the nation’s prevailing racial inequities. For them, directing attention to symbols of America’s racial past is important so long as those symbols are not assumed to be the fruit of a bygone era, and that past is not assumed to be dead.
Even the black folks who have little to say about the enduring presence of Confederate emblems in American life and consciousness have lots to say about the country’s history of violence against black and brown bodies. Count my brother among them. My mother, too. For them, Confederate statues, flags and other symbols register as white noise, serving as the unchanging backdrop of the nation’s racial biography that has not changed much. My mother grew up in rural Mississippi in the 1960s. She recalls seeing the Confederate flag when she was 9 years old and knowing that it signaled a place that she was not welcomed. She is 59 now. Mississippi’s state flag can stay or go. The statues in Charlottesville, and Chapel Hill, N.C., and Oxford, Miss., can stay or go. But reality would endure — she knows she still would not be welcome.
There is even a significant segment of black Americans that, rather than holding an intentioned ambivalence regarding Confederate statues and monuments, insist that these figures not be removed from the public commons. After all, they are reminders of the nation’s history — a turbulent, oppressive and violent history that the nation should fully reckon with before moving to make it disappear.
I talk with black folks a lot. That most would not oppose the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces across the nation is neither new nor surprising. What is just as important, however, is the deeper story they often tell — that the ugly and violent gravity of race in the United States is not new. They just showing it on the news now.
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