Friday, June 19, 2015

We are our symbols...

To quote the theologian Tom Driver, I find myself in a state like that of mourning.  My beloved country, that which Lincoln called "the last best hope of man on earth,"is failing.

The recent attack in Charleston, SC, is yet another event in a long string of systemic violence and oppression against black America.  It is, in a word, terrorism.  An armed thug went into a church and killed a bunch of black people because he felt that he could.  He felt that he was justified.  If reports of his words are correct, he felt that he had to do it. He had to do it because black Americans either "had to go" or had to be frightened back into knowing their place.

I am so sorry.

In front of the South Carolina state house, the Confederate battle flag flies.  It flies, ostensibly, as a symbol of the state's "heritage."  And yet, what is this heritage?  It depends on who you ask, I guess.

I've lived in the South for about 10 years now.  First in Texas, then in Georgia, and then in North Carolina.  During my time in Savannah, Georgia, I worked for a group called the Coastal Heritage Society, which operates a number of historic sites round the city.  Included among this collection is Old Fort Jackson, which is operated as a Civil War history center.

During my time there, I worked as a historical interpreter, doing programs for visitors and school groups.  They were mainly about what life at the Fort was like, daily routines, etc.  Very much in the frame of "history is a foreign country and this is how we do things there."  However, it always felt very strange raising the Stars & Bars (the actual 1st Confederate National, not the Southern Cross) over the fort every morning.

Through most of my time there, I stuck to a Union blue wool uniform.  I was never comfortable in the grey.  I also refused or avoided participating in Confederate Memorial Day, until finally I was told that I had no choice or I could look for another job.  And so, not having another income, I fired gun salutes to Jefferson Davis and the "lost cause."

You will hear things like "states rights," "tariffs," and "exclusionism" bandied about when the Civil War is discussed in such circles.  Friends of mine at work would insist that the War had not been concerned with race.  And yet, I cannot help but feel that it goes back to Alexander Stephens' Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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."

We are our symbols.  We continue to fly a symbol of the heritage of hate in our public spaces.  I was once asked by a man for directions to "West Broad Street" in Savannah.  Not being familiar with the road (and I know my way around Savannah), I ran a quick google to find that he was referring to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd (it had been renamed)... when I told him about his mistake he simply shook his head and said "Oh, I don't say that name."

I have somehow made this post about me.  I set out to do something else, though.  

There is something deeply wrong with America that we as a people are not condemning this violence with one voice.  Hemming and hawing has already begun, and people have expressed shock and disbelief that such a thing could happen.  Fox News has even gone so far as to suggest these attacks were part of America's persecution of Christians.

White America is focusing on the individual because we have always had that privilege.  We are seeking already to spin and explain, to distance ourselves.  Hashtags like #NotAllWhites and #AllLivesMatter have sprung up like deceptive mushrooms after a rain.

We as a people are our symbols.  And the idea of American individualism and "heritage," etc, is rooted in a white ideology that at least passively promotes supremacy when it does not outright enforce it.

As an American theatre practitioner, as a symbol maker, I cannot help but think that we have failed our country.

I'm sorry.

I'm listening.

What can I do?

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