Last week, a white man went into Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Honorable Reverend Clementa Pickney, Tywanza Sanders, Reverend Daniel Simmons Senior, Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson, nine praying southern black men and women. Beyond its brutality, as if anything could be beyond such brutality, was the seeming anachronism of the massacre, which was jarring for some folks. After all, had we not moved on from murdering people in churches, preferring to feed them their forced deaths slowly through heapings of institutional racism? Pictures that surfaced of the killer, swath in the confederate flag, fueled the talk of anachronism, the how-could-this-happen-when-we-have-a-black-President, the deliberate forgetting of that lesson Faulkner taught us about what the past is and ain’t. White folks who think they don’t participate in racism always get spotlight anxiety when some white folks who have no qualms about their racism whatsoever are center stage in media discourse. These white folks, who call the other white folks “backwards,” “rednecks,” “racist,” and “trash,” hate to have their whiteness sullied by these other white folks. They wouldn’t want colored folks to think they were like those white folks. So, they latched onto the thing that they hate about backwards white southerners more than Honey Boo Boo, trucker hats, Toddlers and Tiaras, burning crosses, and Swamp People combined–the confederate flag.
Because of course white people do not talk about actual racial terrorism, its flesh, as it were–extrajudicial murders, police murders, racialized sexual violence, displacement of communities, food deserts, employment discrimination, unequal health treatment, chemical waste dumps, microaggressions–but rather the symbols, simulacra, and smoke of racial terrorism, and the backwards white folks who the other white folks think they are not. at. all. like because those backwards white folks cling to those symbols of racial terrorism and are poor and live in small towns and are on meth.
But black folks taught Faulkner everything he knew and everything he couldn’t have ever known. We know the past is never past. We know time is a social construct. We know there are no steel walls between pre-slave trade and post-slave trade, between slavery and emancipation, between Jim Crow and civil rights, Old South and New South, between pre-Obama and post-Obama. Where white folks see steel walls, we see the vastness of time and space, visited upon us every day. Sometimes we go back in time and space to visit, like Octavia Butler taught us, to see if we missed a lesson that could stop whiteness once and for all.
(These are not futile missions, but I tell you what. I don’t know when the Zombie Apocalypse will be, and I don’t know when the Robot Apocalypse will be. But I know for certain that when they happen, when that steel wall of history between past and present-future is actually real to us all and we can’t move through time anymore, there will be racist white zombies and racist white robots.)
People of color have been thinking through how the simulacra of terror, as well as the fleshlyness of terror, affects our lives. And what greater symbol of terror to take on and take down than one that does not deign pretend, like at least the American flag does, to be about freedom, than a flag that literally stands for not just “racism” but also and specifically white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy?
For black folks, then, battling symbols has long been an important act of resistance (except when the NAACP buried the “n-word”), and a more easily accessible one than battling the flesh of the thing, given that our own flesh can be marred walking down the street, swimming in a pool, or standing in a Wal-Mart. The confederate flag has been being unraveled since April 9th, the 150th anniversary of the war. There were flag burnings in front of confederate statues. In a feat of #blackgirlmagic and coordinated direct action efforts yesterday, activist Bree Newsome scaled the flag pole in front of the South Carolina state house and removed the Confederate flag. We battle dragons and specters in addition to the flesh of terror because we want full freedom.
Black folks have also re-appropriated symbols of racial terror to various ends. Kanye tried hard to do so in an laughably admirable feat of black masculinity so basic that it deserved snaps and three third eyes. Charleston-based NuSouth Clothing took the stars and bars and made them red, black, and green, a testament to black southern identity and a rejection of white racial supremacy and the whiteness of southern identity writ large. A host of black southern rappers, from André 3000 to David Banner, have worn them in one fashion or another, an unmistakable if necessarily jarring marker of their southern identity, their outsider and underdog status, in a rap world that hated and hated and hated the South until the bottom line made it reluctantly acquiesce to something ugly turned appropriative. We often own, and own well, something from which we were meant to be excluded.
Conversations about what the anti-confederate flag movement means for America should focus unequivocally on blacks folks, and not on white folks who think they are not. at. all. like those other white folks or the other white folks who those other white folks think they are not. at. all. like. This is a moment to have a discussion about black southern identity, and not white southern identity, which is remarkably unchanged just like the whiteness upon which it is and has always been and will always be based. This is a moment to center blackness in our discussions of America, the South, freedom, and the future, not to talk about what black people should do, but to learn from what black people have been and are doing in this centuries-long battle against whiteness.
These conversations should focus in particular on black southerners, and especially on hip-hop generation and younger black southerners. We are more than the victims of white supremacy, cowering under an oppressive flag and and those white folks who still say nigger without pause or breath. We are flesh, we dream, we create, and we are southern. We bear the weight of the flesh of racial terror. We are not the ones who could not leave during the Great Migration. We are not the homophobic pastors who fought against our own people’s ability to live their lives; we are not the singing and praying the hate and gay and sex away every Sunday who are exacerbating white supremacy’s slow murder of us. We are not just who Tyler Perry says we are.
This is not the time for no laaaaazy conversations about how the South has changed, there are gay mayors, there are black mayors, there’s a diverse workforce, it’s pleasant, look at the kudzu. Because there are also state laws preventing municipalities from passing anti-discrimination laws that would protect the most vulnerable of us, women have to drive miles and miles and wait a fifty leven hours just to take care of their health, jobs still paying less than $10 an hour, corporations not paying nary a tax because they giving poor folks jobs, and milk is too high to buy so there’s water in our cereal.
What does it mean for black southerners of the hip-hop generation and beyond to have grown up in a region where we were born with the silver (second-place) rights but the confederate flag is so commonplace as to inspire little more than a wince? In a place where monuments to racists loom over us as we walk and teach on southern campuses? In a place where those white folks who think they are. not. at. all. like the other white folks still think we don’t belong in and did not mostly create this South they enjoyed past, present, and forever?
We need to ask these questions because we, black folks, who know there are no steel walls in history, are the ones who will continue to be visited with the coming violence as whiteness prepares to take an impossibly bolder stance, bringing on the Zombie Apocalypse way before them later books in the Bible you were too scared to ever read said it was supposed to come. If the confederate flag is one of the few properties whiteness has left, since the immigrants and blacks and lesbians and baby killers have repossessed everything else, how will white folks, even the ones who are advocating for it to come down and the others who will outwardly heave a sigh of relief when the thing comes down, react when nothing is left but the flesh of their terror?