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Sunday
May072017

Remembering Bree Newsome on South Carolina’s Confederate Memorial Day

Daily Mirror UKDuring the late nineties and into the early aughts, several southern states declared April Confederate History Month. These official commemorations strike me as examples of white people feeling so threatened by the shifting demographics of our country that they feel moved to valorize the racist and traitorous actions of the Confederate states. As a black woman from Texas, you’ll never find me waxing nostalgic for the Ol’ South, but when South Carolina celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on May 10th, I will be remembering Brittany “Bree” Newsome. On June 27, 2015, Newsome, you may recall, removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds.

While we think of the flag Newsome removed as the Confederate flag, that flag is not the flag the Confederate States of America flew during the Civil War. The flag we know today as the Confederate flag is a rectangular version of the square battle flag of Northern Virginia. The Northern Virginia battle flag was adopted as part of different versions of the Confederate flag because, unlike the first design of the Confederate flag, it was clearly distinguishable from the American flag during the Civil War. 

When Newsome removed what we now think of as the Confederate flag, she wasn’t alone. In fact, I recently learned that Newsome’s act of civil disobedience involved Black Lives Matter activists with the support of some Greenpeace activists. I don’t want to diminish Newsome’s role in this act, but I find this kind of intersectional organizing inspiring and an important way for us to join forces and resist the current attacks on our democracy.

It wasn’t until I attended Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show “Notes From the Field,” which focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline and the dearth of opportunities and resources for young people of color, that I got to hear Newsome’s story in her own words and to learn just how much was involved in taking down that flag. Hearing Newsome’s story in the larger creative context of a series of monologues was quite moving and reminded me of the many, many people of color across the country responding to racism in all its forms--a broken criminal justice system, environmental racism, racial violence and so much more. During the monologue, “Not a Whim Thing to Do,” Newsome’s words express how shaken she was by the racially motivated murders of nine black people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. That a young white man could be welcomed into a church and then shoot and kill nine people is shocking, but seems par for the course given the U.S.’s very long history of racial violence. What can you do when white supremacy rears its head so violently?

Newsome and her Black Lives Matter cohorts decided that the Confederate flag could not continue to wave on the South Carolina statehouse grounds. During the monologue Deavere Smith brings to life the moment that Newsome’s cohorts looked to her to be the person to take the flag down. What Newsome was being asked to do was no small thing, and she needed some time to determine if she was really up for the challenge. We know she agrees to take the flag down, but the monologue captures her fear and the moments she took to pray because she understood the gravity of what she was about to undertake. Once she decided she could do it, she started training with the support of some Greenpeace activists, who have experience in guerrilla protest. They figured out what sort of equipment Newsome would need and what sorts of tools she should have on hand to handle taking the flag down. She spent days practicing going up trees in parks and flag poles at schools at night. Newsome had to train for this. In recent months, many of us have been moved to march, write letters and call our elected officials, but I was struck by Newsome’s bravery. Would I be up for this kind of protest--something that required physical training? I don’t know if I would, but it was quite moving to hear the care, preparation and training involved in this simple yet powerful act. At the end of the monologue, Deavere Smith, as Newsome, describes having police circle in as she comes down the flagpole. They had tasers in their hands. Tasers on a metal flag pole could have electrocuted Newsome. But one of the white Greenpeace activists who had helped her train put his hand on the pole, imagining that the police would not taze the pole knowing that a white man would be hurt.

It’s easy to despair about what’s going on in the world, but knowing that people can organize across what we often think of as disparate causes and groups gives me hope that we can work together to resist white supremacy, xenophobia and all of the hatred and fear that keeps our country from living up to its full potential. When I say “hope,” I don’t simply mean a warm and fuzzy feeling, but a strong sense of confidence and trust in our ability to change things--a feeling that actually spurs me on and forces me into action. I may not be climbing flagpoles in the weeks and months to come, but knowing how dire things seem and remembering Bree Newsome and her fellow activists will keep me doing my part, which looks an awful lot like marching, signing petitions and calling my congresspeople.

Sunday
Jun222014

The Subtleties of Kara Walker's "A Subtlety"

By Lucinda Holt

Photo by Lucinda Holt

True to form Kara Walker provokes, moves and inspires with her latest art installation, “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” Walker has taken this idea of a subtlety or an ornamental confectionary design and created a mammifed sphinx with her butt thrust into the air. While there is nothing subtle about this sphinx, critics and bloggers have spent a lot of time analyzing and drawing delicate distinctions about what the Sugar Baby means. Given all the attention she has received, we had to see her for ourselves.

Photo by Lydia HoltThe title of Walker's work captures so much history—history that can feel a bit abstract—until you walk into what remains of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant and are confronted by several sugar or slave boys and this massive sphinx. As we make our way toward the sphinx, we notice the slave boys bearing baskets. One of us wonders if there is a hint of obsequiousness in the faces of the sugar boys. But it's difficult to make anything of their expressions because they have started to dissolve. There is something gruesome but also childlike and playful about these children in various states of disintegration. We couldn't help but think of all those slaves worn down by cutting cane, milling cane, cooking, baking and being served up as human treats.

Photo by Lucinda Holt

The boys lead the way to the sphinx, which is both majestic and so very vulnerable with her breasts and vulva exposed. When we walk behind the sphinx, there are her feet nestled under her bottom. They seem tender and strong—and again, exposed. When do you see the soles of another person's feet? They were as intimate as her bottom and vulva. And there we all were—looking. I couldn't help but think of Sarah Baartman on display and the sexual violence visited upon black women. This is something that we as a nation don't talk about, but it's one of the big things Walker's “A Subtlety” seemed to personfiy for me.

 

Photo by Lucinda Holt

The day a couple of us visited the installation, there was a group, “We Are Here,” who had encouraged people of color to come out and experience the installation and then react to it by writing their responses on sheets of newsprint set up just outside of the exhibit. They wanted to capture people's reaction to the work—reactions that went beyond the familiar objectification of a black female body. This objectification is not new, and even while we were there, we saw two girls taking photos where they appeared to be holding or pinching the sphinx's butt. Some might say this is harmless fun. But this isn't the only response to Walker's work. Below are a couple of the responses recorded as part of the “We Are Here” project:

 

 

 

While there is no “right” response to Walker's latest work, we were glad that these responses, which most of us don't hear everyday, were captured and contributed to the conversations people were having as they walked away from this art installation, thinking and talking about our complicated history with slavery, sugar and sexuality.