Bree Newsome

Frankly, My Dear Students, We Have to Give a Damn

The Confederate flag may finally be ‘Gone with the Wind.' But for this Black writer and English professor, teaching her Southern students about its racist history is a battle that is just beginning.

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There were three things my mother loved that set the tone for our small enclave in Alameda, California when I was growing up: Van Morrison served as an alarm clock in the house, as the horns overlaid with his deep belt busted through the walls of my parents’ bedroom, signaling that mother was getting ready for work. The Bodyguard soundtrack was the evening lullaby, with Whitney Houston’s angelic, otherworldly vocals on “I Have Nothing” serving as a meditation to kick off her stilettos and exhale a victory from surviving another day of entrepreneurship and motherhood. And on the weekends, usually while my father, a doctor, was away performing surgery, Mom would curl up in bed and watch Gone With the Wind

I’d sit next to her, bouncing up and down, grinning at Scarlett O’Hara. I found her absolutely beautiful in all her pretty dresses, and her sweet little expressions, “Oh, fiddly-dee!” and “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” The wide shot of the Confederate flag didn’t yet mean much to me aside from being a novelty—it was something different from our boring old American flag—and I wanted to celebrate it simply because Scarlett O’Hara did. It was nothing more to me than an appendage to Vivien Leigh’s beauty. I began to borrow from her, mimic her gracefulness, and seethe when she seethed. I seethed at Ashley Wilkes for not loving her. I seethed at the Yankees for being so mean to Miss Scarlett and her family, and no one earned my hatred more than Prissy. She angered me with her screaming, her cowardice, “I don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies!” Every time Miss Scarlett slapped her, it stirred something in me that wished Prissy would melt away from the screen and never return.

Only as I grew older, moving from curling in my mother’s warm side to sitting over at the edge of the bed with a R.L. Stine book in my hand, did the nascent wiring in my brain begin to conflict with the old. I dissected Tara—Scarlett’s family’s plantation in Georgia that they called home—pulled apart its architecture, dug up its greenery, leaving me with a single scene to ponder long after the credits rolled: Two little Black boys bouncing on the turn-wheel of a bell, and Big Sam and another arguing over who got to sing, “It’s Quittin’ Time!” I could no longer understand Mamie’s brashness, cutting tongue, and the way she protected Scarlett and Tara long after the Yankees had gone. And Prissy: Her screams still goaded my insides, but now every time Scarlett slapped her, that “Zing!” through my heart belonged to Scarlett as much as it did to her.

And then it finally came to a head when I was about 8 or 9, as my mother and I watched the scene where Scarlett runs through the crowd during the evacuation of Atlanta, and she has a warm and loving reunion with Big Sam and the others—they all look like me, I remember thinking.

“Don’t worry Miss Scarlett, we’ll stop them Yankees!” Big Sam said.

I asked my mother, “Aren’t the Yankees coming to free Big Sam?”

My mother propped herself on her elbows and said, “Yes, the Yankees are coming to set them free.”

“What?” I cried. I tossed up my hands, terribly frustrated by this movie. “Then why on Earth would he want to stop them? And whose flag is that?” I pointed to it in the background.

“Not ours,” my mother said. She ejected Gone With the Wind from the VCR, and I am quite certain we never watched it together again.

Margaret Mitchell’s talent for words is undeniable. Her whimsical good-bye to the South has continued to captivate readers, and David O. Selznick’s film adaptation was crafted with more love and effort than I’ve seen some parents devote to their children. Scarlett, and Mamie, and Big Sam, Prissy, that flag—they represented some fantastical filtered “heritage” to an entire section of the nation that I could no longer love. They mourned their downfall, and to mourn their downfall was to mourn my family’s uprising.

I did what so many with class privilege do. I let Mammy, Big Sam, and Prissy recede into my unconscious, convinced myself that times had changed, and I left Gone With the Wind in the 1990s, until I moved down to New Orleans after finishing my fellowship at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and found it all over again. I witnessed people of my skin color hopping off the sidewalk to let White people, who did not even seem to notice them, stroll by. I saw tour buses titled “Katrina, Ninth Ward Tour,” full of White people and their flashing cameras, on their way to gawk at exotic Black New Orleanians and what remained of their neighborhoods, which was disturbing enough, but I was even more disturbed the absolute unabashed delight New Orleans took in celebrating its oppression.        

I was hired as an adjunct professor of English at an HBCU, where I was given two remedial classes on top of Freshman English. I immediately found myself in the midst of a behavioral battlefield, where I came face-to-face with students who had no idea how to operate in academia. They often came to class late, with neither the skills, nor instruments, nor inclination to take notes, their expensive earphones blasting music into their brains. Many students were unable to read English above a first- or second-grade level. I tossed away the copied passages of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and replaced them with The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, only to toss those away as well and ask if they’d ever heard of Dr. Seuss.

The answer was no. I told them, “Never mind! Forget about picking up the Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White,” and started printing off grade-school worksheets. “What is a noun?” What is a verb?” “How to use a comma?” In return, my students hemmed and hawed, confused by my persistence that they do work and turn it in for a proper grade. Two weeks in, a girl, disgusted with my need for her to learn, picked up her books and stormed out of class. A few weeks later, ten more students were gone. All of them had left to “watch a fight.”

The semester was not even a month in when my class of 16 dropped down to six, and the ones that remained struggled their way through subject-verb agreement, sneering at me every time a test came back low, or I refused to accept homework weeks late. They had no access to computers, some had not received their textbooks, and every one of my students was panic-stricken over when their refund check, already weeks late, would come through.      

We’d endure our days together, and then I’d take the long drive home, passing by monuments and beautifully decorated streets all bearing the names of my oppressors. Robert E. Lee Circle, Jefferson Davis Drive, after the president of the Confederacy, and then a street named after Judge Henry Perez—one of the most notorious enforcers of segregation. The Confederate flag hung in windows, adorned the bumpers and rear windows of vehicles, advertised merchandise, even flown at football games. It was everywhere. Slavery may have no longer existed, but the culture had long remained, and the city’s audacity to taunt my skin color, to chime to me on every street I turned down— “You’re a nigger! You should still be a slave!”—was abuse as far as I was concerned. With a few exceptions, the people I had complained to chided that I’d “get used to it.” But I didn’t, and this complacency I was supposed to bear while this city paraded on in its prideful racism wore me down before Halloween.

I walked into class, particularly riled up one morning, and blurted out without even thinking, “Do you know what the Civil War was about?” They exchanged confused looks and shrugged. I was tired of their indifference. “What happened during the Civil War?” Again, they shifted in their seats, a few sneaking glances at their smartphones. “A war between the Union and the Confederacy?” I said. “What’s the Confederacy?” They continued to be unresponsive, whispering among themselves, and just when I was ready to do something drastic, a girl who had been whispering, raised her hand and said, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” I asked in disbelief. “But you literally live in the old Confederacy! There are symbols everywhere!”

She shook her head again, and whispered, “We don’t know nothing about it.”

At that moment, I woke up from my privileged position: For the first time could see students staring back at me, shifting in their seats, wide eyed, frustrated. This wasn’t laziness, unruliness, or indifference. The neglect they’d suffered went far beyond their education, and all the way to their identity. They truly did not know. And I had harbored a dark resentment for them, just as I had for Prissy so long ago.  

I asked my students in every class I had if they knew what the Confederacy was—and not one of them did. It hit me then that they were the present-day embodiment of Big Sam, Prissy, Mammy, raised in oppression and left to flounder while the Scarletts, and the Ashleys, and the Rhetts flourished on their backs. How could my students have a proper effect on their city if they’d purposely been given no tools to work with?

At that point, I became what my mother had been to me. Strangely obsessed with the Confederacy. In between English lectures, we talked about Margaret Mitchell. We talked about the Civil War. I showed them the landmarks in their own city, dedicated to their oppressors, and I watched as their mouths dropped, and their faces twisted with disgust. No one had ever told them where they lived or who they were the descendants of.

By June 18, I’d been with the same batch of students for a few semesters then. I’d begun to take pride in the brilliance of them, how they went from learning verbs in the winter to writing rather clunky essays by the summer. I was grading one of those clunky essays when a young white boy named Dylann Roof attended a bible study meeting at the historical Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. There, he was welcomed into their safe space and enjoyed their spirits for an hour before telling them, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over this country, so you have to go,” and unloading a firearm into the congregation, killing six women and three men, among them a state senator—all of whom share my skin.

The next day, a few of my students ran up to me with their smartphones in their hands. Someone had defaced the Robert E. Lee statue, and without my prompting, they began a conversation about how the Confederate flag should be next. Shortly after, Confederate flag after flag began to fall, and the buzz in my classroom was that of growing excitement, until early one June morning, Bree Newsome scaled South Carolina’s Capitol flag pole, and ripped down the flag that mocked our murdered. With that act, she became Prince Phillip kissing Sleeping Beauty, waking an entire kingdom up from a yearlong slumber. Again, I received emails from students; all of them with links to Bree’s climb, punctuated by exclamation points (a few now remembering to use a comma here and there) and their enthusiasm only fueled mine. I couldn’t help but think that we are on the brink of a cultural revolution, and maybe a bit closer to setting ourselves free from systemic racism.

I recently asked my mother what she saw in Gone With the Wind. Why had she watched it so? Why had she subjected me to that type of complication? Her answer was simply that she watched it not for Scarlett O’Hara or the dresses or even for the love story, but to better understand Blackness through the eyes of Whiteness, and I see it through her eyes now, the difference between Black culture and the slave culture perpetuated by the Confederacy. It’s a farce, a mental shackling of complacency, a need to maintain and protect our oppression, and deem it as our heritage. But slave culture is not our heritage. We are not the descendants of slaves. We are the descendants of those who were enslaved. Systemic racism should not be allowed to celebrate itself any longer. It’s time for Prissy, Mammy, and Big Sam to learn what freedom is.

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