The GOP Rep. may appear to be a civil-rights shero for driving this symbolic act of change. But to South Carolina's communities of color, her agenda and voting record are far more important.
White America has been making it rain with tears these past few days. But hey, on the bright side, those who are butt hurt have a big ole raggedly cloth to wipe them away. All they have to do is ask South Carolina State Representative Jenny Horne to borrow that Confederate flag she helped get removed from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina.
Following in the footsteps of “the great emancipator” Abraham Lincoln, who as every fair and balanced textbook teaches us ended slavery [*snark*] and Lyndon B. Johnson who thankfully ended Jim Crow, last week Rep. Horne became yet another White savior to change the course of America’s racial history. At least that is what is being reported in the news and what will soon be written in the South Carolina textbooks.
Hollywood and its infatuation with stories of White saviors, from Glory to Mississippi Burning, from Amistad to A Time to Kill, from The Blindside to Dangerous Minds, is working on a film starring Amy Schumer and her “transracial” sibling Rachel Dolezal [*snort laugh*]. Kathryn Sockett, author of the wildly popular hit novel The Help is probably writing the screenplay as you read this sentence.
Surely there will be statues and maybe buildings named after Rep. Horne; maybe her name will cover up the names of the countless racist members of the Confederacy that litter America’s southern streets. Shiiiiiit, maybe they’ll even reconsider placing her on the $10 bill instead of Harriet Tubman.
Never mind that it took the terroristic slaughter of nine praying Black people for the Confederate flag’s relocation to a new multi-million-dollar home. Forget that it took the reflexive and expected forgiveness from the victim’s families even before their bodies had even left the morgue. CNN cited Governor Nikki Haley’s comment that it was the victims’ families’ forgiveness that was the tipping point:
“By showing forgiveness after the shooting, she said, they caused the change of heart that led to passage of the history-making bill. This is a story about the history of South Carolina and how the action of nine individuals laid out this long chain of events that forever showed the state of South Carolina what love and forgiveness looks like.”
Never mind that it took years of grassroots organizing, agitation and activism; that each and every call for the removal of this symbol of treason, violence, and racial terrorism was met with fierce opposition and derision. Rep. Horne’s remarks were powerful and emotional no doubt, and the emotion I recognized was anger. Black anger and tears, however, wasn’t sufficient enough to bring the flag down. In order for the flag to come down we needed White anger and tears.
Several hours after Horne’s speech, the final vote was taken by the South Carolina legislature to remove the flag. Even the courage and bravery of Black activist Bree Newsome, who got her gangsta on and strategically scaled that flagpole and removed the flag as the nation watched, is being written out of the story.
In the short time since the removal of the flag, the focus has turned to Horne—a White woman in a pink dress, testifying through tears— whose words, whose courage, and whose moral indignation moved South Carolina and the nation to stand on the right side of history. The Washington Post described the scene surrounding her speech in dramatic detail:
[Cue soundtrack to Gone With the Wind.] “Over 13 excruciating hours, the entire country watched as the ghosts of the Civil War seemed to stir once more. There was soul-searching and breast-beating, shouting and tears, insults and accusations and amendments, lots of them, designed to thwart a vote.
And for a moment, it seemed as if the Confederate flag just might keep flying after all. But then Jenny Horne decided that she had had enough.
The 42-year-old lawyer from Summerville stepped up to the podium and delivered words so raw and impassioned they would immediately go viral on the Internet. More important, her four-minute speech would alter the course of the debate, and with it, South Carolina history. The state where the Civil War began, where Strom Thurmond presided as governor, and father of the segregationist Dixiecrats, a state steeped proudly in history and its symbols, disavowed the most freighted symbol of them all, the Confederate flag.
Rep. Horne’s four-minute speech altered “the course of the debate”; her words, changed “South Carolina history.” Umph, umph, umph. Chile, a Nobel prize is right around the corner.
Be clear: While Rep. Horne’s speech was problematic, I believe her feelings are genuine. I believe she was touched by the murders of the nine victims, and wanted to do the right thing. But she is not the issue. Our collective understanding of and approach to what constitutes “the right thing” is part of the problem. The problem is the media making her out to be the Great White Savior, swooping in to save the day in pink dress and White woman tears on fleek. [“Celie, get me my flask.”]
The lasting message from Horne’s meltdown is that Black America needs to thank her and Gov. Haley. That we need to be forever grateful to them, even though it took decades, the bloodshed, and many years of lobbying for them to do the right thing. The other message is that Black folks need to forgive not be angry, hug not engage in civil disobedience.
The problem, like with the courtroom display of forgiveness at Dylann Roof’s first hearing, is that the media spectacle of Black lawmakers hugging “Miss Millie”—I mean Rep. Horne—after she wept, conveys the importance of our providing forgiveness, of our giving penance, and our offering exoneration with a little bit of symbolism.
Following Rep. Horne’s speech, which must have swayed those still sitting on the racist fence to finally do the right thing, Gov. Haley signed the bill removing the flag from capital building. While Rep. Horne and Gov. Haley rack up political Brownie points and are being celebrated as civil-rights sheroes for driving this symbolic act of change, what is less clear is how their agendas and votes on countless other issues will impact communities of color in their state. If they want to show some courage, how about they start by publically calling for all charges to be dropped against Bree Newsome who faces a possible three-year prison term for her act of civil disobedience. Not only is she not receiving credit and celebration throughout the nation, she is being treated and processed as a criminal. [“Fix it, Jesus Tyrone Christ.”]
Yes, that orange rag is down even as the “Corridor of Shame” remains a reality, even as racial profiling remains a common occurrence, even as the FBI refuses to describe the Charleston shooting as an act of terrorism, and even as 19 hate groups continue to operate in South Carolina. But Gov. Haley be like: These nine pens will go to the victims families. A flag and some damn pens in exchange for our lives. Gee, thanks. More symbolism on fleek.
The realities of institutional racism and unrelenting racial violence makes the flag-removal ceremony that much more sickening. It is hard not to cringe at the celebratory pomp-and-circumstance that went down last Friday. The fact that the honor guard marched toward the flag and took it down with such reverence reveals an acceptance of the symbols of racism. The fact this procession was led by White men who then wrapped the flag lovingly, carefully like it was the fucking Holy Grail, and handed the flag off to two Black men who led the march away, reveals the investment in the symbolic removal of racism rather than its actual eradication.
As noted by Reverend Jerome Coleman, the Confederate flag represents “Rape. Murder. Treason.” Yet, we still treat it with respect. All of that reverent, gentle handling of a rag that represents treason, hate, lynching and terrorism while the crowd shouted “USA! USA! USA!” demonstrates an unwillingness to change history, to turn our collective backs on the ongoing history of racial violence and persistent racial inequality.
The flag coming down does nothing to alter the fact that less than a mile from Charleston’s gentrified downtown, where the Black population has fallen over 40 percent since the late 1990s, entire communities are struggling to survive in abject poverty, children are attending inadequate schools and living in substandard conditions.
Removing the Confederate flag from college campuses, graveyards, and elsewhere, will do nothing to change the structural realities of racism. They can confine the flag to museums, but that means nothing.
We’ve seen this show before. We watched the ways in which people celebrated Democrats and Republicans coming together a few months ago to commemorate Selma and the Voting Rights Act even as states throughout the nation channeled their inner Bull Connor to undermine the Black vote. Even as the GOP continues their diabolical schemes to keep as many people of color from the polls in 2016. Our love of symbolism and our rush to sanitize history keeps us from fighting for what matters.
We— and particularly White America—are far too comfortable with symbolic change, with the illusions of progress, those that don’t disrupt existing hierarchies or demand accountability. Over and over again, White America searches for evidence of change, for moments that authenticate a sense of progress and the fantasies of a post-racial society. This happens all while Black America sees these symbols as signs of hope, that there is a chance for change, that White America will finally see us as human being with rights that should be respected. We still haven’t learned that a White supremacist system requires Black subordination and death.
Historically, we know that symbolism does one thing for White people and another for people of color. It keeps us in our respective roles, perpetuating the cycle of racial inequality, which is concealed under the guise of change. Symbolism is part of the sneaky ruse of White supremacy.
Rep. Horne’s performance reminds us that people are so much more comfortable with and primed to respond to White tears than to Black rage. A White woman showing emotion in this arena is seen almost as a kind of revelation and a revolution.
“Her remarks were powerful and emotional, and the emotion I recognized was anger. Horne was angry, and it was long overdue … She became as angry as most of the Blacks in South Carolina have been about this issue for years,” writes Dorothy Brown.
But Black people can’t say “No,” can’t express anger, can’t refuse to forgive until we see remorse or change. Nobody sees, hears, feels or acknowledges our tears or our pain. Instead, we are blamed for any expression of emotion, blamed for our own oppression, put on trial for our own murders, but let a White woman shed a tear and the world stands still in awe.
White tears are more powerful and desirable than Black rage because neither Black rage nor Black tears, both of which are tied to humanity, are compelling and warranting of reaction. Rep. Horne’s tears, her sadness, her love of South and her heritage of Jefferson Davis is what compelled support and legitimizes her humanity is legitimized, while ours remains illusive and denied.
There is nothing new about White people showing up, fighting, devoting and even giving their lives for racial justice and progress—Freedom Summer is one example. And we appreciate that. But the problem is that it’s only when something happens to White people, only when they speak or emote or are negatively impacted, that the White world is moved to change.
When Whites become involved, it propels national attention, compels media coverage, magically makes everything real and credible and galvanizes political capital. It is also a reminder that Black pain, Black anger and Black humanity are not sufficient to attract attention, compel credibility or lead to action. Only when presented through White voices and White tears and White appropriation of Black anguish does it lead to sympathy and at least symbolic change. Black death porn; Black pain porn; Inequality porn—playing with race for profit and notoriety, is a luxury not available to Black America.
Emmett Till’s brutalized face and body in a casket didn’t lead to substantive change from White America. Four little girls bombed to death in a Birmingham church didn’t compel action unlike the murders of Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman or the brutal treatment of White Freedom Riders. History is littered with examples of Black people brutalized and killed, but White people have to show up to give legitimacy to our struggle.
We’re also seeing the different ways that blackness is played with, manipulated, pimped out and used to demean us. From Rachel Dolezal impersonating a Black civil-rights worker and academic to comedian Amy Schumer and her defenders fighting to preserve the right to use humor to degrade and dehumanize people of color at a moment when our communities are under siege. The message is clear: Black lives matter only as a means to White ends.
Many people tell me to stop being so harsh, so critical. They say that the removal of the Confederate flag is at least a good start. I say a better start would be to stop killing us, stop locking us up, and stop holding us down. Black people come so cheaply. We have such low expectations for what constitutes substantive change, and what it really means to say “Black Lives Matter.” So we offer up forgiveness and gratitude for symbolism. If we don’t stop this bullshit, we will never see any real progress or substantive change.
We’ve got to move beyond accepting symbolism in lieu of substantive change. Until Rep. Horne and Gov. Haley embrace Black Lives Matter, offer legislation to drop charges against Bree Newsome, begin to actually address and fix the poverty of their constituents, and embrace John Brown as the quintessential role model for White people who truly care about and are committed to some liberty and justice for ALL, talk is cheap, symbolism is empty, and change will never come.
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