Nothing is Impossible: Black History and Black Futures as a Flag Falls

Bree Newsome (with support from local activists) scales the flag pole in front of South Carolina’s courthouse in Charleston, and takes down the Confederate flag at dawn on June 27, 2015. She is immediately arrested. For updates follow #FreeBree, #BreeNewsome, @BreeNewsome on Twitter, ColorOfChange.org or @fergusonaction on Twitter. (Photo also needs a photographer credit: Please tag in comments)
Bree Newsome (with support from local activists) scales the flag pole in front of South Carolina’s courthouse in Charleston, and takes down the Confederate flag at dawn on June 27, 2015. She is immediately arrested. For updates follow #FreeBree, #BreeNewsome, @BreeNewsome on Twitter, ColorOfChange.org or @fergusonaction on Twitter. (Photo also needs a photographer credit: Please tag in comments)

At dawn on June 27, 2015, Bree Newsome (with support from local activists) scaled the flag pole in front of South Carolina’s courthouse in Charleston. She took down the Confederate flag. Her spotter, James Ian Tyson, dressed as a construction worker, supported her from the ground as she went up and remained as a handful of police officers appeared and surrounded him until she came down. Bree was immediately arrested.

In the continued aftermath of the Charleston massacre, as black communities across the country struggled to hold space for death and disaster (once again), and make sense of another terrorizing attack on their humanity (once again), Bree’s act of defiance (courageous in the extreme and accomplished with the support of local activists) lifted spirits around the country and the world. I know I was waaayyyyyy up (felt blessed). I wasn’t the only one:

By 11 am, the flag was back up–in time to wave over a Confederate flag rally—causing a Ferguson activist to remark on Twitter that Mike Brown was on the ground longer than the flag was off the pole.

By 6 pm, Bree was out of jail, thanks in part to crowdfunded bail support organized by Ferguson Action and Color of Change.

Two days later, her statement, exclusive to Blue Nation Review, included these words:

“I removed the flag not only in defiance of those who enslaved my ancestors in the southern United States, but also in defiance of the oppression that continues against black people globally in 2015, including the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the Dominican Republic. I did it in solidarity with the South African students who toppled a statue of the white supremacist, colonialist Cecil Rhodes. I did it for all the fierce black women on the front lines of the movement and for all the little black girls who are watching us. I did it because I am free.”

Four days later, on July 1, Bree wrote:

On July 10, just shy of two weeks after Bree scaled the pole, South Carolina voted and (with fanfare) finally brought down the Confederate flag.

 

Actions and symbols matter. My AAIHS colleague Brian Purnell has already outlined the history of the Stars and Bars in the North, as a symbol of racialized segregation and a stubborn determination on behalf white supremacists to deny black people in the United States access to rights, resources, or acknowledge black humanity:

Nowadays, some white Southerners (and black ones too) say that the flag serves as a symbol of their heritage. It honors their ancestors. They argue that the Confederate flag does not stand for slavery; even though that flag flew over armies that marched to create a new nation built to preserve white supremacy and racial slavery.

Eric Foner, interviewed in the wake of the Charleston massacre, pointed to the flag’s history as an expression and avowal of white supremacy:

As you know, and as it has been reported many times, the Confederate flag was only put up on top of the Statehouse in South Carolina in 1962. It was put there as a rebuke to the civil rights movement. It was not a long-standing commemoration of Southern heritage. It was a purely political act to show black people in South Carolina who was in charge.

And Eugene Robinson, son of South Carolina, wrote this week:

And no amount of revisionist claptrap can change the fact that the flag was hoisted at the capitol in Columbia in 1961 and kept flying not to honor some gauzy vision of Southern valor but to resist the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation. The flag meant whites-only schools, whites-only public accommodations, whites-only voter rolls. It represented white power and privilege over subjugated African Americans. It was used by the murderous terrorists of the Ku Klux Klan — and by an ignorant young white supremacist who allegedly took nine innocent lives at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

So there is no question removing the flag from a former center of the Confederacy has meaning.

There is also no question, as my AAIHS colleague Noelle Trent has noted, taking down the flag does not solve racial inequality or prevent black violence:

The act of removing the Confederate flag from various venues and merchandise does not lessen the legacy of racism in the country, and all of the ideologies it would embody. Something must arise in its place. There must be a concerted effort to engage with the country’s history and racial legacy while also progressing forward with substantive change. The substantive change advocated by people like Medgar Evers and Thurgood Marshall.

The timeline around Bree Newsome, her action and her arrest, her organized and community funded bail support and subsequent release, her statement on her action and her reflection on the McKinney girl, suggests some of this same tension—triumph immediately followed by resurgence of white supremacist symbology, freedom followed by an acknowledgement of continued violence against black women and girls.

Meanwhile, the state legislature removed the flag with almost no mention of Bree’s magnificent feat, a tiny bit of erasure of black women’s history which we cannot let stand and which allows elected officials across the state, white and black, male and female, to claim the removal of the flag as their success as a state, their racial reconciliation. And it is and it is not.

We remember. Her action mattered. Actions matter. History matters. Black thought matters.

Bree removing the flag in an act of defiance isn’t the same as the state removing the flag. Through her action, and through the actions and organizing of insurgent #blacklivesmatter activists, in Marcia Chatelain’s #FergusonSyllabus, in grassroots historic commemorations and community rituals like Maafa in New Orleans, we find the seed of what “progressing forward with substantive change” looks like.

The first step is what leads to climbing a flag pole. The first step is labor, love, and, as Robin Kelley encouraged at the Stephanie Camp symposium at the University of Washington, theorizing in the communities we reside and alongside activists on the ground. It is showing up as a participant and an actor. It is holding space. It is in acts of radical love and trust, as Kristie Dotson has described. Discussing what it means to do and be a black feminist philosopher, in a text that could read the same for black feminist historians by simply replacing a word, Dotson writes:

“Doing black philosophy, in general, and black feminist philosophy, in particular, requires one to trust that our ancestors have indeed thrown their theoretical production (i.e., their practice and their principles) into this century, as we, by engaging in black theoretical production and beyond, throw ourselves into future centuries.”

Bree’s act, in an antiblack and violent context as the United States in the era of Ferguson and Dylan Roof has proven to be, was as radical an act of love and trust as those of an enslaved woman named California, who posted “amalgamation prints” or abolitionist-related drawings around her cabin. California, too, had “an idea that she is free.” California, too, pissed certain people off because she would do “as she pleases.” And, but for the radical love and daring (re: Dotson) of black female historian Stephanie Camp, in the historical narrative, California’s act of defiance would be usurped by slaveowner prerogative and written out of time as irrelevant, only an isolated case, not enough of a source. In truth, acts of constitutional emancipation have overshadowed actions like hers. But, as with Bree, California’s challenge and risk was also a seed. It both preceded and nurtured the cataclysm that would lead to the end of slavery in the United States.

The one seems so small in the shadow of the other–abolitionist print material in the hands of the enslaved and the abolition of slavery. But that is because we forget that we deal in impossible things.

As AAIHS colleague Guy Emerson Mount has already noted, black diasporic people have long dealt in impossible things:

For historians, this state of affairs is particularly stupefying to say the least. Even the most cursory study of black intellectual history will show that the thoughts of African Americans, both high and low, on everything from empire, to citizenship, to human rights and especially to scientific conceptions of race have proven themselves to be accurate and prophetic time and time again. As if by clockwork, each generation of black thinkers is dismissed as crazy, irrational, and self-interested only to be redeemed and celebrated a generation later by mainstream America as the visionary vanguards and the moral centers of the nation as a whole. To borrow from Bob Marley borrowing from the Bible: “as it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end.”

For black women scholars, as educators, organizers, human beings, this has been especially true. “We specialize in the wholly impossible” was a phrase coined by 19th century black educator and activist Nannie Helen Burroughs and returned to use by black women historians Darlene Clark Hine, Wilma King, Linda Reed as the title of their 1995 reader, We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women’s History. 

Watching the discussion around the Confederate flag occur from New Orleans, seeing covers of the South Carolina Post and Courier circulate on Twitter, knowing on July 9, the day before South Carolina brought their Confederate flag down, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for “a 60 day discussion period on relocating four Confederate monuments across the city,” I’ve been struck by how impossible some things have seemed. Impossible for some to imagine we could just take the flag down, much less that it would be taken down by a young black woman in full climbing gear. Impossible for the city of New Orleans to remove Robert E. Lee from his lofty height on the circle St. Charles Ave, a campaign which has gone on for years, and which seems to be coming full circle in just the last few days. Impossible, for some historians, to believe black people, as philosophers, intellectuals, and stewards of their history for centuries, won’t somehow remember to commemorate the violence against them (and their resistance to it and, where applicable, their triumph over it) if these symbols are taken down.

If these small acts are impossible, no wonder it seems impossible for police to stop killing or to not exist. Impossible for prisons to be abolished and not exist.

Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole to take down a flag that has flown continuously over the South Carolina statehouse since 1961. In 1847, California kept amalgamation prints in her cabin. It is a radical act to trust that these everyday impossibilities, made possible and necessary in black women’s hands, are more than just flashy moments. That they should not be erased from the script and should actually be central and causal to, for example, state officials’ decision to remove the flag. That they should be elevated. That what happened outside the statehouse—Bree and beyond–is crucial to what movement making, community building, and social justice is doing to make the world we want to live in, perhaps more than what happened inside the statehouse. That black women must be centered in all of these acts and actions because they are central. “A voice interrupts, says she.”

And it is an act of black intellectual history and our responsibility to see the long trajectory of actions that seem small, seem impossible, coming to fruition in black women’s hands as knit with what seems like huge and impossible change but is really only just waiting in the wings.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Jessica Marie Johnson

Jessica Marie Johnson is an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include women, gender, and sexuality in the African diaspora; histories of slavery and the slave trade; and digital history and new media and has appeared in Slavery & Abolition and Meridians: Feminism, Race and Transnationalism. Follow her on Twitter @jmjafrx.

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