A few days ago (maybe weeks, who knows at this point), the New York Times published a powerful opinion essay entitled “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument.” The author, Caroline Randall Williams, eloquently shared a painful history shared by so many Black Americans. I retweeted the essay to my modest following. As a Black Southern woman I agreed. My Black body would not be here all these years later had it not been for the actions of those who fought for the Confederacy. I am history. However, in the misty light of a rainy quarantine morning, it hit me. My body is not a Confederate monument. It never was and never will be.
I am a Black woman born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. I’ve grown up with the vestigial remnants of slavery around the corner. Every person who matriculated through 3rd Grade in South Carolina knows that’s when you learn South Carolina history. We visit the state house only recently liberated from the shadow of the Confederate flag. We make candles or pick cotton — yes, seriously — at plantations that have been converted to event spaces. We’re taught the bravery and cunning of Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion and how our state was the first state to secede from the Union over the issue of “states rights.” What we aren’t taught is it was an issue of states’ rights to continue holding hostage and torturing Black human beings. Everyone, especially Black South Carolinians, have to dig a little deeper for that history even as it surrounds us. We also have to give it context and understand our place in it.
The original author shared a uniquely dark and American fact — almost all Black people in the U.S. have a non-consensual white ancestry. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., historian and host of Finding Your Roots, investigated the common claim among many Black people of Native American ancestry. In the 2014 article, High Cheekbones and Straight Black Hair, he had a similar experience to Williams. He discovered his ancestry is 50.5% European and roughly .8% Native American, despite having heard his entire life about his Indigenous ancestry. His research found that the looser hair textures and light complexion some attribute to various Native nations was the result of a few white people in the family, usually uninvited. According to 23andMe, on average European ancestry is about 24% for most American Black people, which genetically makes sense with the timeline of slavery and Jim Crow. I can see myself. I know where I’m from. I’ve seen my people. I don’t need an ancestry test to tell me what I already know.
The poet and pen behind the essay and I agree that our Southern Blackness is a living monument to some of the most offensive atrocities in American history. However, I nor my Blackness, represent anything Confederate. The Confederacy was a treasonous alliance that attacked the United States of America for the privilege of continuing chattel slavery ad infinitum. No part of me acknowledges any of that. Not a coily hair on my negro head spirals toward the sky in memory of any of the traitors that were happy to have my nth grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin or complete Black stranger serve them until they killed us.
I realize I am being literal but it is my thing. I Believe I Could Fly used to make me cry as a child because I thought people would get hurt trying to actually fly. We cannot ignore the importance of words. Obsessing over words is my cardio. I jest but I am a communications scholar so I am very serious. Naming Black bodies as Confederate monuments is an affront to the memory of the Black people who were and are enslaved, discriminated against, killed, and still fighting racism for their mere existence.
The reality is that I and my Southern Blackness can’t hide from slavery. I’m a negro every day all day. From the tip of my short wide nose to the balls of my brown feet. The feeling of “otherness” is palpable whenever I encounter a not Black person anywhere. This particular otherness is steeped in some pity or guilt for the sin of slavery. Is the oppressor side of that legacy a defining characteristic of my existence? Not at all.
I am choosing to frame my own Blackness and Southern heritage, if a monument to anything, as one in remembrance of those who were oppressed, who liberated themselves, and who still fight to this day. My Blackness is a testimony. I don’t think I’m my ancestors wildest dream because I am a bit of a scumbag but I do think they would be proud of me. I seek to honor my lineage and the collective with my work and living.
At a time when we as a society are reevaluating how we understand and revere power and history, any claim of something as valuable as Black life is comparable to aging bronze honoring traitors is ludicrous. For one, we won. We are free(ish). Blackness has existed and had more impact on the world than the Confederacy could have ever dreamed. Maybe the world would not have a ubiquitous Black presence had it not been for the slave trade, but I’m not putting it past my ancestors to set sail, explore, and live beyond their shores.
I’ve seen maybe five statues of Black people? In my life? Let’s count them: Mary McLeod Bethune and the Black Civil War Soldier Memorial in Washington, DC; Jean Baptiste Saint du Sable in Chicago, Two unnamed students honoring Sterling High School in Greenville, SC; Manche Masemola, Lucian Tapiedi, Janani Luwum and Martin Luther King, Jr. on Westminster Abbey in London. I guess it is more than five. For each of these, I can name ten streets, counties, federal and state buildings, schools, bills, and more for slave owners and/or Confederates.
We live in a headline society. We scroll, engage on a flash level with what we see, and move on. The headline “My Body is a Confederate Monument” causes a pause in our breakneck swiping. It makes the reader sit with the content. However, words matter. The original thesis is sound. The execution is artful. The metaphor is not sufficient to summarize the experience of Black Southerners.
Black people deserve better. Everything that has been taken from and denied of us; everything we have given. My Black woman body is living history. It represents the sins and loses of the South, the triumphs and tragedy of my people. It also represents the future; one filled with uncertainty but definitely bending toward justice.