Concluding thoughts: Confederate flags, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, & the both/and of memory

Bree Newsome removing the Confederate flag at the state capitol in South Carolina on June 27, 2015.

As someone who studies history, I’ve always been concerned with memory. And this class has memory at its center. It has allowed me to think of the ways that memory can represent a both/and. It reminds me that memory is a double edged-sword.

Memory can be violent; wasteful. It can be a Confederate flag flying at the state capitol in Charleston, or a statue of General Robert E. Lee in the majority-black New Orleans. It can be commemorations to a painful past; a constant reminder of loss.

Memory can be convoluted, effigizing humans into heroes that they were not. False memory, cemented into a perceived reality if pushed for long enough, can perform forgetting. It can be people not realizing that Confederate statues were not creations of The Civil War or even Reconstruction, and that in fact that they were erected during the promulgation of Jim Crow during the early twentieth century, and during the dawn of the Civil Rights Movements, both times of extreme racial tension. Creating false signs of memory– or to put that simply, forgetting– is violent in that it obfuscates reality to present a normative narrative favorable to racial oppression.

Memory can be resistant; it can be caring. It can be the antidote to the violence that certain kinds of memory can create. It can be country’s first memorial dedicated to enslaved people and the victims of racial terror, as the recent opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice can attest to. By acknowledging the thousands of African-Americans lost to the racial terrorism of lynchings, the memorial allows people to reconcile with a painful past– also through the performance of memory of those lives lost.

Care was when Bree Newsome climbed the scaffolding of that Confederate flag in front of the state capitol in South Carolina, and took that flag down. Care was making the decision to remove the symbolic flag after weeks of discussion ensuing after the shooting of 9 black churchgoers in Charleston (They were Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, 52; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lee Lance, 70; Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Clementa C. Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Daniel Simmons, 74; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59– because we need to say their names.) Care is acknowledging the organized planning and methodology that went into removing the flag. Care was, as SNCC organizer Judy Richardson would say, controlling the narrative.  Newsome issued her own statement about removing the flag:

“We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer… We can’t continue like this another day. It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.”

In a historic move and during a brief official ceremony, that Confederate flag in front of the state capitol was officially removed on July 10, 2015.

Yet it was the care before that set the precedent.

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