But when it does happen there are plenty of reasons to be careful about how this mark of progress is used to gloss over the state’s ugly racial past and present. In South Carolina, there has long been constant public-elite pressure between those trying to cling to an ugly racist story and those rushing through symbolic signs of progress to declare all of these racial tensions firmly in the past . As a black South Carolinian, I am pleased to have a Senate delegation of two black men, but I also worry that this will give some people the opportunity to stop talking about racial barriers that still exist in the state. Worse, it could even spark a racial backlash. After all, we saw what happened at the national level after the US voted for Barack Obama. I worry because I see this happening all the time in my state – and I see South Carolina taking a step forward and then two steps back in terms of racial progress.
Take March 29, 2001.
On that day, when it rained at times and at times drizzled, a contingent of dignitaries stood at the South Carolina Statehouse before going outside as the weather improved a bit to be among the first to worth the unveiling of an African American monument of $ 1 million saw. The Democratic Governor Jim Hodges spoke about God and remembered the image of Nelson Mandela and a long list of state greats in a speech.
The memorial was the culmination of a single compromise in South Carolina in 1999 and 2000, negotiated by the General Assembly and presented in large part in response to black people advocating the removal of the Confederate flag and the NAACP’s pledge to enforce a boycott of the state by then It was gone. That is why the African American monument was built. At this point, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was finally recognized as an official national holiday. In return for these concessions, the Confederate flag was removed from above the statehouse, but moved to a Confederate soldier memorial on the statehouse grounds, where it fluttered until a few weeks after the Dylann Roof massacre, some 14 years later. This compromise also resulted in Confederate Memorial Day becoming an officially recognized holiday and a law passed that would require superior forces to remove or destroy Confederate monuments in the state.
The NAACP called the compromise a travesty. So did most of the state’s black elected officials. Regardless, it was viewed as progress and anyone who viewed it as less was pushed aside.
The monument that was unveiled that day is 25 feet long and about two stories high. Scenes from the Jim Crow era have been engraved on the sculpture. Allusions to the 14th and 15th amendments, the historical Brown v Board of Education The ruling of the Supreme Court and black stock traders as well as an astronaut and alumni and men and women with briefcases and musical instruments rounded off his message of the 400-year journey of blacks from Africa, from chains to worshipers of democracy. The memorial contained stones from four locations in Africa: the Congo, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Senegal. Enslaved blacks were shipped from these countries to Charleston from the late 17th through the early 19th centuries and sold to slaves in various parts of the state.
It was a gesture of progress, but there was something hollow about the moment, and the remarks carefully passed the other people honored in the statehouse grounds. The sculptor Ed Dwight was careful not to depict certain people in the memorial. South Carolina could not have faced a memorial on the statehouse site that featured a man like Denmark Vesey, a former South Carolina slave and an early member of Emanuel A.M.E. Church – where Roof committed the massacre that sparked the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse – that nearly sparked one of the largest slave riots in history. That would have been too radical, too divisive.
But Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, a former South Carolina governor who bragged about lynching blacks, was never too divisive to be celebrated on statehouse grounds. That is why visitors are greeted there with a massive statue of him. It also honored the staunch segregatorial Senator Strom Thurmond, Confederate Generals Wade Hampton, Robert E. Lee and J. Marion Sims, who is known as the founder of modern gynecology and who has experimented with black women by performing operations on them has without numbing them with statues and plaques. It was also not considered too divisive to hold the Confederate flag over the statehouse for decades to promote black civil rights.
For many of the whites I spoke to that day, the unveiling of the African American monument was a symbol of progress at the center of the state’s political power. They mentioned nothing about the white men whose memories have been honored in more prominent places in the statehouse – a reminder that a fixed racial hierarchy in the state remains unchecked, largely intact and celebrating an obstacle to the monument’s progress.
It is akin to the way the country as a whole has long revered the founders as agents of freedom and liberty, while at the same time showing their preeminent role in black enslavement and the racism and white supremacy that have haunted us since then, glossed over. It’s kind of racial blindness. While the African American memorial was well done and an important corrective, in too many white minds in the state it became a sort of map to get out of racism.
These types of “compromises” illustrate what Nikky Finney, John H. Bennett, Jr. Chair of Creative Writing and Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina calls their “Abaco Theory.” “They say ‘OK, OK’ after 400 years.” All right, all right, we give you one thing to keep you calm, but every time we give you one thing, we get that SC thing back on Bringing balance by insisting on a little more for our side, “she told me this week.” We will take the Confederate flag down if you give us [funding] for a new Confederate museum to protect forever. “This is not progress. It may be the way politics works in South Carolina, but it is not progress.”
She was there on that March day in 2001 reading one of her poems. The memorial represented only 12 chapters of a million-chapter book, she told the crowd, while reminding them of black men hanging on trees like kudzu, the fight of Joe Frazier, and the brilliance of the black astronaut Ronald McNair.
Perhaps the most fearful thing for me, considering the possibility of two black senators, is another aspect of the state’s past: all racial advancement comes at a cost, almost always borne by blacks. The end of slavery, for example, led to rebuilding that was quickly replaced by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings.
Two black senators, one elected Without the support of the black voice, one who could be elected with it would even be touted by the whites who are trying to ensure that this does not become a reality. They will use it as a shield against racism and make the kind of racism they practice all the more effective. We’ll celebrate when it happens, but we won’t let our guards down.