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“Southern Symbolism” by Devair Jeffries


Historic Divisiveness as Articulated in Personal Narratives from One Hundred Years of Hope about the Confederate Flag in South Carolina and Racial Tension in the United States

I don’t know how you can be Black… and American… and not be scared.

~Malik, One Hundred Years of Hope

Until July 2015, three flags that supposedly represented the mindset of South Carolinians — the American flag, the South Carolina State flag, and the Confederate flag— could be easily seen from my mother’s office at the University of South Carolina, two blocks away from the Statehouse. While the American and state flags are representative of the country and the state respectively, the Confederate flag is laden with southern symbolism and a contentious American history that is often racially divisive. The Confederate flag’s presence at the Statehouse overtly reminded citizens about the significance of skin color and provoked visceral views about race, emblems, and spaces that ultimately forced individuals to choose a side. Choosing sides is not a new concept, regardless of race, class, gender, region, religion, sexuality, politics, or otherwise. It is arguably the foundation upon which America and Western culture were built. Though race relations have improved over time, that in no way erases the intolerant attitudes and historical hurt that lingers in the United States. Further, systemic policies allow racism to continue in largely subtle ways which place people of color at a disadvantage racially, financially, and otherwise.

Theatre is a medium that has the power to dramatize actual events, tackle social issues, and encourage people to think critically. Like the American landscape, theatre has changed significantly over the course of history, and uses various formats to convey valuable messages. Specifically, documentary theatre is a forum whereby personal narratives are dramatized and have inspired audiences as early as the late 1910s/early 1920s with creative artists like Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator, Hallie Flanagan, and journalist-playwrights like Susan Glaspell and Sophie Treadwell. Since the 1990s, documentary theatre has frequently taken a realistic tone as seen in works by Richard Norton-Taylor and Anna Deveare Smith. The same is true for smaller community productions like the ever-evolving show Swamp Gravy (1991-present), which is collectively assembled by members of the Cotton Hall Theater in Colquitt, Georgia.

Particularly inspired by the communal process of Swamp Gravy and the stylistic presentation of Smith’s plays, my working partner Deb Kochman and I collaboratively compiled One Hundred Years of Hope as a documentary play to address racial divisiveness in America. With this work, we hoped to begin filling in the “great hole of history” that affects people across generational and cultural boundaries (Parks, 1996, p. 16). Our play is the result of transcribed interviews from Black, White, and Latin@ individuals who were ages 18-25 in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights movement and ages 18-25 in 2015 during the alleged post-racial era. South Carolina is a focal point in One Hundred Years of Hope because of the state’s historical encounters with racial tension past and present. Our primary motivation for the work was to talk about the 2015 Charleston shooting, the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse, and various recurring racial issues in the United States. This work starts the rare, but necessary conversation of openly addressing discrimination that results in tragic hate crimes and police brutality that has inspired the necessary movement and mantra, Black Lives Matter. Most essential to the creation of One Hundred Years of Hope were the interviews from our story sharers, whose experiences with race relations based on their race, age, and gender create the play’s narrative discussion. With formal written consent from the participants, these interviews were then compiled into a script with their verbatim words and performed by actors in what became a 90-minute production in Spring 2016. This essay utilizes the collaborative storytelling in One Hundred Years of Hope to investigate the history of racism through symbolism in the southern United States. As a middle-class Black female who grew up in South Carolina, my positionality and personal experience is also integrated into my historical examination of race relations in the American South. Ultimately, my research explores the significance of collecting and analyzing the nuanced experiences of individuals, as well as emphasizes the therapeutic value and social impact that results from sharing personal narrative.

The Social Impact of Personal Narrative and Performance

Empathy and understanding may be generated from authentic personal narrative in ways that urge people to consider how their actions affect the human condition. Personal narrative, especially from people of color, transcends the primarily White master narrative that is typically found in textbooks and utilized as documented evidence to formulate and understand American culture. In The Color of Justice (1999), Richard Norton-Taylor employed the testimonies of suspects, witnesses, police officers, and Stephen Lawrence’s family and friends, to highlight the circumstances of the victim’s death, as well as to reveal the motivation of the crime based on race (Dahl, 2011, p. 128). Similarly, Anna Deveare Smith’s plays Fires in the Mirror (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles (1994) explored the racial division that resulted in rioting after the death of a young Black boy and Jewish exchange student in a Brooklyn neighborhood, and the brutal police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, respectively. Her work is the closest stylistic inspiration for One Hundred Years of Hope, as Smith conducts interviews, compiles a script, and performs the identities of her interviewees.

Another notable personal narrative is that of human rights activist Maria Teresa Tula of El Salvador, whose account Hear My Testimony (1994) is translated and edited by Lynn Stephens. She referred to Tula’s stories as testimonials that “give voice to people whose experiences have been misrepresented or neglected [and] promise to convey a unique authenticity, authority, and truth” (Tula, 1994, p. 223). Stephens explained that the mere establishment of these stories is significant as “testimonial creation, production, and consumption is also an inherently political process connecting a wide range of people across national, racial, ethnic, and class boundaries” (Tula, 1994, p. 223). She confirmed that there is a rich culture of personal narrative in the country: “In the United States, testimonials have a history within Native American culture, African-American slave narratives, and family oral histories” (Tula, 1994, p. 223).

One such oral history is from Mamie and Karen Fields, a Black grandmother who worked with her granddaughter to recount and record her experiences about “how Charleston, South Carolina looked to a child growing up in the 1890s” (Fields & Fields, 1985, p. xi). What began as simply storytelling culminated into the collaborative book project Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Carolina Memoir. These stories as well as the aforementioned are representative of personal narratives and cultural experiences that are often excluded from the grand narrative and represent the story sharer’s truth. Stephens’ chapter “The Politics and Practice of Testimonial Literature,” brings the importance of personal stories full circle and illuminates the relationship between the researcher and the researched. She asserted that:

Testimonials invoke collaboration between the story-giver and the interviewer-editor-translator who turns the story into a publishable form… A major part of their appeal lies in the differences between the lives of those in the stories and the lives of those who read them (Tula, 1994, p. 230-231).

It is my hope that both the personal narratives from One Hundred Years of Hope and my experiences about growing up South Carolina, more recent than that of Mamie Fields, will contribute to understanding the lingering race problem in the American South and produce a similar lasting effect on those who read and/or interact with the work.

Race Relations in the American South, Past and Present

Arguably one of the most divisive issues in the American South is racism and prejudice based on skin color. As one of the original 13 colonies, South Carolina has a long history of establishing and maintaining racial disparity. In his text Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina, Littlefield emphasized the complexity of race that prohibits people from fitting into the expected Black and White checkboxes. He utilized a statement from prominent engineer, Daniel A. Tompkins of South Carolina about the contentious racial divide in the state and across the country. Tompkins relayed that “The so-called race problem is not one of the relations of a single negro race, but rather one of a number of white races with a number of negro races. The negro population of the United States is probably as much mixed as the white population” (Tompkins, 1901, p. 48; Littlefield, 1991, p. 1). However, Tompkins’ sentiments make both Black and White identifying people uncomfortable because accepting that most of the entire population is mixed makes choosing a side— Black or White— impossible. It also requires a universal acknowledgement that Black and White people have a variety of physical appearances and cultural experiences.

Take my father as an example. Born and raised in North Carolina, Dwayne Jeffries is a pale man who identifies as Black, as did his fair-skinned parents. Yet he has experienced unfavorable treatment from people assuming that he was White. His childhood teacher called his mother to ask why he was playing with the Black kids. He grew up in the era when race was still printed on licenses and had to return to the DMV to get his changed from White to Black which was met with bewilderment and disapproval. Upon moving to South Carolina, he was told by coworkers that he has the voice of a 6’5” Black man and informed them that he was actually just a 5’8” one. As his very light skinned daughters, my sister and I are continually asked about our race. People assert that we must be mixed because of our skin tone and hair, and voice their disappointment and sometimes anger when we maintain our sole known identity as Black.

This same type of anger and tension was apparent in the issue of interracial marriage in South Carolina and nationwide. Though the Loving v. Virginia decision of June 12, 1967 overturned anti-miscegenation laws in all states, my parents first date in the early 1980s at a North Carolina restaurant was met with glares and terrible service all because of the assumption that they were an interracial couple (Martyn, 1979). Their encounters with overt curiosity and hateful stares continued into their marriage and travels elsewhere. Further, they settled in South Carolina in 1998, the same year the state officially changed the state legislation to reflect overturned anti-miscegenation laws, 31 years after Loving v. Virginia (Martyn, 1979). It is also possible that the Carolinas may often share similar views on racial issues as neighboring states that “did not officially achieve separate colonial status until 1729” (Martyn, 1979, p. 137). Legislators in other Southern states such as Alabama and Louisiana continue to resist interracial unions into the 21st century and many citizens throughout the Southeast voice disapproval with their vote and otherwise (Cabell, 1999; Foster, 2009).

Louisiana specifically had an incident as current as 2009 in which a White justice of the peace official, Keith Bardwell refused to marry interracial couple Beth Humphrey and Terence McKay, something he admitted to consistently doing during his 34- year career. He expressed his rationale for not marrying mixed couples is “because he’s worried about their children’s futures” (Foster, 2009). His arguably absurd concern is met with laughter and sarcasm from Quigley, director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Justice, who stated, “Perhaps he’s worried the kids will grow up and be president,” a reference to mixed race Barack Obama (Foster, 2009). My great uncle/grandmother’s brother, James “Jimmy” Foxx, a North Carolina resident, talked about his bewilderment with people who suggest mixed race children are the faulty result of their parents’ union. A featured interviewee in One Hundred Years of Hope, he recalled an encounter with a neighbor who said he “just felt sorry for the little mixed kids because they catch a whole lotta problems… Grandchildren the ones who suffer” (Kochman & Jeffries, 2016, p. 22). Jimmy then revealed that he’s got “mixed grandbabies on both sides… [and that] those kids are no trouble at all” (Kochman & Jeffries, 2016, p. 22). Sentiments like those expressed by Bardwell, Jimmy’s neighbor, and other citizens explain the detrimental attitudes that exist in the South and manifest in laws and policies that mean to exclude and separate based on race.

Performing the Personal: Race Relations Expressed in One Hundred Years of Hope

One of the most prominent voices in One Hundred Years of Hope is Malik, a native of South Carolina. He articulated his disillusionment with American culture and its tendency to disadvantage non-White citizens:

My thing is like… Do we live in a post-racial society? Living the American Dream is only set for the people who set up the laws and policies for us to follow, and their offspring… Everybody else is… not so much (Kochman & Jeffries, 2016, p. 17).

Malik explained that many of the people who created the existing laws and policies were/are racist and that changing them is necessary for progress and equality. He suggested that life should ideally be simple if one strictly adheres to the laws though many of them are problematic: “just be a law-abiding citizen and you’ve got nothing to worry about but every law isn’t good. It was legal to capture and kill black people” (Kochman & Jeffries, 2016, p. 17).  Specifically referring to the lynching of Blacks and other races in the Jim Crow era and possibly reflecting on the current eradication of them by some police and other entities, Malik concluded that much of the current legislation continues to disadvantage people of color on a grand scale.

Legality is one of the ways in which racism is literally etched in American culture and history. It is worth noting that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was only slightly over 150 years ago in a country merely four centuries old and incredibly resistant to change. Another voice from the younger generation in One Hundred Years of Hope, Khandice from Florida, spoke about the attitudes that proliferate in regards to race in American history: “We’re still experiencing the result of racism… Because it was so engraved. That mindset for 200 years. Slavery and stuff like that. There was no really repair process to change people’s mentality” (Kochman & Jeffries, 2016, p. 9). Likewise, the Confederate Flag is a symbol for the underlying hatred that surpasses overt and subversive laws and policies. The flag has been at the center of controversy since the Civil War of 1861-1865 between the Union (primarily Northern States) and the Confederacy (primarily Southern states) with slavery being the principal issue of opposition. The Confederacy wanted slavery to continue as a means of principal profit in the South and the flag was a symbol of soldiers claiming territories in which they intended to keep that tradition alive. Therefore, in addition to White supremacist organizations who have since adopted the flag to communicate their preferences for racial division and distaste for Black people, it is not surprising that the latter is offended at the very sight of the symbol. Further, those who suggest that the flag is about their Southern heritage or an honorary emblem of their ancestors’ service omit the fact that their relatives fought in support of slavery and racial disparity.

Kaye of the Portland Flag Association argued that much of the debate and point of contention about the Confederate Flag is the intention behind the symbol. He stated that, “In spite of its history, affinity and familiarity cause many people to describe their attachment to the flag in terms of their heritage. The problem is, when you fly a flag, no one knows which meaning you’re attributing to it” (Segal, 2015). In his text, Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South, Bonner highlighted the Confederate Flag as a controversial symbol in the present; “a design created 140 years earlier remain[s] the most visible symbol of America’s unfinished Civil War” (Bonner, 2002, p. 1). He described that unfortunately much of what prevents rational conversation about the symbol is the emotion attached to it from both sides: “Participants in flag debates go beyond explaining what the symbol means; they testify passionately about how it makes them feel” (Bonner, 2002, p. 1). Malik specifically expressed strong feelings about the flag’s previous presence at the Statehouse in Columbia:

Why do you want that flag in the middle… in the center of the capital? That’s like waving a Nazi flag in front of a Jew— you don’t do nothin’ like that. People supportin’, sayin’ it does not stand for hatred. This flag means this and this flag means that. It’s 2015 (Kochman & Jeffries, 2016, p. 32).

Bonner recognized the common feeling amongst “African Americans [who] describe the chill the [Confederate] flag sends up their spines and the sickness it brings to their stomachs, comparing their reaction to the experience of Jews before the Nazi swastika or of army veterans witnessing an American flag in flames” (Bonner, 2002, p. 1-2). Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University, explained that it is impossible to detach racist implications from the flag. He stated: “The only reason that we debate here whether Confederate iconography should be displayed is that racism has warped our sense of reality… Some symbols are too strong to extrapolate” (Segal, 2015).  As a Black woman, like my Black male contemporary Malik, I see no other meaning for the Confederate Flag than as one of separation and support of slavery.

Racist laws and attitudes also manifest in limitations and lack of access to spaces for people of color. Maurice Bessinger, owner of the Maurice’s Piggie Park Barbeque chain in South Carolina is an example of the mentality often attached to one’s support of the Confederate Flag. Known for visibly flying the emblem at each of the restaurants’ 12 locations, Bessinger claimed he was justified in denying Blacks service not because he was racist, but because of “the right of a small businessman to select his customer” (T&D Staff Report, 2014). He also stressed that “You can’t be a racist and a Christian, and I am a Christian,” which Malik contradicted with “You can be a racist Christian. You won’t talk to this man because of his beliefs? …So you won’t even have a conversation?” (T&D Staff Report, 2014; Kochman & Jeffries, 2016, p. 18) Or in this case, serve a meal. Bessinger’s mentality seemingly reverts to that of a slave owner or their offspring (another aforementioned Malik reference), in which Black slaves served their White masters— not the other way around— and Bessinger refuses to see that change, at least at his restaurant.

More recently, Black people have even had to question what they previously recognized as safe spaces. One of the most notable incidents in recent years was the June 2015 shooting at the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The irony of horrific events such as this are illustrated in One Hundred Years of Hope from Ruth’s encounter with a Black female acquaintance who stated: “I don’t know what Caucasians do, but black people these days are afraid to go out unless it’s a church function” (Kochman & Jeffries, 2016, p. 36). Similar to her statement, the shooting ignited grief, fear, and anger from me for a few reasons: I am a Black female who has attended primarily Black churches her entire life, many of them in South Carolina; I currently attend an AME church in Florida; and friend of a friend, Tywanza Sanders, was a victim of the shooting. Further, the Mother Emanuel Church has a long history and is a significant marker of African American culture and presence in Charleston and in South Carolina. Founded in 1816, the church was burned down by a crowd of angry whites around the mid-19th century and not rebuilt until after the Civil War, causing the members to meet elsewhere in secret (Weisman, 2015; Payne, 2015). What I found most troubling and hard to swallow about the aftermath of the church shooting is that it revived a discussion about the Confederate Flag’s meaning and its placement in front of the Statehouse, which was but a slight move from its position on top of the Statehouse some 10-15 years prior. Though I readily agreed that the flag should be completely removed, I did not agree with the reactionary decision by the South Carolina government to do so after a national tragedy occurred in which people were killed because the Confederate flag had been used as a symbol of hatred.

The Show Ends but the Conversation Continues  

In the concluding video presentation of One Hundred Years of Hope dedicated to victims of racial violence, Dominique Gray talked about his friend Tywanza, and expresses his feelings about the Confederate Flag decision. He stated, “We’ve had numerous marches for the flag to come down, and just because we gained and garnered national attention, the flag had to come down. What would have happened if the shooting hadn’t happened? The flag would still be up there!” (Jeffries, 2016) The recent conversation and legal action regarding the Confederate Flag is symbolic of the larger issue of racism in South Carolina and surrounding areas. In the play, Ruth, a 70-year-old White female replied to her Black friend prior to the church shooting, stating, “I see no reason why people should feel fear? In this day in age?” (Kochman & Jeffries, 2016, p. 36). Contrastingly, Malik ended the dramatic portion of the play with his response as a 25-year-old Black male, “I don’t know how you can be black… and American… and not be scared” (Kochman & Jeffries, 2016, p. 37). It is this very notion that my working partner Deb and I wanted to leave the reader/audience with to make them hear and acknowledge, amongst others, a Black male’s perspective on their experience within American society.

Personal narrative can take on various forms as evidenced by Tula’s testimonials, the Fields’ novel, and dramatic texts by the previously mentioned playwrights. Deb and I felt that the various thoughts we gathered from our interviewed story sharers would be best presented in a verbatim documentary theatre format which most closely resembles an Anna Deveare Smith play in its style and process. We believe there is also power in the story sharer’s words and in the fact that we have not altered them in any way other than to thematically organize them as they speak to one another. Our goal is to present voices that are valid and worthy of being heard because they are often left out of the master narrative. The same sentiment is true of the way Black and Brown lives have been and continue to be oppressed and excluded in American society. As we created One Hundred Years of Hope, we witnessed our story sharers from vastly different races and generations tell their truth in hopes that someone would listen, that they might consider their position in relation to what they have observed, and as Ruth and Malik both suggest, want to have a conversation.

References

Bonner, R. (2002). Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cabell, B. (1999, March 12). Alabama Considers Lifting Interracial Marriage Ban: Law Not Enforced for Decades. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/US/9903/12/interracial.marriage/.

Dahl, M.K. (2011). Sacrificial Practices: Creating the Legacy of Stephen Lawrence. In P. Anderson and J. Menon (Ed)., Violence Performed: Local Roots and Global Routes of Conflict, 126-51. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fields, M. G., and Fields, K. E. (1985). Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Carolina Memoir. Simon and Schuster.

Foster, M. (2009, October 16). Man’s Halt of Interracial Marriage Sparks Outrage. Connecticut Post. Retrieved from http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Man-s-halt-of-interracial-marriage-sparks-outrage-179683.php.

Kochman, D., and Jeffries, D. (2015-2016). One Hundred Years of Hope. Tallahassee.

Littlefield, D. (1991). Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina. University of Illinois Press.

Martyn, B. (1979). Racism in the United States: A History of the Anti-Miscegenation Legislation and Litigation. No. 1129. University of Southern California.

Norton-Taylor, R. (1999). The Colour of Justice: Based on the Transcripts of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Oberon Books.

Jeffries, D. (Director). (2015-2016). One Hundred Years of Hope: Final Production Video. (Motion Picture) Bolduc, S. (Ed)., Tallahassee, FL.

Payne, E. (2015, June 21). Charleston Church Shooting: Multiple Fatalities in South Carolina, Source Says. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/17/us/charleston-south-carolina-shooting/.

Schuyler, G. (1940). Who Is “Negro”? Who Is “White”? Common Ground 1, 54.

Segal, C. (2015, July 10). What the Confederate Flag’s Design Says about Its Legacy. PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/confederate-flags-design-says-legacy/.

Smith, A. D. (1993). Fires in the Mirror. New York: Anchor Books.

Smith, A. D. (1994). Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. New York: Anchor Books.

T&D Staff Report. (2014, February 24). BBQ and the Confederate Flag: Maurice Bessinger Dies at 83. The Times and Democrat. Retrieved from http://thetandd.com/business/bbq-and-the-confederate-flag-maurice-bessinger-dies-at/article_a0568dc4-9dc0-11e3-b649-0019bb2963f4.html.

Tompkins, D. (1901). Cotton and Cotton Oil, Charlotte: Presses Observer Printing House.

Tula, M. T. (1994). The Politics and Practice of Testimonial Literature. In Hear My Testimony: María Teresa Tula, Human Rights Activist of El Salvador, L. Stephens (Ed.) 222-33. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Weisman, J. (2015, June 18). Killings Add Painful Page to Storied History of Charleston Church. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/us/charleston-killings-evoke-history-of-violence-against-black-churches.html.

“What Is Swamp Gravy?” (2012, October 23). Swamp Gravy: Georgia’s Official Folk-Life Play. October 23, 2012. Retrieved from https://swampgravy.com/about-us/what-is-swamp-gravy/.

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