Listening as it Comes Down

People hold signs during a protest asking for the removal of the confederate battle flag that flies at the South Carolina State House in Columbia, SC June 20, 2015.  REUTERS/Jason Miczek      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX1HFBL

People hold signs during a protest asking for the removal of the confederate battle flag that flies at the South Carolina State House in Columbia, SC June 20, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Miczek TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RTX1HFBL

In the summer of 2000, I had just finished my sophomore year at the University of South Carolina. During the previous spring semester, I worked as a page for the House of Representatives at the South Carolina State House. Most of my shifts for that job were spent on the House floor, distributing bills for signatures or fetching sodas for representatives to guzzle between arguments. When the House was not in session, I was assigned odd jobs—stuff envelopes for one representative, pick up fried chicken sandwiches from Kinch’s for another (most notably, our now prominent Congressman Jim Clyburn), and perhaps the most striking—sit in an office and answer a phone line set up exclusively for receiving public opinions about the Confederate flag.

At that time, the debate was over removing the flag from the South Carolina State House dome. In 1962, an all-white state legislature voted to place the flag in this prominent location amidst Civil War Centennial events and ongoing civil rights protests. By the 1990s, a block of white legislatures repeatedly refused to remove the flag from the dome, until the NAACP imposed a national economic boycott that cost the state’s tourism industry billions of dollars annually. In that lonely office, the phone calls about the debate were often long, with the person on the other end of the line offering extensive, passionate explanations about their stance for or against the flag. My job was to stay neutral, listen courteously for however long they wanted to talk, and then at the end I simply checked a box on a list— yes or no. Take it down. Leave it up. I don’t know if anyone ever even looked at that list, but I suppose it made people feel like someone was listening.

Fifteen years later, in July 2015, as we circle around the removal of the Confederate Flag again, I wish I could remember more clearly what people said during those hours of phone calls. The only one that stands out was a call from a man in Alaska, who berated me saying something along the lines of, “Really? What the hell is going on down there? You have got to take that flag down.” I remember that call because eventually I cracked, and against my strict instructions, told him something like, “I’m not supposed to say anything, but I totally hear what you’re saying. Trust me.”

What I do remember with striking clarity is watching the flag come down from the State House dome. The flag removal ceremony took place on July 1, 2000, in the stunning heat of a Columbia summer. I walked the few blocks from campus to the State House grounds to watch with a group of college friends. Amidst the massive crowd, I remember seeing a number of Confederate reenactors in full regalia. I also remember an African American man wearing chains and shackles, defiantly evoking the institution of slavery that the Confederacy fought to uphold. The moment the cord jerked and the Confederate flag began to move, a loud, powerfully dissonant roar emerged from the crowd as thousands of different onlookers simultaneously cheered or protested while the flag changed locations. It was a sound I will never forgot. Shortly after it came down from the dome, two Citadel cadets raised the flag again, on top of a Confederate soldier memorial centrally located on State House grounds near Main Street. As I remember, when that happened, another similarly cacophonous roar emerged.

Tonight, on July 9, 2015, it is creeping towards midnight, and tomorrow we will witness the second removal of South Carolina’s Confederate Flag—this time from the State House grounds entirely. I heard it is coming down at 10 am, and I wish I could say I will be there, to cheer at the top of my lungs, and listen for the sound of the crowd again. Will thousands of people show up to watch? Will it be so dissonant this time, or will the sound be more unified, more joyous, as South Carolinians celebrate a symbolic break from a history of racial inequality and hatred that has long held this state captive? Or will it be a sound of exhausted release, angry and tired from waiting for what should have happened long ago—or just should have never happened at all. To echo the man on the Confederate flag hotline from Alaska, what the hell has been going on down here?

Like many others, since the shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church on June 17th, I have been searching for a way to make meaning out of the tragic event, to form a purpose for what to do next. I want to add my voice to the many voices crying out in the news media, on Facebook and Twitter, on paint splattered Confederate monuments, and in rallies, marches, and protests. As a resident of Charleston I should have something to say. As a faculty member at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center, where my job is to promote public awareness of the Lowcountry’s rich African American history and culture, I should have something to say. As a scholar whose research focuses on representations of slavery in Charleston’s historic tourism industry, I should have something to say. And finally, as a white South Carolina native, whose middle name is Pinckney, the same family name as the great Reverend who was brutally slain—a common name in this state that like a number of others marks the descendants of slaveowners and enslaved—I should have something to say. But for the past few weeks, I found myself stumbling.

Tonight I am still stumbling, still heartbroken, and still working to find the next steps. But I do take great joy in knowing the flag is coming down tomorrow. Great joy. The question that will linger for me, as I listen for the roar of the crowd, is what new noise will we make in South Carolina? Many have passionately called for unity since the shootings, for #CharlestonStrong. But what new understanding of South Carolina and its history are we unifying around? It will be new, right? Dylann Roof was more than clear about the legacy of racial hatred he evoked when he shot down nine lives in the Emanuel AME Church. As many have noted, the removal of the Confederate flag he embraced will not dismantle the ongoing influences of that legacy—there is so much work to be done. We must fight to confront hard truths and unify around a new narrative, one that centrally includes the experiences of African Americans in this state and the complex history of slavery and its legacies of racial inequality. For many it is not a surprise to know that this legacy of racial divisions still permeates the South Carolina we live in today, and it must change.

I cannot go see the flag come down tomorrow because we have too much work to do. I don’t even have the time to try to properly publish this somewhere, as so many of my academic colleagues have been doing, and I applaud their powerful voices. Instead, I am posting this to an old defunct blog I used to keep and then heading into work. The emails, phone calls, and requests for help to my workplace keep mounting, and knowing we can be useful makes me so proud. But I am also overwhelmed and exhausted, as so many are in Charleston. Still, tonight, unable to sleep with excitement, I am hopeful, and listening for what comes next.


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