Slowly, with each passing day, with each gathering of thousands, the physical monuments to white supremacy are coming down.
It is too early to tell if the immense institutional structures that erected them — policing, the very U.S. economy, the educational system, the health care system — will also be reborn in the wake of the Movement for Black Lives. I pray it is not too late.
I take some hope from what existed before
…and what exists now
Maybe the phoenix is rising.
Update 6/13/2020: A judge declared the “monument” a public nuisance, allowing the process of removal to begin. Another brick of racism demolished, so many more to remove before the whole thing crumbles. It’s a step in a long journey
Every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse.
Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty
Tell them that a Black life should be worth more than a pane of glass, or a store, but that nearly a thousand Black lives in Atlanta’s surrounding counties have been lost because a governor refused to take action to protect them from deaths of inequality.
There were fires and police beatings taking place down on DeKalb Avenue not far from where I live. If you know Civil War history, this was where General Sherman began his march to the Sea in 1864.
They will tell you that this 1864 march this caused a path of fire and destruction down from Atlanta to Savannah. Maybe they won’t tell you that the army burned down a system of slavery, torture, rape, and a racialized state built upon terror. They won’t tell you that Solomon Luckie was one of the first people to die in the shelling of Atlanta that year. A Black barber, who I’m damn suredied happy knowing that his people were finally free. Is it a wonder that the governor of this state singled out barbershops to begin operation with the pandemic still raging?
Maybe they should tell you that millions like Solomon were freed from dire oppression. They surely won’t tell you how my great grand parents at that moment were freed from bondage by those fires.
They might also not tell you that in 1906, the year my grandmother was born, Black communities were targeted and destroyed by White mobs in the Atlanta race riots. Along this same stretch of street, my mother’s cousin still recounts how they would shudder at home as Klansmen galloped through the street at night. Or how the Atlanta Black community watched as countless cases were fabricated against Black men and women, some resulting in death penalty convictions meted out in vengeful certitude. At least those were spared lynching.
And still today, despite decades of Black mayors, Atlanta suffers among the highest levels of income inequality in the United States — and hence the Western world. You could read The Legend of the Black Mecca to understand the nuances of why these inequalities persist. To understand why the Black laborers — the sanitation workers, the delivery drivers, the gig economy workers, the patient nurses at assisted living facilities — are vulnerable to afflictions like COVID and have few bad options in terms of health, education and food. Their families locked out of access to mobility because of structural inequities that preclude access to healthy food, healthcare, safe and affordable housing and the other factors that contribute to a stable and fulfilled life.
Fulton county in which Atlanta exists, has the highest COVID death toll in the state. That the toll is highest among African Americans should come as no mystery given the work that puts us at more risk and the factors that make access to healthcare so precarious,
They’ll tell you that the oppressed should be non-violent. Perhaps with organization and time. Tell them the origins of the violence are still not clear. Remind them that there were fires in Hong Kong too. Remind them that the fires pale in comparison to the perpetual state sponsored violence ravaging Black, LatinX, Indigenous, and Asian communities throughout the United States.
You ask why is Atlanta burning. I’ll try to tell you how it feels. That it feels like the U. S. has been in a perpetual state of war on the Black and Indigenous populations since its founding. So it should not surprise you that the military is sending forces and predator drones to Minnesota.
What is it called when a country wages war on its most vulnerable civilian population? When it is ok with seeing its marginalized people die preventable deaths? Was it ok with you that there was an uprising in Lodz? Do you want us to get to that point?
When we know from all the data available that our lives are of no value to you, that our votes do not count, that the education of our children is of no importance, then perhaps the right question is why it took so long for the fires to start? This is why we say Black Lives Matter. Is in an affirmation of our existence in the face of your insistence that we just lay down and die.
If you understand the gilets jaunes in Paris, then you don’t need to ask me why Atlanta or Minneapolis is burning. If you understand the Hong Kong protests, then you have the capacity to understand and be in solidarity with Black people in Atlanta.
This is an uprising. This is democracy breaking through.
Friday night (6/12), Rayshard Brooks was killed by police at a Wendy’s drive through. Shot in the back. He had fallen asleep while waiting to order, tried to run away, ran after a brief scuffle, and was shot as he ran away.
Protestors gathered immediately. I am told that the protests had been peaceful. Saturday the police showed up with riot gear and US military battlefield equipment. The protesters were gassed, and then burned down the Wendy’s and occupied the interstate.
There are serious concerns about the decision of Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp to reopen businesses as of Friday, April 24th.
Here are some among the many concerns:
What are the protections for workers at barbershops, gyms, nail salons? Will PPE be mandatory, will they be provided by the state?
Will workers and customers at such establishments be able to get free testing?
Will the state expand medicare to pay for healthcare costs incurred by people who catch the virus?
Will the state provide secure mechanisms for contact tracing?
Will the state provide expanded minimum wage guarantees to employees putting themselves at risk?
Will the state provide for a moratorium on evictions and actions against those businesses who choose not to reopen?
Will mayors choose morals above profits to protect their citizenry?
By now, there have been a lot of analyses of appropriate ways to reopen economies. For example, Austria is investigating a rollback in it’s lockdown but provides more social support and has reported 1/3 the deaths as the state of Georgia. Masks are required in public spaces. Georgia has also not shown the sustained downward trajectory of cases. Most alarmingly, Georgia, as many other areas, has tremendous inequality in healthcare access according to recent figures from the Georgia Department of Health, more than 50% of the deaths occur amongst African Americans. Black people account for just over 30% of the residents of the state.
I started a petition to ask for more accountability. If you’re a resident of the state, please ask questions via the governor’s constituent services site. If you live in Atlanta or Decatur, or Albany, you can express support for your elected officials to enact morally responsible policies. GoFundMe campaigns or other mutual aid might be effective in keeping your favorite local business afloat while safe practices are enacted.
On the first morning of Black History Month, 2020, an infant’s stroller faces a towering obelisk erected a century ago by white supremacists. Over a hundred years ago in 1908, confederate army veterans had constructed this object to venerate the Confederate States of America and mark the ascendence of white supremacist state governments throughout the South.
Off to the side of the image, the child’s parents discuss a historic marker that explains the racist history of the statue. The statue dwarfs the marker. I heard the child’s mother explaining (perhaps to friends or parents) the point of the smaller counter marker off to the side. The child’s parents are white as are the group of their friends gathered around the marker.
I took the photo during a morning run two weeks ago. I’ve been struggling to come to terms with what this image says for two weeks.
Are you as shook by this image as I am?
Why does Georgia, the South, the US still feel the need to pollute its public spaces in this way?
Some context, in case you need it
Over a hundred years ago, the hard won freedoms of Black people across the U.S. lay in shambles. A Civil War had been fought, over half a million soldiers had died, the Confederate States economy based upon human trafficking and forced labor (i.e. slavery) had ended. In a brief period of no more than 20 years after the Civil War, African Americans had tasted self determination and been allowed a partial sample of democracy. Yet starting in the mid-1870’s, their former unapologetic enslavers had again regained control of government, and consolidated a hold on national political power in the U.S. that would be unchecked for another century. These reactionaries led campaigns of terror on African American communities with the approval of the U.S. government, denying Black folk access to basic human rights. This was the world into which by great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents had been born into. I sometimes think of my grandfather’s grandfather, a Black Civil War veteran who had witnessed this arc of terror: from enslavement, a struggle against tyranny, to freedom; only to end his life little more than a slave.
In an act of brazen self-affirmation, one of these terrorist organizations, a group of Confederate Veterans formed by Clement A Evans erected a monument to the lost cause (perhaps then not so lost) of a racial state. My mother used to speak of how the Klan would hold rallies near this artifact, on their way to rallies at Georgia’s Stone Mountain (site of another racist edifice).
Over the last ten years, there have been renewed efforts to remove the monuments to the white supremacy state, reinvigorated by the need to respond to the tragedies of the Charleston Church Massacre the Charlottesville Rally. Memorials like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice provide examples of what a reconciliation process would look like. But these efforts in the state of Georgia have hit a roadblock — state law prohibits the removal of Lost Cause monuments. The NAACP, the Atlanta History Center, and other organizations of conscience have responded with efforts to contextualize these structures.
The marker that is next to the obelisk is one of the first attempts by Black people in Georgia to contextualize the Civil War monuments so pervasive in the South.
What’s wrong with keeping confederate monuments — they’re history?
I struggle to understand why anyone would want to preserve a monument to white supremacy in a public space with significant Black population.
What do you think?
I’ve heard it said (even by Black folk) that these markers are “history”, and that removing them amounts to “erasing history”.
If you think about it, this monument and others like it are not markers that identify significant events in the Civil War, or regional history: there are markers around Atlanta that described the Civil War battles, markers where Black churches were burned, markers where student lead sit-ins de-segregated restaurants. Rather this one and others like it, venerate The Lost Cause — no not the prospect of the Falcons winning a Superbowl — but the notion that there was a redeeming value in the Confederate States of America, a government created for the express purpose of maintaining a racist economic system built upon the mass enslavement, exploitation, and dehumanization of African Americans. The Lost Cause formed the ideological basis for the Klu Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations as well as of the governments that ruled the South. If you think about it, this “monument” and others like amount to a huge dis-information campaign. It is not history, it is anti-history.
This marker and it’s protection feels like a cause for concern on several levels: it was created by early 20th century racists to venerate the racist government of the 19th century; and it continues to be protected by a 21st century state government, thus reifying the support of a racial power hierarchy. It is a monument to the persistence of the racial state.
But what does it mean today?
But Georgia is different now that it was 100 years ago.
The U.S. representative for this area is Black, the city council of Decatur is diverse. My aunt, who moved to Decatur in the 1970’s remarks on how amazing it is that the space is now truly multiracial, almost overwhelmed with joy that the confederate vestiges are now being challenged. Most of the police officers I encounter any given day near the monument are Black. How would the confederate generals react knowing that episodes of the HBO series The Watchmen — whose lead is a Black woman and whose plot references a white supremacist terror attack in Oklahoma — is filmed feet from the site of the statue? As I drop by son off to the school near the state capital complex, I see staff and legislators that are a diverse representation of a state in which Black and Brown people comprise 40% of the population. Atlanta ranks as the third in the U.S. in terms of population that self-identify as LGBTQ. Georgia is sixth in terms of undocumented people. It is a diverse state, and further a state in which people of color have a say in government — Stacy Abrams, a Black woman, lost the most recent governors race by 1% of the vote.
So, things are changing. Is it enough simply to let “things take their course”?
Imagining a space for truth and healing
The dialog that took place between the child’s parent and friends is critical to building a livable future. I wish that I had stopped and asked her:
As a white person looking at this, how do you feel? Do you feel outrage, shame, indifference? What should be done?
It is dialog that makes “memorials” like this pertinent, relevant. We need ways to address the pain inherited from the past; naming the problems that we face today; and a starting point for calling the future we want into being.
What other ways are there to move forward?
In public spaces like this, once dominated by racism and centering oppression, a few ideas have come to mind.
What if the guides giving tours of the city were taught how to reframe and refocus away from the white settler oriented perspective currently given?
What if the city provided a Land Acknowledgement template for conferences and conventions that paid homage to the Indigenous guardians and first people of the land?
What if we made possible barcodes that allowed visitors to understand how the labor of the enslaved had contributed to the building of the city?
That there are so many spaces in the South that are beginning to peel back the layers of pain and silence is encouraging. A space to hear the stories of the still living elders that experienced terror first hand, a space to talk and come to terms with a path forward. It will require imagination and courage.
Imagining a future for our children
It’s easy to imagine that the child sitting in the carriage will witness the removal of the Lost Cause monument and others like it. It’s easy to imagine a future in which this same child is taught history in grade school that centers the stories of the Indigenous, LatinX, and Black people that are so central to the history and future of this county.
This outcome is not inevitable. Countries come to terms with their past inequity through engagement with it — we cannot wish a world into existence, maintaining it once we have it will be difficult. The past is still present for Black people in persistent health, education, and economic disparities. The past is present in persistent anti-Black policing. The past is present not that far from my doorstep. We have fully not excised these ghosts in white sheets.
I want to gift build a world for that child in which they would hold the racially just society as fundamental as air; in which that child would understand the crimes of the past and see as fundamental to their humanity to guard against it. Georgia and the other states in the South could be a birthing ground for a generation for which anti-racism is life. This world will not come from silence.
When does the United States get to the level of spiritual and psychological maturity to honor the peoples and civilization that lived on its soil and held its skies and rivers sacred before the first European countries even existed?
I eat, live and breath on stretches of earth that were carefully and lovingly maintained, defended, honored by the Muskogee, Cherokee and their forebears for millennia. We can’t even approve an hour to remember and cherish our collective ancestors? They don’t even rate to the level of Halloween? That ain’t right.
Think of it this way. The pride of India is the Taj Mahal. The Mughal empire — in whose time it was built — has long passed into time, yet every child in Delhi knows some connection to this wonder of the world. India is home to so many diverse faiths, among them the Sikh faith. Not everyone — not even a majority — is Sikh yet the sacred days of that faith are celebrated widely. Because it is a denial of history and a warping of reality not to. Would any resident of London refuse to acknowledge their connection to Stonehenge, or to Shakespeare? Yet the governments of those times, even the notion of the country of Britain, has changed many times in the centuries since. Would any Egyptian deny the pyramids, or Hatshepsut?
So yea, this place we call the U.S. did not and does not begin and end with European settlement. Being complicit in Erasure is no way to live.
So what to do?
Well the image for this post is from the Ocmulgee National Monument mounds in Georgia. We know that the Ocmulgee peoples have held this site sacred for at least the last 17,000 years, give or take a colonizer shutdown or two.
My one resolution for getting beyond Erasure? Understand and live my debt to the Ocmulgee (forbears of today’s Muskogee Nation) civilization. A festival will be held on September 21 and 22 of this year on the grounds of the monument.
Feeling some despair headed back to Georgia, and the U.S. generally after a month in India.
It’s about this question: Will Brian Kemp govern Georgia like Lester Maddox?
Lester Maddox became the governor of Georgia during my childhood. He was openly racist, was famous for selling axe handles with which to beat down civil rights activists, and actively fought a state memorial immediately after Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Until Brian Kemp, I don’t remember any Georgia governor who so actively and openly embraced race based voter suppression and racist immigration messages.
Yet Maddox apparently went on the most aggressive hiring of African Americans in the state’s history.
I’m finding solace knowing that people of color in Georgia nonviolently sacrificed their livelihoods and their lives to end the Maddox mode of governance.
Those sacrifices opened the door for people like Stacey Abrams, Andrew Young, and Jimmy Carter.
Our grandmothers and uncles and neighbors did this with an inner soul power (to quote Dr King) that could not be suppressed by axe handles or tear gas. I find strength knowing that we can call on that soul power to do the same again.
If you’re eligible to vote in the upcoming Georgia election on November 6, 2018, this is a PSA to: 1) vote, and 2) vote for candidates that can change the healthcare disparities impacting expecting mothers and their children.
I delved into these statistics after reading this Atlantic article and was stunned, saddened, outraged. The popular reports of life in Syria and Venezuela paint those countries as war zones, places in the throes of chaos, places where the healthcare system has collapsed and failed the most vulnerable. Coincidentally, the infant mortality rate for Black children in Georgia (the state) is identical to the overall rate of Georgia the country (12.9 deaths / 1,000) — and the democratic institutions of the two Georgias may be in similar shape. Georgia the country is making strides towards full democracy.
You might say that I’m comparing disparate populations — Black people in Georgia vs the overall population of Syria. Would you agree that a comparison of Caribbean nations to the U.S. Black populations is reasonable? All of these islands have significant African diaspora populations — equalling or exceeding the Black population of the state of Georgia. Many of the current Black inhabits of the U.S. claim Caribbean ancestry. Let’s then compare Georgia’s infant mortality with that of the most populous Caribbean countries and Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory).
These figures are from the Kaiser Family Foundation table cited earlier and the CIA infant mortality rankings. The United Nations and CDC keep similar statistics.
The overall impact of Georgia’s health policies — the defunding of rural health, unaddressed racial disparities, the refusal to support medicaid expansion among them — are richly detailed in this report When the State Fails: Maternal Mortality & Racial Disparity in Georgia. The results of these policies have been devastating — a perfect storm on the life expectancy of Black women and children, and also upon those of rural Georgians of all races and ethnicities.
What can be done?
If you live in Georgia, please remember to vote — there are candidates on the November 6, 2018 ballot who are committed to ending health disparities based on class and race.
You might consider moving to Georgia (in the mode of Freedom Summer). To quote Stacey Abrams “Georgia matters to everyone. If you change the leadership of Georgia, you change the South. If you change the South, you change the country.“
Stay informed and advocate for universal healthcare in the U.S.
If you’re a healthcare professional, consider getting involved in volunteer efforts in the Southern U.S.