Race, as applied to different peoples, is a human abstract construct. There is the biological classification of species, but no such thing as race. As far as humans are concerned, we are a single species, Homo sapiens. Race grows out of tribalism. Tribalism grows out of an innate fear and dislike of things that are different, not understood, or are unknown. As a child, when you saw some new food on your plate you immediately disliked it, without even trying it. This natural process created tribes. Your tribe did not like some other tribe because they talked in ways your tribe could not understand. They wore things yours would not wear. They looked different, perhaps lighter or darker, or had funny eyes. At some point, this inherent dislike became more than tribes or nations. It took on false science to become race.
One thing all peoples hold in common is that, while humans are members of the animal kingdom we have the capacity to rise above our animal behavior. It is what makes us human. It requires intelligence to do this. There may be one or two other species, such as porpoise, that possess the necessary intelligence to accomplish this feat. However, we know that we can, and all cultures claim to do so. While cultures make that claim, many individuals fall short.
When I was in my teens, I was on my spiritual quest, the search to find my heavenly foundation. I had sampled many churches. I was born into the Presbyterian Church. I had visited a Lutheran church, a Baptist church, a Southern Baptist church, Greek Orthodox, Jewish Temple, and others. A high school friend, Irmo High by the way, invited me to attend his church. His name was Johnny Morris, and one Sunday I went with him to his AME church in the heart of Irmo, one of the oldest AME churches in the midlands, or so I was told.
Sunday school was nice. There were only about six of us, Johnny, his sister, a few others, and myself. When we went to the sanctuary for the sermon, Johnny and I sat in the middle of the middle pew on left side of the center aisle, as you face the pulpit. His parents and sister sat in the pew behind us. We were early, as we had been in the Sunday school class.
As the parishioners began filing in, Johnny whispered that attendance was light. Word had gotten out that I was attending, the only white person to cross the church’s threshold since its construction some 100 years before. Before long, quite a throng had scrunched itself into the right hand side of the church. With more wishing to attend and no room remaining on the right, a few pews at the back of the left hand side were used. At one point Johnny looked back toward the door. He whispered to me, “Shit, its my big brother.” I said, “So?” “He’s a golden gloves boxing champion.” “That’s cool.” “He hates honkies.” Gulp.
I sat beside my friend with a desert of five or so empty pews between the dais and us. The room looked like a beautiful but out of balance plate of fine chocolates with me, the single milk toast cracker sitting in the open. The appointed hour arrived and the sermon began. I could tell it started off slowly, but soon the Deacon beside the Preacher was letting out an “Amen” and some of the wonderful ladies in their fine Sunday dresses with their glorious hats, were shouting out “Praise the Lord” here and there. It was quite an event. The uninhibited embrace of belief and feeling was moving. At an appropriate moment, the Preacher looking out at his flock seated in the oddly weighted room, said hesitantly, and a bit embarrassed, “I see we have visitors today. This church is open to everyone.” He went on for quite a bit, emphasizing the importance of being open and welcoming, I think to comfort me as well as make an impression on his congregation.
When all was done, the Preacher waited at the door for the shaking of hands. He shook mine, as did a few other members of the audience. Johnny’s brother and a small crowd stood off a distance with a bit of an uncertain eye, but I couldn’t blame them one bit. Their sacred place had been invaded.
This true tale highlights the innate fears we all possess. We are all scared of the unknown and different, but that is not the point of the story.
I went home thinking about my experience, and this I think is the important takeaway. I had the briefest peek at racism aimed at me. I could not and cannot imagine in my deepest, longest nightmares what it would be like to live in that state every single day for an entire lifetime. To walk into a public place and watch the crowd part while eyes study you with uncertainty. To experience that fear, and even hate, daily by just walking into a grocery store, or a movie theater, for every job interview, and as you simply walk down the street from point A to point B.
We are all human. We are supposed to be able to face our fears, banish our biases, and erase our egos and petty personal wants for the greater good. We have the capacity to beat the beast down into submission. We are supposed to be those special creatures that can look at our inner animal and rise above it. Remember what your mamma always told you as you eyed that strange new food. “Try it. You might like it.”
We know several things. We can debate ancient history and argue that all colors of people have been enslaved at some time or place. However, we know Africans did not build ships of their own design and sail the Atlantic, enter South Carolina and do battle with the people there. We know that did not happen. We know state sanctioned merchants sailed their vessels to Africa to capture Africans, lock them in chains and drag them to South Carolina to do forced labor. We know this. That is not speculation. That is fact. There is no chicken or egg debate in this discussion. We know the white authorities at the time hated first. We know this, whether we wish to admit it or not.
We also know that South Carolina was first to fire upon the Union. It was first to try to rip the country apart, and once the war was over it embraced, wholeheartedly or not, the country it tried to destroy. In that embrace, it accepts its tenants. One of those tenants at the end of the Civil War was the end of slavery.
One might argue that was then and this is now. However, the symbols of those times still fly and are supported by the current set of authorities, even in defiance of decades of counterargument. The scares and hurts of that time linger. In the hearts of some people, the hatreds and fears that started it all fester and swell even today, and are subtly supported by the powers that be. Call it heritage, or honoring the past, whatever name you wish, it is only a refusal to acknowledge the hatred that existed then, and the fear that is still buried deep within.
It is not the responsibility of the oppressed and suppressed to change the conditions, to make amends, or capitulate. It is the responsibility of the oppressors and their representatives to make amends. After South Carolina accepted the tenants of the United States and slunk back into the fold, it took down the flag. However, a little more than 50 years ago it was raised again in the name of heritage, perhaps hiding hate. There are sufficient monuments to honor those soldiers, with streets that bear their names. Why raise the flag?
All tribes have flags. Long before they have monuments or museums, or even countries, they have banners. How quickly could you recognize the symbol of the country-less group, ISIS? Pretty darn quick I would imagine. Flags have always been the rally point, from Genghis Khan to Iwo Jima. Banners mark the tribe, and the tribe’s space. Why move the flag from the capitol dome to flying over the grounds, if not to continue the statement that it stands? Flying a banner is an activity, an ongoing task that requires daily care and support. That rally point banner represents a group that sought to destroy America, and an oppressive system that sought to keep fellow members of humanity in sub-human conditions. Still it shouts out here I stand in defiance of my divisive nature, with the protection of the authorities, and surrounded by a fence no less. It does not suggest a memorial as much as it declares the land under it to be home to a tribe that may not like you, yet they talk about honor and respect.
The monuments exist. Streets bear names. Museums house artifacts, and any citizen may fly that banner if they so choose. It is time to honor those who have fallen on the other side. It is time to tone down the hatful rhetoric by removing some of its visible supports. It is time to show respect and honor in their truest forms.
The time is past due. Take it down for good.