On July 3, The New York Times published a piece by Natasha Trethewey, former poet laureate of the United States and former poet laureate of Mississipi. The title was “Goodbye to a Symbol That Told Black Americans to ‘Know Your Place,” referring to the Mississippi decision to replace its flag.
If the Confederate battle flag alone could signify virulent and dangerous forms of white supremacy, as it has increasingly over the years, the communion of the state flag of Mississippi and the battle flag sent a yet more insidious message: The state will preside over persistent injustice, turning a blind eye to white violence against Blacks.
It was the continuing onslaught of that implicit message — that the lives of Black people mattered less than the lives of whites — that my mother was intent on countering as we navigated a landscape rife with it. Whenever we passed the state flag, often driving down the beach road that had been dedicated, on a plaque erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy, “The Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway,” my mother would sing to me the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — the antislavery, abolitionist version that had morphed into an anthem for Union troops during the Civil War.
“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his truth is marching on. …” She sang to counteract the symbolic, psychic violence of that flag, to remind me of the struggle for — which means the possibility of — justice.
To Black Americans, Confederate symbols have always sent a variety of messages, and they are not innocuous.
It’s a powerful essay, but it was that last statement—they are not innocuous—that awakened memories in me.
From 1981-1988 I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, a transplant most recently from New Jersey, and before that from the intermountain West. Daily, when the weather was good, I ate my lunch in Centennial Park, across the street from my office at Vanderbilt University. A full-sized replica of the Parthenon dominated the park. The park also had a sculpture of a Confederate Army private commissioned by a “Bivouac of the United Confederate Veterans” and dedicated in 1909. I never questioned its place there, seeing it simply as a memorial to Tennessee soldiers not that much different from the veterans’ memorial near my own father’s grave.
Trethewey’s essay asked me to see that and other monuments to the Confederacy through the eyes of a Black person.
With a little research, I found that the park was segregated until 1964, with African Americans excluded from the park and its public swimming pool. Segregation watched over by a statue of a Confederate soldier. It no longer feels innocuous to me.
Nor does it to some residents of Nashville who defaced the monument in 2019.
Thank you Ms. Trethewey. A good lesson for me on Independence Day.