Coming to Know My Place

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.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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4 Responses to Coming to Know My Place

  1. Charles Hamaker says:

    the times they are a changin’

    Like

  2. alex caldiero says:

    i m always troubled by each wave of protest over monuments and such. i dont brlieve in defacing or burning or tearing them down. our past is ever who we are in the present going into the future. these items from our past that distub us in our present ought to be housed in museums with the rest of our collective storehouse where they can be contextualized and educate us. in my town there are still fascists slogans painted on walls slowly flaking and vanishing by natural processes. this is hiw i personally grow. ignorance is never bliss. and often is the seed for violence.

    Like

    • Scott Abbott says:

      yes, housed in museums that explain to visitors that the confederate army private was fighting for the right to own slaves and that the statue commissioned by people who glorified the Confederacy presided over a public park that did not allow Black people to enter until the new Civil Rights laws forced that to happen.
      that statue would have remained in Centennial Park (a park built on former slave-owners’ plantation) forever, with no historical context, unless there were waves of protests.
      if you haven’t already, read Trethewey’s essay in the NYT.

      Like

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