Thursday, September 11, 2008

Heritage and Hate Redux

... A difference, i think, between the sight of that swastika and the confederate style is that the swastika, from here, sits fully in its historical significance. People know exactly what it means and who it represented. Especially the Europeans, the Jewish homies, the Gypsies, the Poles. If they see it on a street corner today, they can rest assured that the cats waving it are on that racist bullshit. But a new form emerges with the so called battle flag. Those who wave it reject any racist connotation, in public at least. And this is annoying because all brown people in the south know that the bumper sticker means "unfriendly to negroes." They know it. And the cats with the stickers know that they know it.

Yet cats are brought up in places that are imbued with world meanings long before they even get the gift of language. So a white kid that has no investment in racism, no resentment for non-white people, nevertheless comes up in the world of the dukes of hazzard, shotguns and hee haw. But this is the thing: I did too. Exactly the same place, just one neighborhood over. So these signs are part of my landscape and i move from baby to kid to teen just taking it all in. But then I get to high school where I finally learn a bit about the civil war. And I am like, whaaat? Those guys did what? And the totality of the war means nothing, i am rapt with just one detail. The fate of the brown people. Suddenly I look around and realize that I am attending Robert E. Lee High School. My homeboy goes to Nathan Forrest High. My other homie goes to Andrew Jackson. And then I feel the resentment, because my whole world is littered with icons of cats who hated me. Or didn't think enough of me to hate me. Not that the whole history of America is any different, but it is the veneration that I can't stand. They love these people as heroes. And I am like, heroes? You want the heroes here with you if possible. I don't want Nathan Forrest here with me. I don't want that name on my diploma.

So my world shifts. This knowledge sours the icons of my environment. And a neighborhood over, none of this means anything to my white counterpart. He learns about southern hospitality and the might of the confederacy. And these cats are his heroes. Then he gets all mad when I push the reminder. But I am all mad at his mode of existence. Which is pretty much the history of race relations in america anyway. Both of us are selective about the legacy. He picks out a lush forrest. But I don't see the beauty because there are hunters among the trees whose muskets are trained on me. And they are all I can see. Why can't he see them? Why can't he ... oh no, he just put the decal on his bumper.

Thus, I grow up suspicious of all grand claims to honor, goodness and fairness in the men of history. a neighborhood over, he grows up suspicious of me. The feeling is mutual. Across town, there are black kids playing in front of a statue of robert e lee. Little versions of me who will soon awaken to the hot mess that is the american racial landscape. The landscape is a bit like the statue itself: it may tarnish but it ain't moving. Lucky for us, we can check it from many different angles. Stand with me and look at it from here. I'll do the same for you.

Note: Thanks to the gangster Lea for pulling these thoughts out me.


Question said...

One thought to add to the mix: The swastika was not invented by the Nazis. Its history is much older. Its shape can be traced back to early native americans and is also considered a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Mithraism. One interpretation of the swastika that I particularly like is derived from the ancient mythological symbolism of Shakti dancing upon Shiva- representing the evolution of the universe. When the Nazi's appropriated it they also said it was meant to mean '"the symbol of the creating, acting life"- but then of course subverted that meaning by killing 6 million jews and millions of catholics and gays and anyone else who wasn't 'pure'. So I guess what's interesting about all that is that in using it as a symbol for death and destruction the nazi's successfully erased the historical significance of the shape. I wonder if the same potential exists for the confederate flag? It's the irony of ironies when we start to claim things that have kept us 'in our place' as something completely different and perhaps, empowering. Not that I advocate all of us rocking confederate flag t-shirts, just that symbolism is only as meaningful as the power we attribute to it.

Chismatic said...

Lea writes:

"I collect old carpets, and the swastika appears in many of them in its old guise, a life-symbol; such that I now greet it like a friend when it appears in its true form.

Something similar has happened to me with the Robert E Lee statue one block from my house. It is a beautiful example of equestrian sculpture. Stunning in a way that public monuments are no longer. Skilfully rendered, subtle, a sense of weight and movement, detailed but not fussy. The horse is walking, and you can almost hear the slow clop of his hoofs. The sculptor--who knows what his politics were, but it's clear he poured his heart and a massive talent into the bronze. It's a little heart-rending, the beauty of it and the fucked-up values behind it.

What makes this even more heart-rending is that some fool thought that adding a statue of Arthur Ashe to Monument Avenue's parade of confederate war dudes would provide some balance [did you see this when you were here?]. A misguided idea, perhaps, to start with. Compounded by the fact that the Ashe monument is terrible sculpture, poorly conceived and executed. Not only a warped attempt at some kind of [re]conciliation that wanders off in a strange direction, but an aesthetic failure. Oh, Richmond."

VentCover said...

Yeah the fucked-upness is astounding; every time i discuss the topic of symbolic hatred with my students there are issues, especially with parents. Cries of "southern pride" are retorted with "that's a pretty fucked up thing to have pride in," which rebound throughout the classroom.

However, i find the same is true of the good ol' stars 'n stripes. I do not stand or pledge my allegiance to a flag that represents those responsible for the deaths of so many of my forefathers, nor do i force my students to do so. The din has become so loud from other teachers and parents that learn of this is deafening, to the point that i have had to contact the ACLU about not only this, but also a student who was being disciplined academically for not reciting or standing even though there are laws against that (

Understanding the difference of perspective, and incorporating it into your being is apparently either too hard or too time-consuming for many, even though a few minutes of research could change a lifetime's worth of judgments. It's just too bad that there is that lifetime before the eyes can truly be opened to a closer semblance of the truth. And thus America's youth suffers on...

CSH said...

Does anyone ever deny that the Swastika (as it appears in the flag of the Nazi party) has any meaning beyond the white power connotation? That would certainly be one difference. I have certainly never heard anyone say of it "its heritage not hate. This is just a symbol of my pride in Germany."
Additionally, no one every mistakes the Nazi flag as the flag of Germany. That is, when you tell people waving the Nazi flag "hey, you know that's not the flag of Germany" they don't look surprised and ask you what the German flag looks like.
As you point out, the heritage claim falls kind of flat when the person in question doesn't actually know heritage to which they are referring.