American Symbolism


Driving home yesterday, I was passed on the highway by an enormous white pickup truck.  It was raining.  The sky was mottled: now fuzzy, now slick.  Hitched to the truck's tail were both an American and a Confederate flag.  The truck was covered in Trump propaganda: 'the silent majority has spoken', 'God Bless Trump', and 'Trump 2020'.  He splattered my small car in a wash of kicked up rain.  I felt my whole body recoil.  This was Sunday morning.  On Friday night, a Neo-Nazi rally had gathered in Charlottesville Virginia.  With three dead and torches burning around a black church, it spilled over into Saturday.  By Sunday, the president of the United States had finally been pressed for a statement.  He prevaricated. Far from Charlottesville and alone in the rain, I wondered when this guy had gotten his truck done up.  Was it post election?  Was it more recent than that?  Was he out joyriding and fear mongering precisely because of the events in Virginia?  Where was he going?

And where had he come from?

This is part of the fear, isn't it?  The knowing there is danger in our midst?  We've known racism is endemic and systemic (different things, synergistic to each other); but for it to be so bold as to gather in public and shout Nazi slogans, for it to be endorsed by the silence of the White House, is terrible. It's terrifying.  As in: terrorism.  And yet, the seconds keep ticking by, unaffected and unnoticed as drops of rain.  Days, pass.

As soon as the protest or rally or whatever the hell it was was deemed illegal in Charlottesville, it was effectively shut down. This took less than 20 minutes.  However, I don't know that it was effectively 'shut down' so much as the Nazis disappeared.  No one knows where they went.  Through the veins of undercurrent, fringe internet chat rooms, and outlier fraternal gatherings, these people are organized.

Meanwhile they are neither so fringe nor outier as our sense of decency wants to believe. They are not quiet about their intentions. And however and whoever they are as 'organized' is perhaps less concerning - since they are really ego maniacal idiots who could be identified and held accountable - than are their counterparts outside and inside.

Outside: individuals who are alone are emboldened to act; the erroneous rhetoric of white supremacy and 'reverse racism' start to bleed all over the media, family gatherings, school playgrounds; events in Charlottesville are both horrifying as an incident and indicative of a swelling, global, atmospheric shift.  The environment has changed.  It tilted. Distortion seems to warp pubic spaces. It is toxic. It only takes one person, in a split second, to cause enormous and irreparable harm.  We live in an environment in which guns, slurs, and violence are everyday threats. We are waiting for the unspeakable to happen.   As has been pointed out elsewhere, the people at the rally are supported by the 52% of white women who voted for Trump seven months ago, anyone who is swayed by the rhetoric of 'shaking things up', everyone who is willing to tolerate sexual assault, bullyism, and vitrolic rascism in exchange for a mythic 'great America'.

And above: the people who act on these dangerous premises are backed by the executive branch of government.  Yes, by Donald Trump.  He's the front man.  He's provocative. But the ideology and power for this state of affairs lies in the hands, the heads and the history of the people behind him.  To say that white supremacy and violence are not endorsed by the president of the United States is to deny that office's entire platform. This is exactly what Trump asked for - and promised - throughout his campaign.  This is explicitly the polemics espoused by Steve Bannon before, during, and after the election.  Social recusal of the White House comes both from the blurring of reality that is the linchpin of totalitaritanism and abusive relating - we're dealing with the absurd here- and an earnesty of heart that does not want to believe racism could exist in such a sacred space, in the heart of government, where it matters most. Not at this point in history.

History is suddenly so present.

The white pickup was not the only one I saw in my forty five minute drive down the interstate.  There were three others.  None so provocative as the first, but all of them disturbing.  When the first passed me, I felt rage.  I wanted to scream.  I wanted to deface that truck.   I wanted a baseball bat and a can of spray paint.  I visualized getting close enough to spit, or at least flip the guy my middle finger.  But I realized: I could, maybe, possibly, get away with that ( being a middle aged white woman.  And the fair enough assumption that the driver is more swagger than action), but I might be hurt if I tried.  It is my privilege - and a personal dose of fuck you bawdiness - that would allow me to even dare.

After the fourth truck I pulled off the freeway.  The rain alternately stopped and began again.  It began so subtly you wouldn't notice. It was not raining and then you'd realize it was, and had been.   The long low sloping hills and fields and lakes were heavy with a green spiderweb of mist.  I was lulled by the somnulant metronome of windsheild wipers.

But it kept going, this confusing ride home.  All over the place, out in the countryside, people had decided to put out American flags.  I would just start to daydream and think of other things when I'd come around a bend and there would be another flag, rising up out a barrel of geraniums or lilting over a mailbox.

I realized I had no idea what the flags meant.

The symbol has been used and misused and bandied about so egregiously that you can't know what people mean by them.  Were these flags a stand in for a swastika?  Or were they an image of resistance?  It's terrifying to realize they mean both.  The Johnson's are proclaiming one thing while their neighbors the Swanson's are endorsing the other.  The empty mailboxes and soggy fields in between become just as mysterious.

Symbols are important.  They are the definition of human meaning.  By symbolism, fabric and metal and geometric shapes become more than they are in themselves.  They are dense and alive, laden, portent with history.  Symbols evoke god, justice, and identity. They refer to blood. Both the most senseless of pastimes - like sports or commercial branding - and the most bitter aspects of history can be tripped by a symbol, instantaneously. The response is visceral, organic. It's stronger than words and faster than logic. Start fucking around with symbolism and you're messing with the sacred and the profane.  Use an image, and you touch people's hearts. I mean people's souls.  This is precisely why oppression works: burn an effigy and you threaten millions of lives.  You can make a joke or excuse a thing as colloquialism, but you directly invoke slavery, condone rape, whisper that you and a whole culture behind you would be okay with your death, deportation, or lynching.

Language is nothing but symbolism.

So long as a certain language is established, the vast majority of the population doesn't even have to participate: their silence is enough.

So long as we have a president who deals in silence and false equivalencies, using language intelligently is a profoundly political act.

Like so: Neo-Nazis are responsible for events in Charlottesville, including both terrorism and murder. The president of the United States is on their side.  See? This is both true, and it is treason.

I stopped to visit my mother and father.  I told them about the flags.  My father shook his head.  He said he wished there could be a reclamation of the flag.  A movement to take up the ideals it once stood for. A strong and colorful affirmation of it's meaning for the future.

Reclamation and revision are part of symbology.  There is a long, long history of reclaiming the curves of the body, and hair, and sex, The righteousness of anger and the food on our tables has had to be recovered. The voice has to be reclaimed. Social justice, by definition, reclaims space.  Reclamation is a vital thread to feminism, black pride, and indigenous rights. Interestingly, revision often cuts past the objective to the vulnerable underside of the symbol: justice goes under the abstraction of geometry or slur directly to the flesh, to buried bones and politicized wombs.  This is why it matters, why it hurts: symbols mark identity.  This, again, is exactly why oppression is possible - by a magical process of abstraction, bodies are made invisible, history and civil liberties are denied, threats to children and communities are made clear. To un-abstract them is revolutionary. Social justice movements reclaim symbols precisely because symbols reveal the body's primacy.  I mean the desperate urgency of one's right to exist.

I burned a flag at the tender age of thirteen or fourteen.  I don't remember exactly when, other than junior high. I do recall that we had to first buy a flag, my buddy and I, at the local hardware store.  Made of synthetics, it burned poorly.  It melted and dripped, burning my hand.  We did the thing covertly, with hot whispers and a sense of adolescent blasphemous thrill.

You might ask what the hell I was doing.  I don't, and didn't, know.  I am not, in telling the story, saying I did right or saying it was okay.  I was hitting puberty.  When I say that I mean more than hormonal fury and testing of boundaries; I was coming to realize that my body was female, and by it's female nature it was as much an object and a target as it ever was subjective.  This wasn't hypothetical. Even if it were, it would have been harmful. I was also reading Howard Zinn for the first time. I was in love with both Walt Whitman and J.D. Salinger.  I read something called American Holocaust, the cover of which I remember vividly though I couldn't tell you today who the author was.  In that book, I learned the forests and lakes I loved were haunted and stolen.  And I was hanging out with a kid named Matthew Brown, who was Indian, and this somehow made me realize that history wasn't ghosted so much as it was denied.  Indians didn't disappear any more than I did.

The original act of resistance is knowing: reality is not the same as the dominant narrative; the dominant narrative itself is woven of lies.

I never burned another flag, but my resistance was early born and for decades turned in on itself. It was much later that I crawled out of the ugly roiling mess of self-hatred, self-effacement, complacency and alcoholism.  It took me a very long time to say things like 'my body' without simpering.  My body.  Mine.

A few weeks ago I saw an Audre Lorde quote pop up on my social media feed.  It's a popular one; a recurring meme in a world endlessly trying to find authenticity (sic).  The quote reads:  "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."  As I say, the quote is popular; but the final phrase is usually hacked off.  It's rote to speak of self care only as self preservation.  This is comforting, enough.  And it's benal. That is, we bandy about this idea of self-care or equally ubiquitous ideals of love trumping hate, all being one, yadda yadda.  But we are rarely brave enough to follow these things to their logical end.  We so often espouse ideals without being able to embody them.  Ultimate, absolute truths displace relative truth, current truth, this moment in time truth. It's one thing to say all are created equal; but walking down a street as a black person is not the same as walking the same street as a white male.  Even if people do know who Audre Lorde is, they couldn't recite her.  They couldn't say for sure whether she is alive or dead.  I'm not suggesting we all need to bulk up on our poetry; I'm suggesting our understanding of ideals and philosophies and history, the greatest and most beautiful things, is too often superficial. I don't think we're doing it on purpose.  After all, understanding takes work.  As I say: honesty is threatening.

But what of this: "caring for myself is an act of political warfare"?

Being objectified is painful.  I do mean physically, but I really mean psychologically.  Being made into an object is a violation of one's innermost reality and the superficial and forceful imposition of some other 'reality'.  Healing from such a deep psychological wound has to involve a realization, somewhere along the line, that the 'ism' and the pain were not personal, even though they took place on your body.  You realize your problems are not yours - in cause or in consequence.  They are a part and function of a social wrong.  Therefore: to affirm yourself is political.  To speak the truth is political.

In the wide narrative of racism in America and the narrower one of events in Charlottesville, this shows up: white people believe that calling things by their name is somehow a personal threat. Trump pretty much said so in his first- belated and reluctant- public statement: by blaming 'all sides' he simultaneously portrayed the resistance as threatening, and dismissed the legitimacy of resistance.  To say nothing of excusing the racism. You hear the undercurrent, the shadow, in the wider dialogue of white supremacy: renouncing privilege feels like losing something.  The removal of confederate memorials is 'erasing history'.  Any conversation about race or gender is harking on old resentments.   The left and the media are lying. Success is getting what you want, generally out of somebody else's pocket.  This is the natural order of things. Strength is force.  The mythos of white supremacy depends on a false narrative in which 'white male' is or at some time was a majority, and greatness is an outcome of dominance.

But America is and has always been indigenous, black, female. Brute strength has never been our greatness, but our shame.

Calls for letting symbols stand and moving on, or that we 'remember, never forget', are distortions of history rather than commemoration of it:  'moving on' suggests that white supremacy is a thing of the past; 'remembrance' is a distortion of when and why Confederate memorials were erected in the first place.  Confederate memorials are the works of Jim Crow America, not honor of the dead.  This is not 'like' historic preservation of Auschwitz.  The intent of maintaining Auschwitz is to honor and revisit tremendous grief; to keep woke to the danger of acquiescence and silence; to elicit not pride but mourning.  The intent of confederate memorials is not mourning, but pride.  Threatening, inciting, pride.

Later that evening, my husband and I went to a candlelight vigil at Bde Maka Ska lake.  Most people around here call it Lake Calhoun.  The place was purposely chosen as a local example of placemaking, unmasking the inherent racism of our landmarks and civic structures.  Before it was Lake Calhoun, it was Bde Maka Ska.  Bde Maka Ska is Dakota for White Earth Lake. In 1817, the United States Secretary of War John C. Calhoun sent the army to survey the area.  He'd previously authorized the construction of Fort Snelling.  The lake has gone by the name of Calhoun ever since.  Reactions to calling the lake by it's name, per the local paper: this is pointless; it will always be Calhoun to me; so tired of this PC bullshit, where does it end; Minnesota is the land of common sense, if Lake Calhoun offends you, leave.  No one will miss you; so very, very tired of the PC police and endless looking for things that might offend them or melt their snowflake; everyone will still call it Calhoun so cute but no cigar.

See: every single one of the comments feels burdened or imposed upon, threatened. Change is dismissed as nonsense, childishness. The problem with these reactions is not their ignorance of history, but their denial of the present. The White Earth Tribe still exists.  The Dakota still exist.  We are not talking about relics and archaeology; we are talking about children.  The great failure of the American Dream is believing that history is over.  The civil rights era ended.

It was still raining.  People gathered under a mass of umbrellas.  One woman carried an American flag.  I was touched.  It took a long time, and much work, but I have come to be deeply proud of being an American.  I love the magnanimity and the hope of it's oldest ideals.  I love the noisy, dynamic, vibrant reality of who and what the United States of America actually is. The flag hung limp in the rain. Two women next to us whispered the same questions I'd had earlier; why is it the sight of the flag is riddled with complicated emotional and physical reactions?  What does the American flag, mean?

It seems to me this confusion is related to another: how do we engage with a problem that seems so intractable?  How do we make sense in a world that seems so depressing?

There was a moment when sudden noise - loud noise, sudden - caused the speaker on the podium to stop and the whole of the crowd to turn.  It was a moment of fear.  There had been talk; white pickup trucks might show up.  In that moment I thought: the violence isn't done, yet. I thought: this isn't over.  But the noise was only a party bus, circling the lake.  The speaker on the podium half grinned, and then he continued.

This isn't, over.

It may be- and this might be treason again, but I'm over that - that we need a new flag.  Something that references not only colonies and states, but the Mexican and the Indigenous. We need something that acknowledges both slavery and Jim Crow.  Something that celebrates immigrants.  This rag would have traces of blood in it and threads of deep song.  I think it would be woven of hair.  This flag would ripple like a dancing body and it would sing in the wind.  It would sing.  It would sing not because the race issue went away but because the race issue endured.  It will dance not because the civil rights era failed, or reconstruction did, or the ideals of America are and have always been hypocritical; this flag will fly because the ideals of America still have a chance of coming to life.

If the America of the future is not black, not native, not hijab wearing and spanish speaking, not female, than there is no hope.  America will kill itself.  We are lost.  Humanity is lost.

At the vigil, we sang.  People lit candles in the rain.  Others carried LED lanterns.  A tall, white man standing in front of me wept.  I wept. The woman with the flag switched her grip. The flag leaned left, then right.  I kept looking at her out of the corner of my eye.  Lots of people talked to her.  I took comfort in this.   I thought of that stance, holding something aloft in the rain.  I though of beacons, and beckoning.  I thought of the Statue of Liberty and her relationship to abolition; she wears broken shackles. It seems that the great, the terrible sadness of this moment is not just sadness, it's also the only hope we've got.  It's an indication that we care.  Care, as Audre Lorde taught me, is not merely preservation.

We can only make sense of this sad and ugly world by understanding and believing that the race issue endures, and that is it's greatest and only hope.  It is black communities that will bring us out of moral turpitude; it is Somali women and indigenous women who will ignite our government; it is children who will judge what we do as history.