The Casual Blog

Tag: 1619 Project

Taking down some more Confederate monuments, and learning some important history

Looking across the N.C. Capitol grounds to the former site of the tall Confederate memorial obelisk

The big Confederate monument on the west side of the Capitol in Raleigh came down last week.  I didn’t learn the news until I walked over there for my morning constitutional.  Where there once was a 75-foot-tall obelisk, there was just a pile of rubble, which workers were cleaning up with a backhoe.  

People think of these monuments as part of history, which they are, in a way, but not the way most people think.  The big Confederate obelisk was dedicated in 1895.  Right after the Civil War ended in 1865, during the 12-year Reconstruction period, there were meaningful efforts to recognize equal rights for formerly enslaved people, but after that, white supremacy was reinstituted in the new form known as Jim Crow.  Most of the Confederate monuments in N.C. and elsewhere date from the Jim Crow period, and carry the coded message that the Lost Cause was noble, and white supremacy was still triumphant, so black people had better know their place, or else.   

It truly is historic that these monuments are coming down, but I’m sorry that they’re coming down so quietly.  There were apparently thousands of  people cheering when the Confederate obelisk was dedicated, and probably a lot who would have liked to cheer as it came down. 

Unfortunately, the Republican North Carolina legislature passed a  law in 2015 following the mass murder of black people by Dylann Roof forbidding the removal of such state owned monuments.  What were our Republican leaders trying to express, I wonder?  Let’s hope it wasn’t support for white racist terrorism, which would not be unprecedented in North Carolina.  Many of those Republicans are still in power, so let’s ask them.  

Recently Governor Cooper issued a decree authorizing removal of the Confederate monuments at the Capitol, which he characterized as an emergency measure.  The Governor’s reasoning was debatable, but close enough for government work.  I’d been a little worried that well-meaning protesters would try to pull down the big obelisk and accidentally crush somebody. Happily, the government workers got the monuments down without anyone getting hurt.

Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh

This week I took a walk through the Oakwood Cemetery, including the Confederate section.  It’s a quiet, lovely place, with old oak trees and gently rolling pastures.  There are several stone memorials praising the valor of the Confederate soldiers and the nobility of the Lost Cause.  

As for the soldiers, I’d guess there were some brave ones, and others who were flat out terrified.  As in every war, most of them were just followers, doing what they were told to do.  We can  feel compassion for them as humans and feel sorry that their lives were cut short without thinking their cause was noble.  Praising the Lost Cause (described as “Glorious” on a bench in the stone chapel shown below) is another matter.  That’s morally derelict.

Speaking of monuments, there was an outstanding essay by Caroline Randall Williams in the NY Times  titled You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is Confederate Monument.  Williams sets out in stark terms something we don’t much like to think about:  that the brutality of slave labor camps included a lot of rape of black women by white men.  From this racist violence, children of mixed race were begotten, as shown by the many variations in skin tones we now call black.  The evidence has been everywhere for all our lives, and we somehow managed not to notice.  The good news is, now we’re recognizing it was shamefully wrong, and starting to see the need for reparations.  

I also recommend a new essay by Isabel Wilkerson titled America’s Enduring Caste System.  Wilkerson  draws an interesting distinction between race and caste which explains how one can have no particular racial animus and yet still accept the caste system that subordinates people of color.  

As Wilkerson explains, our caste system is not explicit, but it is deep seated and powerful.  We understand it unconsciously, just as we understand our mother tongue, and it guides how we think about hierarchy and rights.  As it has traditionally operated, our caste system decrees that people of color should live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools, have lower status jobs, and be regarded with suspicion.  This is, of course, an artificial creation with its roots in the racism that was used to justify slavery.  It is not immutable.  When we look at it more closely, we start to see we can dismantle it.  

I once thought I knew a fair bit about the history of slavery, but I’m finding there’s still a lot to learn.  Last weekend Sally and I watched 13th, a documentary on Netflix about America’s still on-going program of mass incarceration of black people.  It’s really excellent.  The subject is multi-dimensional, but the director, Ava DuVernay did a brilliant job of boiling it down.  Michelle Alexander, who wrote the essential book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, appears in the film, and contributes more here to our understanding.

I also want to give a shout out to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her new piece on reparations.  Just as in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1619 Project work, she brings new aspects of the white supremacist system to light.  In the new essay, she points up that giving enslaved people their freedom and ignoring their poverty and other needs was a brutal way of handling the situation, and it cost many lives.  The continuation of white supremacy after the Civil War ensured that the descendents of enslaved people would remain second class citizens, poor and easily exploited. 

H-J notes that the coronovirus pandemic has taught us some surprising lessons, one being that we can come up with $2 trillion dollars to address economic problems without breaking a sweat.  She makes a compelling argument that now is a great time to finally acknowledge the immensity of the wrong done to kidnapped Africans and their descendents, and take a meaningful financial step toward righting that wrong.  I’ll conclude by quoting the last two paragraphs of her piece:  

Citizens don’t inherit just the glory of their nation, but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded, we must do what is just.

It is time for this country to pay its debt. It is time for reparations.

 

Canadian forests and bears, and where we got our racism

Last week I went out to the west coast of Canada to photograph bears.  I stayed in Klemtu, B.C., a small community in Great Bear Rainforest, which is the largest temperate rainforest on the planet.  It was vast and beautiful there, with evergreens covering mountainous islands surrounded by intricate waterways. The area is home to the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation, members of which served our group as guides.

The travel involved some bumpy boat trips, hiking, and sitting for hours, often in the rain, watching hopefully for bears.  I found the waiting challenging, especially when the rain got heavy, but also learned some things. Sitting in the woods or on the boat watching and listening very closely for long periods became a type of meditation.  Getting really externally focused helped in making a good shot.  

We had good close views of  black bears, grizzlies, and a rare spirit bear, a white relative of the black bear which is found only there.  We also watched humpback whales and orcas diving and occasionally breaching. There were lots of bald eagles and ospreys.  One day we saw an osprey that had caught a fish drop it, and then an eagle caught the unfortunate fish in mid-air.

The trip was organized by Muench Workshops and led by Kevin Pepper, who gave me friendly encouragement and guidance.  The six other amateur photographers in the group were very well traveled and experienced. We were all surprised to find that every one of us, including Kevin, had the same camera:  the excellent Nikon D850.  My equipment worked well, except that I maxed out my hard drive halfway through the trip.  I ordered a new one, and should have a few more wildlife photos to share next week.  

It was a long trip home, starting from Klemtu by boat, then a cab to the Bella Bella airport, and a prop plane to Vancouver, and the next morning a flight to Seattle, and nearly missing the connection to Raleigh.  

 

One thing I like about long travel days is the chance to get immersed in books.   On the trip home, I finished Bill McKibben’s recent book, Falter:  Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? The book is about the existential risks that we’re now facing, especially climate change.  McKibben strongly lays out the imminent threats of rising temperatures, storms, fires, droughts, ocean acidification, and others. His account of how the fossil fuel industry consciously misled the public and prevented remedial action is clear and infuriating.  Some of the factual information was familiar, but I still found McKibben’s framing readable and worthwhile, and appreciated his note of hope. 

It was good to get back to North Carolina.  On Friday, I stopped by Jersey Mike’s for lunch.  I like their veggie sandwich (the number 14), which I get dressed “Mike’s way.”  They know me there, and I usually get a smile when I order. But this time I noticed a young black man behind me did not get such a friendly reception when he ordered.  The woman at the counter, who’d been friendly and warm to me, turned sour and cold to him.  

Did it have to do with his color?  I’m pretty sure that it did. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about this:  in our racial caste system, a lot of people treat others less well based on skin color.  Sometimes it’s subtle, and for those of us in the privileged caste, it’s easy not to see.

Grizzly cub

As I noted here recently, I’ve been thinking about some of the non-obvious effects of American racism, including its polarizing impact on our politics.  I learned more about those issues this week from the 1619 Project, an excellent series of essays in the NY Times on American slavery and racism.  The series makes a strong case for viewing slavery not as a momentary aberration in the American experience, but a central element of our foundation that continues to affect us today.   

The 1619 Project notes how the heritage of slavery explains many of the problems in our housing, schools, employment, health care, and criminal justice systems.  The essay by Matthew Desmond  was particularly intriguing.  Desmond points out that the version of capitalism that Americans think of as normal is actually quite different from capitalism in most countries in that it largely ignores concerns for workers’ welfare.  He argues that this is the result of attitudes and practices worked out in the extremely profitable cotton plantations of the early 19th century. Plantation owners pioneered many modern business and financial systems, and also developed a mindset that tolerated extreme inequality with wealth and privilege only for a lucky few.  Their success depended on the brutal exploitation of kidnapped Africans.  

The brutality of that system was justified by the pseudo-science of racism, with otherwise respectable scientific minds purporting to show that Africans and their American descendants were inherently inferior.  Ian Frazier has a very fine piece in this week’s New Yorker on that subject, including the early 20th century work of Madison Grant and his popularizer, Lothrop Stoddard. 

Reading this history is helpful in showing that our racism is not natural.  It was a human invention. It’s turned out to be surprisingly durable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be undone.  Since we had the power to set it up, we clearly have the power to undo it. But plainly, fixing it will take hard work.  For most of my life, I thought that the system was gradually disappearing on its own, but recent events have shown how wrong I was.  

Grizzley mom

If we take on the hard work of breaking down our caste system and its underlying psychology, it’s bound to make us better, at least a little.  Less hatred and fear equal more happiness. Our current system requires that we accept as normal unfairness, injustice, and brutality. It desensitizes us and leaves us morally numb.  As we overcome that system, we’ll be better able to connect with people different from ourselves, and even with ourselves.  

The moral numbness of our racist system may also account for part of our problems connecting with other living things in the natural world.  As we clear away racist ways of thinking, we may find ourselves seeing more of the beauty and wonder of nature, and how fragile it is. It might motivate us to get to work on mitigating the existential threats facing our planet.