People in Durham are talking about the tumbling of the statue honoring Confederate soldiers. Wendy Jacobs, chair of the board of county commissioners, told me she received more than 1,700 calls on the day after a yellow strap was tied around the statue’s neck to tug it to the ground.
The overwhelming majority of callers support dropping charges against Takiyah Thompson, the 22-year-old NCCU student, and others involved in the protest.
“I like to remain positive,” said Ken Lewis, an attorney who made a bid to become a U.S. senator in 2012. “This may force a conversation on how we feel about race. Maybe it will give us a chance to talk about how we really feel.”
What does it take for black people, surrounded by reminders of white supremacy, to implement and manage agendas that transform limitations into opportunities?
What does it take for white people, fastened to the memory of ancestors who lost their lives fighting for the Confederacy, to renounce symbols that conjure thoughts of what they consider better days?
“I’ve been thinking about the passion shown by white youth on both sides,” Lewis said. “I wonder if this in some way raises issues about how white people are struggling to understand white identity.”
I’ve never thought about how it feels to be white. Why would I? I’m comfortable with being black, but is it safe to assume that overcoming the tension, generated by varying interpretations of American history, begins with creating a safe environment to ask questions regarding identity?
Is it possible that some people have a difficult time admitting the Civil War was a mistake? Is it possible that some people struggle with admitting their ancestors died to uphold that mistake? If so, symbols of the Confederacy serve the purpose of helping people overcome issues involving how a mistake shapes their identity.
Black people are pressed to consider how their identity is constructed by the struggles of their ancestors. There are books, classes, television shows and movies dedicated to exploring black identity and how it is impacted by symbols. Black people consistently ponder the source of their pain and the forces contributing to how they make decisions.
But, I have never considered issues that impact and impede white identity.
So, I took time to reflect on anxiety stirred by white guilt. I considered conversations hidden from children – discussions involving ancestors who owned slaves and fought on the side of the Confederacy. I contemplated the shame of having racist relatives and the fear of being seen in public with black friends.
I considered the period in which monuments were erected and the massive silence that allowed them to remain in place. I pondered the rage stirred over the years after listening to countless stories involving the racism of family members.
Is it possible that white people, positioned on the extreme right, consistently fight to uphold the integrity of their racist ancestors? Do they fight to restore the days when being black, Jewish or Catholic were signs of weakness? Is it possible that white people, on the extreme left, grapple to undo the sins of their ancestors? Do they live under the shadow of guilt and shame, and fiercely fight to remove all symbols of hate?
Lewis may be right in relating concerns involving white identity. I’ll never understand the emotions needed to accept family members who died to protect a mistake. I do understand clinging to symbols that no longer serve a meaningful purpose. Some symbols educate, far too many make it harder to communicate.
I commend Takiyah Thompson, and the other courageous youth, for pulling that Confederate monument to the ground. It needed to happen. It was long overdue. They sent a powerful message, but there’s more to consider.
“What do we do next is the question,” Lewis said. “We need to talk about how we really feel.”
We have to talk about how it feels to be a descendant of slaves and how it feels to be the progeny of the family who owned members of my family. We have to talk about the pain stirred by the unwillingness to let go of symbols that celebrate that history.
We have to find the courage to overcome our ancestors’ mistakes.
Rev. Carl Kenney is the executive producer of “God of the Oppressed,”an upcoming documentary that explores black liberation theology. He is the author of “Preacha’ Man” and “Backslide.” He can be reached at Revcwkii@hotmail.com