By Guest Contributor John Sims
We live in troubled times. This story started many scores of years ago with the founding fathers, some of whom may have recognized the toxic contradictions that would poison the future of this great land. Our history reveals constant resistance to social justice and respect: the sabotage/abandonment of Reconstruction, the compromised Civil Rights Movement, thwarted Black Power, silenced affirmative action, with countless lynchings, injustices, and instances of police and state brutality along the way. We are in haunted times, where race and Blackness are debated and presented with sleight of hand, tricking our best minds to think we are in a post-Black/racial epoch. We are in war times: white supremacy, privilege and denial on one side, black poverty, mass incarceration, double-consciousness on the other. Welcome to an American Civil War that started long before General Lee was born.
The wounds of the Civil War continue to sting after 150 years, along the lines of geography, race, and regional heritage, compromising national healing and sometimes civility. In the late 1990s in South Carolina, tensions flared over the placement of the Confederate flag on the capitol dome. Mass demonstrations and counter-demonstrations across the South revealed deep rifts in the reading of the Civil War and its aftermath, how greatly divided we really are as a country, and how this war continues.
In war, flags are important signifiers that mark social, cultural and historical space. While some may believe the Confederate flag is about heritage and not hate, its history and present reality speak otherwise. This flag can never represent the rich diversity and dynamic heritage of Southern folk, where the African American experience has played a central role. To continue to fly this flag is more than passive-aggressive and disrespectful; it promotes visual terrorism. If Black people and sympathetic allies are not in constant resistance and protest of such symbols, we run the risk of sending the wrong signal: that everything is fine and that we don’t matter. So we protest.
If we cannot resolve the issue of the Confederate flag, something we can see and touch, how can we as a nation process the complex things we cannot see? There are cemeteries for Confederates soldiers; where are the national memorials to the victims of slavery, to descendants of African slaves who built the economy that made this country a world power? What can we make of the fact that in WWII, white American soldiers often treated Nazi prisoners of war better than their African American compatriots? The Confederate flag flying, the Fergusons, the Eric Gardners, and the Freddie Grays of America are forceful reminders of this nation’s consistent lack of respect for Black people. And where there is no respect, there is no justice, and there can be no peace.
To mark both the 150th anniversary of the end of Civil War and the conclusion of Recoloration Proclamation (my fifteen-year multi-media art project concerned with the Confederate flag, visual terrorism and the ownership of Southern heritage), I organized The Confederate Flag: 13 Flag Funerals. This was a funeral/burial group performance in each of the 13 states represented by the 13 stars on the Confederate flag. These events, held on Memorial Day, May 25, 2015, were intended to create a space of ceremonial reflection on the desire for the death, burial, and perhaps the burning of all the Confederate flag represents: a symbol of terror, treason, supremacy, a bearer of the message that history is rewriteable, visual terrorism is sustainable and Black Lives Don’t Matter.
Then weeks later, South Carolina happened.
Contrary to much media reporting, this incident is far from unbelievable. It is a product of American racism. The time is now for the Confederate flag to come down in South Carolina, Mississippi, and other places where it flies high. The time is now for federal law prohibiting the use of the Confederate flag in state flags or on governmental property. The time is now to demand that taking the flag down be more than a mere consolation prize, for the time is now to address head on the foundational issues that undermine social justice and respect for all Americans.
So in response to Charleston as an artist and concerned citizen, I am extending the 13 Flag Funerals Memorial Day project to a countrywide call for the collective burning and burying of the Confederate flag on July 4th, 2015. I am asking all Americans to join together on Independence Day to demonstrate that this symbol of slavery, segregation, subjugation, and a lost war will not divide us further and that the this great American Civil War must come to an end.
John Sims is a multi-media political math artist who creates projects spanning the areas of mathematics, art, text, performance, and political-media activism. #BurnBuryFlag