Archive for the ‘patriotism’ Category

On Being Paid to Take May 10 Off


African-American Union Soldiers in the South

State Senator Robert Ford of Charleston, SC began the first week of Black History Month with an effort to pass a legislative mandate that would officially make Confederate Memorial Day one of the state’s paid holidays. According to the Associated Press:

Years ago, Ford said, he pushed a bill to make both that day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day paid holidays. He considered it an effort to help people understand the history of both the civil rights movement and the Confederacy in a state where the Orders of Secession are engraved in marble in the Statehouse lobby, portraits of Confederate generals look down on legislators in their chambers and the Confederate flag flies outside.

“Every municipality and every citizen of South Carolina, should be, well, forced to respect these two days and learn what they can about those two particular parts of our history,” Ford said Tuesday.

Having lived in South Carolina for a few years, I was outraged when I heard this news, particularly given that Senator Ford is African American. I twittered my frustration with expletives and exclamation marks: WTF South Carolina!? Why do we insist on finding new & improved ways to make this state look backwards & stupid!!! If we’re ever going to stop being the butt of South Park’s jokes, then surely our politicians need to find something, anything, better to do.

Now, days later, I’m not as angry. Just puzzled.

What is being presupposed by the parallel Senator Ford makes between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Confederacy? Are these “two particular parts of our history” analogous or oppositional? This pairing seems to confuse historical periods and create the illusion that the racial politics involved are interchangeable, equally legitimate, and have similar consequences.

Furthermore, doesn’t the bill’s juxtaposition erroneously mark King Day as a “black” holiday, or arguably, as a “Yankee” one? I question whether or not it might be more effective to devote our state’s resources to educating its citizens about the fact that King worked on behalf of mutual equality and respect for Americans of every race, ethnicity, and region.

Senator Robert Ford (D-Charleston)

State Senator Robert Ford (Photo by Wade Spees)

Perhaps the real goal is to acknowledge “white southern heritage.” If so, then is honoring the Confederate dead the most meaningful way to accomplish this goal? Why focus on military defeat? Are there not accomplishments in the cultural arts, music, food, and literary production, or in science, medicine, and technology, or in education and philanthropy that South Carolinians should know about? (Tell us about your white southern George Washington Carvers, Charles Drews, and Barbara Jordans!)

It is interesting to read how these unanswered questions play out in the Associated Press article. Rather than try to disentangle the subtext at work, the report conveniently sets the  SC President of the NAACP and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans at odds. But is it just me, or does it sound as if the two are having different conversations?

“Here Senator Ford is talking about the importance of race relations by forcing recognition of people who did everything they could to destroy another race — particularly those that look like I do,” [Lonnie] Randolph said. “You can’t make dishonor honorable. It’s impossible.”

Ron Dorgay, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Elgin, said race relations have moved far from hatred but he hopes Ford’s bill brings more understanding of the state’s past.

“Even in school systems, they don’t teach the correct history,” Dorgay said.

Read closely and perhaps you’ll agree that Randolph and Dorgay’s views aren’t necessarily incompatible. However, Senator Ford’s bill doesn’t begin to address either of their concerns in a meaningful way. I agree with the NAACP leader that “you can’t make dishonor honorable.” I also know, as a teacher, that the complexities of the state’s history are rarely given the attention deserved. But only someone who is satisfied with the SparkNotes version of race relations in the South can argue that we will “bring people together” by using Confederate Memorial Day as a state-sanctioned counterbalance to the American Civil Rights Movement.

Recently Senator Ford has received a lot of press for pushing bills to outlaw profanity and saggy pants in order to “attract spirited discussion.” But like the Confederate battle flag, he is merely a symbol of a particular approach to problem-solving that seems embarrassingly antiquated in the Obama Era. Shouting matches over memorials and flags – and the desperate band-aid solutions they generate –  are not a substitute for the difficult work of understanding our shared past. Furthermore as an Orangeburg, SC paper points out, while this mandate may comfort lawmakers, it actually shifts the burden to state residents to “choose” which day to stay at home and watch television learn about South Carolina’s racial history.

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The Inaugural Poem You Haven’t Heard

While the crowds gather in Washington, I will admit this:
it is enough that it happened, more than enough that we see
him standing there shattering all our good excuses: no, not bliss,
not some balm over the wounds that still hurt, but it is enough
to say that we saw it happen, the thing we thought wouldn’t,
and we did it even if we did not want to do it.
Kwame Dawes, “New Day”

Seriously, Dr. Angelou: The Mastodon?

Inaugural poetry disappoints. Let’s be honest. When the poet speaks — so soon after the thunderous applause of the presidential address — we are never quite as prepared as we should be to pause for creative reflection.

Poems, as we all know, compel us to turn our gaze inward, much like invocations and benedictions. But while prayers invoke the call to a higher power, poems like the one written by Elizabeth Alexander for Barack Obama require a response from their listeners. And there are millions of us, each with our own expectations about what, in this powerful moment, poetry can and should do.

Consider the rocky precedent set by previous inaugural poets: The “Dedication” Robert Frost wrote (but couldn’t deliver) for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration reads like an American Civics lesson. Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” strives to reach outside of history and though it is more inclusive, her verse ultimately leaves me feeling disconnected. A strange sense of caution and doubt runs through Miller Williams’ “Of History and Hope” which was written (like Angelou’s poem) for Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Ultimately, each leaves a kind of syrupy aftertaste that is expected when someone declares America to be the Greatest Love of All.



So I’m not surprised that early reviews of Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” are mixed. WriteBlack has a post up about its critics, and there is sure to be a lively exchange when Ta-Nehisi Coates posts the poem for his Friday discussion. But compared to Frost, Angelou, and Williams, I find much to admire about Alexander’s verse. It combines abstract ideals and virtues with the lives of everyday people. Each time I read it, I see new insights that mark an optimistic start to Obama’s presidency. (Plus, she did a great job on The Colbert Report!)

But there is another inaugural poem that deserves our attention: “New Day” by Kwame Dawes. Published by The State newspaper in South Carolina where Dawes is a professor and poet-in-residence, “New Day” consists of eight sonnets that offer profound snapshots of our world.

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Take A Break, People!

MLK, Jr. Taking a Well-Deserved Break

MLK, Jr. Taking a Well-Deserved Break

Plenty of well-meaning voices will tell us in the days to come that Barack Obama’s presidential victory, while historic and worthy of praise, means that the work of racial justice and equality has only just begun. To guard against complacency, the watchful and wounded will be full of meaningful warnings, counseling caution, and with the best of intentions, assure us that we have not yet reached the Promised Land.

After all, where would we be without the freedom fighters who refused to cross one item off our nation’s “to do” list without adding another? The alarming rates of poverty, income and health disparities, hate crimes, illiteracy, and sexual discrimination – the forces of tyranny never stop, so why should we? It makes sense that our guardians would expose the naivete of proclaiming this a “Post-Racial America” – the odd new catchphrase that covers up more than it conveys. Fair enough.

But there should also be time to take a step back and rejoice in the victories, small and large. Perhaps this moment is what King glimpsed on the mountaintop, perhaps not. We’ll never know if we don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to enjoy the view. So take a break, people!

Celebrate the very real power of your voice and your vote to express our highest ideals. Get to know the gifted poet, Elizabeth Alexander, who will deliver a poem in honor of Obama’s presidential inauguration. (And give thanks for the unexpected miracles, like a quick-thinking pilot who can crash land a plane of over 150 people in the Hudson River without losing a single soul.)

When I listen to the humbling voices of the elders and warriors still among us, one thing is clear: our Biggest Dreams can and do, in fact, come true. And if we don’t believe that, then what exactly have we been fighting for all this time? So take just a moment to relax, to reflect on what we’ve accomplished, and to gather your strength…for tomorrow.

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