Celebrating Black History in the Shadow of Satan’s “Pitchfork”

unnamed-3A wise, though controversial, historian once wrote:  “How can slavery be described?  Perhaps not at all by those who have not experienced it.”

While there is some truth in this remark, those who have not worn shackles are not excused from memorializing and contemplating their horror.

I learned that lesson firsthand long ago on the grounds of Ft. Dimanche, the “Auschwitz of Haiti,” a prison camp where dictator Francois Duvalier once cut open the veins of his own people and let flow a river of blood all the way to the Caribbean Sea.

I’ll share that story in full someday.  For now, suffice it to say that the crisscross marks that snake across the back of survivor Brunel Athis serve to me as a living memorial of such shackles.  I have touched Brunel’s raised scar tissue with my own fingers.  Anyone who has done so knows he or she has a lifelong duty to remind others never to forget.

Brunel’s scars also serve to remind us that Black History is still being shaped today.

The suffering.  The triumphs.  The narrative.  Every day a new page.

Let’s be honest.  I could have opened this essay with a “Hidy-ho!  It’s Black History Month!”

I could have tried to “sexy up” the matter.

Yes, there are more titillating essays on the Interweb today.  Feel free to move along if you feel compelled.

However, you are invited to share a few serious moments considering the narrative of Black America with two Norwegian-Americans, a daughter and her father, on the steps of the South Carolina State House.

It’s MLK Day 2014.

We’re having a bit of a picnic.  Some Ritz crackers.  Cheese sticks.  Some cuts of Genoa salami.  Slices of apple.  Thermos of milk.

We have a marvelous view of the grounds of the State House.  Carlo Nicoli’s Confederate Soldier Monument faces north and stands guard over the Confederate Flag flapping in the warm winter wind.

My daughter and I are discussing the symbolism of Ole Dixie.  It is important that she knows what flags stand for.  After all, every day in her classroom she is asked to stand and pledge allegiance to one.  (A practice I find abominable.  One’s allegiance should be to humanity.)

I share my opinion with her:  that the Confederate Flag is a symbol of hate, of slavery, of mindless rebellion.  I share the facts:  that it was a symbol used by those who attempted to separate from the Union.


I also share the opinion of the opposite viewpoint.  After all, there is “another side,” no matter how philosophically weak.  There are some who claim that the Confederate Flag is merely a symbol of Southern heritage.

She isn’t really buying the latter.

She asks, “But why is it flying here?  Don’t our leaders know these things?”

Out of the mouth of babes.

I explain as best one can to a six-year-old girl that the Confederate Flag used to fly atop the dome directly behind us, that it was removed to its present hood ornament status as part of a political deal, struck in 2000, the same deal that resulted in the erection of the African-American History Monument which we visited just before we climbed the steps for our little picnic.

“Actually, the law states that the Confederate Flag must fly there,” I explain.

“Like the laws that make us stop at stop signs?” she asks.

She hands me a cheese stick and asks me to peel back the wrapper.

“Not until you try first,” I remind her of our household rule.  “Yes, the very same law.”

She grabs the wrapper and pulls it apart.  She breaks the seal.

It is important for our children to work things out on their own, if they can.

She takes a bite of cheese.  “When I grow up, I’m going to bring a ladder down here and take that flag away.”

“But the law is clear it has to fly.”

“But, Papa, what do you do when the law is bad?”

I took a bite of apple.  “You do everything you can to change it.”

“And what if that doesn’t work?”

Perfect segue.  I remind her that today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  I remind her of our trip to Atlanta last summer to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site.  (Read the article about our visit here.)  Of the portrait of Rosa Parks we saw in the exhibit room, and of the various lessons we have learned from books and other museum exhibits about how others have fought for Civil Rights.

“What do you do?  You gather.  You march.  You write.  You vote.  And above all, you never let people forget.”

My daughter builds a sandwich of crackers, salami and cheese chunks.  “I can’t stop thinking about that chain.  If he was chained, how did he go to the bathroom?”

My daughter is referring to one of the bronze figures in the African-American History Monument on the east side of the State House.

The monument’s crowning achievement is a semicircular bronze diorama of “the American Black experience.”  It features men and women in various panels of historical pose, from a slave market auction to the Underground Railroad to the Civil War to Brown v. Board of Education, all the way to the amazing success stories of Thurgood Marshall, Arthur Ashe and NASA astronaut (and South Carolinian) Ronald E. McNair.

The monument also includes a slave galley replica and shows slaves packed like sardines from bow to stern.  “Everybody’s so close together,” my daughter observed.  “It must have smelled.”

One never knows how a child will be snagged by historical “realness.”  The monument also features four stones, one each from Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana and the Congo, to connect the visitor physically to the origins of slave kidnapping.  I hefted my daughter up to touch the rocks.  But to her they were just that.  Rocks.  Neat rocks.  But rocks all the same.

She became “hooked,” however, when we reached a certain bronze figure in the bronze diorama.  A bearded slave stands with a shackle round his wrist.  From the shackle hangs a single loose chain.  The brass of the dangling chain shines from being rubbed by so many visitors.

Also, this single chain is the only portion of the entire monument that moves.

History is not static.

“I don’t understand,” my daughter repeats over and again.  “Why does he have a collar around his hand?  Why is he chained?  Were they trying to keep him from going somewhere?”

I’m her father.  I know her questions are rhetorical.  She knows that slaves were considered property, that they were not considered human beings.  What she’s really asking me is, “Why?”

We continue eating our lunch.  She points to a statue about 50 yards to the left of the Confederate Flag.  “Who’s that?”

Indeed.  Who is Ben Tillman?

I stare at the statue with a steel gaze, knowing what I want to say:

Benjamin R. “Pitchfork” Tillman was the 84th Governor of South Carolina and also served as United States Senator from 1895 to 1918.

He was a racist butcher extraordinaire, and in May 1940, some of his racist admirers erected a statue in his honor.

His monument describes him as a “PATRIOT” and “STATESMAN” and declares:

“LOVING THEM HE WAS THE FRIEND AND LEADER OF THE COMMON PEOPLE.”

But by all accounts, ne’er did a more vitriolic asshole ever rise to a position of prominence in the entirety of U.S. politics.  And that’s saying something.  (Cough.  Ted Cruz.  Cough.  David Duke.)

In fact, let me tell you a little story.  Several years ago, I emerged from a frustrating meeting with Governor Mark “Walking the Appalachian Trail” Sanford and was in such a state of born-and-bred-Minnesotan-who-can’t-understand-what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-South-Carolina frustration that I decided to gather myself for a few moments on the State House steps, just like we are doing today.

There I sat, within spitting distance of the cast statue of Jean-Antoine Hubard’s George Washington, my head buried in my palms, pondering life, the universe and everything.

I looked up, and there in the distance stood an African-American couple—father, mother, child—before the statue of Ben Tillman.

I couldn’t help myself.  I leapt from the steps and rushed forward, Caucasian in a pinstripe suit:  “Do you know who that man is?”

They admitted they were unaware.

With passion I explained that on March 23, 1900, this man of diabolical dubiousness, Senator Tillman, a first-rate “Jim Crow” bedlamite as ever walked upon the Fruited Plain, let loose one of the most hate-riddled speeches in the history of American politics before the full body of the United States Senate:

“We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will.  We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.  I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores.”

The family eye me, horrified.

“That’s nothing!” I explained.  “Wait until you hear how this same hate-mongering absolutist eclipsed even himself one month previously on February 26, 1900, as catalogued in the Daily Congressional Record”:

“We stuffed ballot boxes.  We shot them.  We are not ashamed of it … and we eliminated, as I said, all of the colored people whom we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.”

“But the plaque says he is a ‘friend and leader of the people,’” the mother offered.

“No,” I insisted.  “For as long as Ben Tillman walked the earth, madam, he was Satan’s Pitchfork.  And there should be a sign around this statue that lets the world know he was a murderous racist and an Outright Enemy to Civilization.”


That’s what I wanted to say to my daughter.

But instead I reply:  “Just some guy who loved that stupid flag.”

We’ll save the full Ben Tillman narrative for another day.

For now, my explanation suffices.  She shakes her head, “I don’t like him then.”

We pack our picnic and count the steps on the way down.  42.

My daughter puts on her helmet, hops on her bicycle and pedals around the State House grounds for a time.

When she nears the African-American History Monument, she hops off her bike and runs over to the bearded bronze figure.  She rubs the chain one more time, then returns to her bike and continues pedaling.

 

Postscript

I’m not the only person who thinks that a State House statue dedicated to one of the most racist individuals who ever lived is an abomination.  Meet Will Moredock of DownWithTillman.com.  In Moredock’s own words:

“South Carolinians have a complicated relationship with a history they love, but clearly do not understand.  This should be a moment for every South Carolinian to take a long look at our past, at figures like Ben Tillman, and ask ourselves who they were, what they stood for and if they really speak to who were are today.  In the process we might discover who we are and how we got here.  We cannot begin to know ourselves without knowing our past.”

Hopefully someday South Carolina can rise to something better.  My idea:  replace Tillman with a statue of Ronald McNair, the South Carolinian who aimed for the stars.

Arik Bjorn

Arik Bjorn lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He was the Democratic Party / Green Party fusion candidate for U.S. Congress in the 2nd Congressional District of South Carolina. Visit the archive for Arik’s campaign website, and check out his latest book, So I Ran for Congress. You can also follow his political activities on Twitter @Bjorn2RunSC and on Facebook. And be sure to check out more from Arik in his archives!

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  • Pipercat

    First off, let me say, BLOODY NORWEGIANS! Sorry, I need my second cup this morning. What struck me, with so much within this piece, was the bit in first parenthesis near the top. The whole pledge of allegiance thing is something I also find abominable; exacerbated by forcing school children to recite doggone thing. Allegiance is demonstrated by deed, not by some ritual.

    Then it occurred to me, what most of this is piece is doing is bringing to light a bunch of archaic rituals. Displaying blasts from the past to remind the present of people, symbols and notions in a way which creates a specious veneer.

    You reconcile this, by way of contrast, in a way that shows how a contemporary mindset looks back at the most reprehensible chapter of our shared history. A pictographic timeline, embellished by metaphor and an illustrative authenticity, which tells a story instead of manufacturing a legend. The rituals beg questions; the story speaks for itself.

    • Arik Bjorn

      Thanks, PC! It’s one thing to label a month; it’s another thing to become part of the narrative as best one can.

  • Edward Krebbs

    Blacks are what, 20 per cent of the population ? It seems much more logical to have a time to study black history than the inclusions in the Texas requirements to laud certain of their favorite political figures and theories in the curriculum.