A shooting, and the healing
By JOHN SIMS
Herald-Tribune Guest Columnist
Published: Wednesday, May 6, 2009
I wish to comment on the recent shooting/Confederate flag incident on Main Street in Sarasota. While gun violence almost always is unacceptable, and reckless provocation is almost always socially problematic, the core issue is our inability to unbraid the complexities of race, the propriety of Southern heritage and the dynamics of free speech into something useful for a healing process.
As an African-American conceptual artist who has exhibited a number of controversial works involving the Confederate flag, I understand both the need for protected speech and the emotional disturbance resulting from having my visual landscape invaded by caustic symbols that remind me of one of the most treacherous periods in American history. My questions are: Where is the mediation, where is the healing and where is the future that invites symbols of inclusion?
The Confederate flag
When I first came to Sarasota more than 10 years ago, I was stunned by frequent sightings and references to the Confederate flag. These made me nervous. After hearing the arguments about Southern heritage and states’ rights, I was even more nervous.
Undeniably, the Confederate flag was contaminated by the Ku Klux Klan and the segregation movement in the 1950s. You cannot add gasoline to sweet tea, add heritage sugar to it and wait for it to settle to the bottom and serve it up with a smile and sell it as organic. So, I responded by serving up my own Confederate flag — in black, red and green (the colors of black nationalism) and later developed the art installation "The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag." That display had the flag hanging from a 13-foot gallows; it was shown in abbreviated form in Gettysburg in 2004. This resulted in a national outcry from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This was cute until I started getting thousands of hate e-mails and some death threats. It became very clear to me that the Confederate flag is quite dangerous, precisely because it is so difficult to talk about.
For those who might see this flag as visual terrorism, we must never allow symbols and words to have so much power over us. That’s easier said than done, so we must use creative and intellectual resources for redirection and remixing; remember a pen, paint, brush and good legislation are mightier than the gun. And, if we find the flag image offensive, then we should work to deal with it proactively and politically.
To Confederate sympathizers and advocates, we must be responsible in the exercise of free speech. We must always be prepared to engage people with respect while understanding that the Confederate flag points to a very racist and hateful period in American history, as the swastika does to German history.
There is a line between hate speech and free speech. This realization is crucial to creating understanding and mutual respect. Although I support the right to display the flag in a personal context, I do not trust that the Southern heritage movement will be anything more than a mask for backward racial politics at worst and spiritual retardation at best. After all, how can you talk about Southern heritage and not respectfully include African-Americans?
The recent incident in Sarasota is deeper than a gun-control issue because, if a gun were not the weapon, it could have been a knife or a push into a passing car.
We must listen
So, can we develop ways to discuss sensitive political subjects without fear, find words to harness our rage and emotions and stop allowing silence and suppression to pass for tools of progress?
We must do so, and we must listen — because Michael Mitchell and Daniel Azeff, who were involved in the shooting — are trying to tell us something. They are telling us that our sense of history is segregated, our social identity is fractured and our vocabularies for discussing race, symbols and respect are bare.
This problem seems so distant until you or your loved ones are caught in the middle, or tourism declines. We must find strategies to develop the language, culture and the common ground to address this. Perhaps art and progressive legislation can begin to create something meaningful — a process for sustainable healing.
It is time to bury the Confederate flag and move forward in a post-Obama context. And so this summer I am planning to conclude my Recoloration Proclamation project by organizing a 13-state burial of the Confederate flag. It is my hope that this work will stimulate national dialogue, honest discussion and courage to connect, so what happened on Main Street won’t happen again.
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