It has been 24 hours or so since I first came across an opinion piece from a poet and academic proclaiming her body a “monument to the Confederacy.”
I have continued to dwell on her opening line: “I have rape-colored skin.” Her choice to call her body and skin a monument to the “legacy of the Confederacy.” The fervid responses from colleagues and people I admire calling the piece powerful while others call(ed) it deeply uncomfortable, upsetting, gut-churning. My own reactions of dismay and alarm and later, confusion, disrupted my sleep and have felt like a burden taking up space in the back of my mind all day.
What does it mean to call a body a monument — specifically a Black body — particularly a monument to the dehumanization, brutalization, and exploitation of our Black predecessors? What does it mean to offer up how that trauma and horror of colonization, of chattel slavery, of Jim Crow is embedded and embodied and how that “legacy” should not just be acknowledged but also lends legitimacy to Black people’s calls to tear down actual monuments to the Confederacy? Who is the target audience when one says they have “rape-colored skin” (as though only light-skinned Black people were produced from these assaults) or that they have “rebel-grey blue blood coursing [their] veins” (as though the racial ideologies of our Black ancestors’ rapists, abusers, exploiters, oppressors are genetic and inherited via blood)? Who are you trying to shock and awe, to convince to join in the destruction of these mounds of stone and steel meant to symbolize the indomitable spirit of the white South?
Many of my favorite writers have thought long and hard about what it means for bodies to be sites of contestation. That the existence of people we in the United States currently identify as “multiracial” or “mixed-race” pre-dates the so-called Loving Generation. That their bodies symbolize(d) histories of conquest, increases in property value, or even contamination of whiteness seems to undergird Williams’ argument of “body as monument.” We — as a settler colonial society — certainly need to think about the ways who we are today and the lives we live, the things we believe and value, are a product of the relations between people who understood themselves as supreme human beings (entitled to the land and bodies of other people) and those they deemed racial “others” who are/were understood not just as lesser but quite literally inhuman. We need to contend with what it means for people to have involuntary “familial” connections borne out of assault and abuse, for those histories to inform present-day iterations of economic, political, and social assault and abuse.
If Black bodies are not monuments to the Confederacy, what are they? Are they not monuments to Black people’s perseverance, love, community, creativity, imagination? To hope? Why frame our bodies as sites of pain, biologically tied to white “ancestors”? Why make any biological arguments about non-white people at all, knowing how fraught that is?
I remain unconvinced that reducing race to the body, to the genes that make up our DNA (and when combined in particular ways may favor certain characteristics), is the way to motivate white people to see that Black people, and really any colonized peoples, are human and deserving of respect. That our bodies and the harm bodies like ours have experienced in the past will inspire white people to end their desire to leave up physical places of honor for people who were so invested in owning other human beings that they seceded and fought a losing war in order to protect their “property.” But it is not only the legacy of the Confederacy that must be destroyed but that of the entire United States — Confederates weren’t the only ones holding people in bondage or working to keep Black people from gaining any semblance of access to basic human rights. Even the leaders who are lauded as the “fathers” of this country kept Black people as property, believed many of the same things their Confederate brethren believed (thus why we have so many Confederate statues or buildings named for its leaders in states that weren’t even in the Confederacy). I am as appalled at Williams’ framing of her biological connection to the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan as I am by the defense of Ulysses Grant as “one of the good ones” because he emancipated the singular enslaved African that he inherited through marriage.
Rooting moral logics in being for or against the Confederacy alone leaves a lot to be desired.
There is no such thing as “one of the good ones” when you owned other people and participated in the massacre of indigenous peoples and the theft of their land. There is no such thing as being genetically white or Black, because to be white or Black is about social and political relation. There is no such thing as an ancestral relation between us and the people who forcibly took land, bodily autonomy, rights, cultural practice, and family from our Black predecessors simply because there are “blood ties” or shared chromosomal markers. We are within our rights to demand the removal and eradication of statues, of named buildings, of flags, of songs, of awards, of all lingering traces of the Confederacy not because of shared history or biology…but because we wish to imagine and bring forth a world that rejects the valorization of people and ideologies that diminish the humanity of anyone. Destroying the vestiges of the Confederacy should not be the end of this fight. Everything this country was built on must go, too.