Tag Archives: Slavery

Human Rights & Writes on World Poetry Day; And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

World Poetry Day and Human Rights

A day of beauty and soul, World Poetry Day, falls on the same day as the South Africa’s Human Rights Day, which remembers the fight against Apartheid and particularly the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of 69 black South African demonstrators and further killing of another 21 on the 25th anniversary of that day in 1985. It also became the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1966 and today still says, “We need to fight racism everywhere, every day”. It is fitting that we celebrate human writes and rights together. Whether it’s the campaigning of organisations like the United Nations and Amnesty International, or the placards of activists, or poems of voices of discontent and history, we cannot be silent to ongoing racism, its history, and its continued scourge.

Yes we need action more than just words, but 15 years ago, at a World Conference Against Racism in South Africa, the Durban Declaration sought to combine words with action:

“People of African descent have for centuries been victims of racism, racial discrimination and enslavement and of the denial by history of many of their rights… they should be treated with fairness and respect for their dignity and should not suffer discrimination of any kind.”Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, 2001

Sadly, in 2016, we are little further forward according to several human rights experts:

“Fifteen years after the Durban Conference very little progress has been made in tackling racism, afrophobia, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

Maya Angelou – be part of “the possible”

Maya AngelouMaya Angelou died in 2014 but 45 years before that, in a decade of American civil rights activism, she wrote the first of her autobiographical books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). The book describes her early years including racism, and a rape which led to a traumatised silence for 6 years, it goes on to document her rise from child victim to young woman, mother and adult voice.

“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom”

She has become renowned as a woman full of inspiration, and love not hate, reminding us how to be better humans through her best-loved poems which she would write from a motel with, nearby, “a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room”.

Watch Maya Angelou read her poem A Brave and Startling Truth which she wrote for the United Nations 50th anniversary in 1995, here is a section of it:

We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness …

… We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world

It would be great if we, “the possible, the miraculous, the true wonder of this world”, would stop hating and discriminating.

Maya Angelou – Still I Rise

In Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise”, are the words: “Out of the huts of history’s shame”. She’s said before, the truth is that:

“A person who does not have a clue to his or her history stands a very poor chance of mapping out a future.” – Maya Angelou interview (1m40s)

She was not one to be cowed or subjugated, instead, she found her voice and gave hope to others.

The full text of her poem, “Still I Rise”:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise

Maya Angelou 1974
Maya Angelou, 1974

Be amazing, A rainbow in someone else’s cloud

Maya Angelou also said, echoing a similar sentiment of Albert Camus:

“If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”

Perhaps, we could also paraphrase that, if you are always following the crowd, buying into cheap national and racial stereotypes you will never discover not only how amazing you could be but also how amazing others are, irrespective of the colour of their skin or some other characteristic of difference. “Human beings are more alike than unalike”, she has said.

“The thing to do, it seems to me, is to
prepare yourself so you can be a
rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.
Somebody who may not look like you.
May not call God the same name you
call God – if they call God at all. I may
not dance your dances or speak your
language. But be a blessing to somebody.”
– Maya Angelou

She wasn’t all “turn the other cheek” love, she also saw humour as a defence, and since “life’s a bitch”, the need to “go out and kick ass”.

But it’s only a Flag? Nationalism, Identity & The Confederate Flag

The Confederate Flag – a stained or Stainless Banner?

The last fortnight has seen people simultaneously complaining about the flying of the “Rainbow Flag” and the “Confederate Flag” in the USA. In the UK, the “Union Jack” or more often the “St George’s Flag” of England has been hijacked for nationalist ends too. In the Scottish independence vote the “Saltire Flag” was flown for both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns and nobody objected to a strong sense of Scottish identity, so why not the American South?

Current Reactions to the Southern US Flag

In 2011, a Pew Research Center poll demonstrated that the majority of Americans don’t react to the “Southern Flag” and that 9% view it with positive pride, however, some 30% have a “negative reaction” when they see the Confederate flag.

Two years, later and a 2013 YouGov poll revealed 38% public disapproval of flying the flag in public places. Even more, around 44%, viewed the flag as a symbol associated with racism, rather than just 20% seeing it as symbolic of Southern pride.

Back in 1961, in the middle of civil rights and race activism, the South Carolina State Senate raised the Confederate flag on top of the Senate dome, where it remained until removed in 2000 when an alternate flag was instead flown from a flagpole in the grounds. It was this flag that was removed by protestor Bree Newsome on 27 June, this year. The flag, clearly, remains divisive.

Nationalism and pride

Nationalism is not a negative concept in itself, nor indeed are regionalism and localism. Being proud of your place of origin, wanting autonomy, independence, freedom, and asserting these things is not wrong. Even for a personal identity, rainbow flags and now many others, e.g., trans, non-binary, etc, are flown and worn at LGBT Pride events across the world. Flags unite, they are a banner under which to stand and draw people together.

But they can attract opposition too, and be used for aggression. Sometimes, going so far as to create a virtual or real barrier to keep people separate, outsiders out, spewing xenophobic bile about non-locals, inciting hatred and violence against immigrants, migrant communities, or those who are markedly different.

UK Independence and the Far Right

In the UK – Scottish, Welsh, and Irish independence are looked upon favourably in cultural and political terms but, somehow, English nationalism is seen as far right extremism – and many times, it is. The debate over English votes for English laws is the trade-off for giving more power to Scotland to avoid secession from the Union.

I remember the 1980s when Irish terrorism or freedom fighters, depending upon your definition, was still rife. When, even in Wales, the BBC‘s Not the Nine O’Clock News team ran the insensitive but funny sketch, “Come home to a real fire, but a cottage in Wales”, owing to the Welsh nationalist arson campaign against English second homes in Wales.

In English terms, we have witnessed the rise of a “Far Right” English nationalism: BNP, Britain First, EDL, UKIP etc. Hardly groups promoting English ‘culture’ but certainly fostering a “batten down the hatches” against ‘foreigners’ attitude. At public rallies they wrap themselves in English rather than UK flags, thus tarnishing the English St George’s flag.

William Thompson and the Stainless Banner

So, has the Confederate flag been similarly tarnished by the racist hatred of one warped young man in the Charleston black church massacre? Did it always and forever have the meaning of white supremacy? Some articles doing the rounds would suggest that it does, a “heaven ordained” white supremacy at that, according to its designer, William T Thompson.

Southern US Second Confederate Flag by William T Thompson
Second Confederate Flag by William T Thompson

Thompson was co-founder of the Savannah Daily Morning News newspaper in the 1850s and in the 1860s, along with one other, produced the design of the “Stainless Banner“, which came to be used as the Southern Confederacy’s national flag from 1863 to 1865, replacing the “Stars and Bars” which too closely resembled the ‘Yankee’ Union flag. Thompson said, in April 1863, that he opposed it, “on account of its resemblance to that of the abolition despotism against which we are fighting.” Many agreed that a flag that bore any similarity to the “Stars and Stripes” was wrong on the grounds of the South not wanting the emancipation of slaves.

The “stainless” aspect referred to the pure white field or background taking up the majority of the flag’s design. Though, later criticised and dropped for its association with surrender and truce, that element to Thompson and others represented the supremacy of “The White Man” and “the cause of a superior race”. Not far off Hitler’s ideology?

The American Civil War Battle Flag

Northern Virginia Confederate Battle Flag
Northern Virginia Confederate Battle Flag

It should be remembered though that the second Confederate flag (there were three and many modifications over the years) of Thompson included the now familiar Southern Confederate flag (white stars on a blue saltire cross on a red background) as its upper left element (where the stars and blue background are on the modern US flag). That flag element, also known as the “Battle Flag” was the banner of the Northern Virginian and Tennessee armies and several naval units. It was, however, never a united Confederate flag despite now being called the”Rebel Flag”, “Dixie Flag”, or “Southern Cross”, indeed, it is alleged that the cross would have been upright rather than diagonal had its designers not wanted to keep the Southern Jews on side.

How Symbols and their Interpretation change

Hindu, Jainist, Buddhist Swastika Symbol
Hindu, Jainist, Buddhist Swastika Symbol

Speaking of the Jewish people, a symbol of hate, the Swastika, was originally a symbol of benign fate and good luck in the Sanskrit language and religious cultures of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Svastika or Gammadion Cross (based upon four Greek capital Gamma letters), Cross Cramponnée, or Manji, has been around for at least two millennia, if not ten (its first use can be traced back 10,000 years to a paleolithic settlement in modern Ukraine)!

The Nazis did not invent or invert it, they simply stole and reinterpreted it. Hitler allegedly believed the Aryan Germans were a supreme white tribe of Indian origins and semi-divine status.

Confederate Flag draped Statue of Liberty
via flickr in relation to Arizona’s action in 2012 to deprive immigrants of benefits

Conclusion and debate

Thus, though Thompson’s “Confederate Flag” had white supremacy links, the lack of white on the current flag bears no relation to that. It does, however, have associations with Southern independence and battle against the Union and what the North stood for, including an end to slavery. Hopefully, few would argue for the return of slavery now, whether some still consider African-Americans ‘inferior’ is another matter. It it, therefore, debatable whether the flag when displayed now still has the associations of the past. Now it is more likely to be flown for reasons of Southern pride and freedom from Washington’s centralised federal governance. If it is also used by minority white supremacists and a hopefully isolated and not to be repeated white ‘terrorist’ attack against a black church (others have been arson-attacked recently though) then it clearly has negative associations for a sizeable group of the US population.

Symbols and meanings do evolve, get reclaimed, and reinvented. Removing the Southern flag from buildings may seem like an extreme reaction and is a matter of some sensitivity to both victims of race/colour hate and to proud fliers of Southern identity – which in the majority, it is hoped, are no longer inherently racist. Bree Newsome believes it is time for change:

“It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.”

Debate is needed on this and how to go forward respecting individual freedom, collective identity, and historical issues. Is flying the flag, indeed any flag, a soon to be proscribed act? In the UK only today, a man was stopped and not charged for wearing an Islamic State black flag whilst walking through Westminster, London.