Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Faces of Slavery -- Some Reflections on Charleston

Ever since I learned of the events at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, I've been struggling to find a way to mark this event on this blog. 

Our concern here is, after all,  with the making of meaning out of the Southern experience through the medium of photography. 

So now we must make sense of the murder of 9 African Americans in a church (no more Southern place than that) on a Wednesday night (after Sunday morning, the most religious time in the South) by a white guy inflamed by the rhetoric of white supremacy and the lies about slavery and race and the Civil War we Southern white folks have had the habit of telling ourselves and our children.

We Southerners take some pride in Southern distinctiveness. 

But these events remind us that, while the South is special in many ways, some of the ways in which we are special are truly barbaric, truly coming from the dark heart of Southern bigotry, racism, meanness, fear, arrogance, and a desperate clinging to some fantasy of white supremacy.

So far, all I've found to do that feels appropriate is to bring to our attention the work of photographers long-dead who documented in haunting images from the early days of photography the faces of enslaved people in the South. 

These images remind us that the South was built by the work of enslaved people, and that their owners held onto this economic system long after it was given up in other parts of the country. 

Their owners, including my ancestors on both sides of my family, were then willing to plunge the nation into a war to defend that economic system, a war so vicious that it killed more Americans than the combined total of all those Americans killed in almost all the wars we have participated in, before and after the Civil War.

Then, when the South lost the war, it set about to restore white supremacy through Jim Crow laws and a reign of terror across the South that resulted in over 4,000 black people being killed in “racial terror lynchings” in a dozen Southern states between 1877 and 1950. 

Some of that was put right during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and '60's, but events of the past several months have served as bitter reminders of how difficult it remains for people of color to live lives of dignity, freedom, and respect in the USA.

I rehearse all this tragedy to point out that the events at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston did not happen in isolation, but in a tradition of white Southern violence against people of color. 

This is the history and the heritage we as Southerners live with, struggle with, seek to understand, and at our best seek to redeem. 

This is the history and the heritage the flag embodies, and this is why the flag has to go. 

And this is why it is truly significant, truly a turning point in Southern history, that the flag was taken down in South Carolina, at the request of a Republican Governor, as an action of a Republican-dominated Senate and House, who delivered an overwhelming vote in favor of its removal.

But the flag is at best a symbol, at best a token of the unfinished business of the Civil War, and of Reconstruction. 

There is still much to do before the South will truly be a region of one diverse people who share one complex and often tragic history and one diverse culture that strives always to make meaning of where we've been and who we are and what we have left to do. 

We still have much to do.

For more of the faces of slavery, go here:


and here:


and here:


and here:


and here:



  1. John, as a Southerner I feel your pain. If we as Southerners wish to celebrate our Southern Heritage, then we as Southerner should also carry the shame of our ancestors. As we all as Non-native American's should carry the shame of what our ancestors did to the Native Americans and more recently in the early 1940's to our Japanese American neighbors. There is a lot of learning to move forward to be had by all. Yet, it seems that we have failed to learn.

  2. thanks for this John. Now as new resident of the South I hope in some way to contribute to making the South what it could be at its best. What you said is so true and well written. betty press