A racist was lynched Wednesday. As the statue of domestic terrorist Nathan Bedford Forrest riding his horse was suspended in air, I imagined the harnesses were a noose. The mounted police on horses were snarling dogs. The crane — a tree.
And it was glorious. It was momentous. It was historic.
And at the same time, I was bitter. I grieved. I was sick.
It was like attending the funeral of the uncle who molested your cousin for years. She moved away at 18, but struggled in college and needed therapy. She would’ve returned, but the family continued to invite him to functions during the holidays and family reunions. He died of natural causes, but he should’ve been killed at the hands of a family friend a long time ago for his crime.
He’s your mother’s brother. She loves him. She knows his proclivities and secrets, though. She protects him and extends grace because “he’s a good guy.” And he even apologized — never to your cousin — to your mother because she “stuck around.” Your mother loves your cousin too and hates they couldn’t reconcile. Yet Mama never acknowledged your cousin’s trauma, maybe because Mama would have to admit her own.
For centuries, black folks have treated white supremacy like the monstrous brother/uncle. The one who just needs prayer. The one who Mama still invites to the cookout and tells you to hug out of respect, but he provokes discomfort and even fear. You can’t trust your body around white supremacy, but black love has always extended the hand of mercy toward white hate.
As Forrest’s statue dangled in the air, I imagined him jerking, fighting for air. “I’m sorry,” I could hear him say. “Please.”
And I think of the 44 percent of children living in poverty in Memphis today.
Their grandparents who struggle to afford their prescriptions and doctor visits.
Those incomplete history books, the ones that decorated Forrest as the Southern war hero. Brandishing his sword on April 12, 1864 as 3,000 Confederate soldiers attacked 600 Union soldiers at Fort Pillow. The blood of almost 300 black soldiers, kneeling in surrender at the feet of Forrest, soiled the banks of the Mississippi.
I think of Martin’s death. Of Rosa’s arrest.
And Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old white woman who was killed Aug. 12, countering khaki pants-wearing, tiki torch-carrying, alt-right neo Nazis protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I brandish my weapon — an iPhone to live stream the event, like the mounds of video footage of black bodies murdered by police officers.
The Confederacy is more than just a symbol; it was and continues to be the blueprint that made America great. Forrest and Davis weren’t just Southern icons, but essential to the instruction manual for those who wish to maintain wealth and power built on the backs of those who look like me.
So when my editor sent me a text message Wednesday afternoon, asking if I was free to head to what used to be known as Forrest Park, I went.
It is a beautiful yet dreaded green space adjacent to UT Medical Center in Midtown, where the equestrian statue of the KKK’s first grand wizard was erected in 1905. The park is where Forrest and his wife’s body were interred.
I had just picked up my sister from the airport, an annual holiday ritual. She encouraged me to drop her off at a nearby bar. So I left her at a bar in Overton Square two and half miles from ole Nate.
Around 5:30 p.m., the council unanimously voted to immediately remove both the Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis statues.
Around 8:50 p.m.,100 spectators, 100 police cars with double the officers, a state representative, two Shelby County commissioners, and a Memphis City Council chairman later, crews attached a hook crane to the harnesses securing the statue.
At 9:01 p.m., the statue was lifted off the pedestal Forrest never deserved. The crowd erupted with cheers, cries, hugs and high fives.
I attended elementary, junior and high school just a mile and half away from the statue. In fourth grade, I learned to recite the U.S. presidents in order by last name (I have used that tactic throughout high school and college to gain extra credit). When I asked my white AP teacher to tell me more about how Rosa Parks’ bus ride was planned with the NAACP, she said we didn’t have time to go in depth.
My history books assured me and my black peers who congested the hallways of predominantly black schools we were free, slavery was far removed and there were few stumbling blocks to achieve the “American Dream.”
Confederate flags and the Ole Miss Rebel were never my definition of Southernness. My Southern pride looked like Rosa sitting and young black people enduring fire hoses and dogs. I thought the American Civil War was my history, that Abraham Lincoln had my freedom in mind when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. I interpreted “the South will rise again” as Dr. King’s dream would one day be realized and manifested, Yo Gotti would win a Grammy to supplement Three 6 Mafia’s 2006 Academy Award for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” and Memphis one day electing a black woman mayor.
If I were to learn who I was and why the cosmos had ordained for me to be a southern black woman in the 21st century, I would have to rummage through American and black history as I did my aunt’s jewelry box looking for an earring back.
It was in college I learned George Washington was a slave owner and trader, and Thomas Jefferson violated Sally Hemings’ body. Twitter unfolded the reality of police brutality and Ava DuVernay taught me mass incarceration was an extension of slavery.
Those statues were never meant to be teachers of history, but golden calves of an idol god.
It was primetime for Memphis to take a stand — this stand — against idolizing a history of oppressing black and brown bodies, LGBTQ bodies, Muslim and Palestinian bodies.
Credit must be given to those who organized under the name #TakeEmDown901, led by activists Tami Sawyer and Shahidah Jones and Pastors Earle Fisher and Andre Johnson, and Dr. Charles McKinney of Rhodes College.
None have said removing the statues would be the end-all-be-all to Memphis’ challenges. It will not reduce poverty nor supply living wage jobs or repair our education system.
I believe change is coming, however, and the people of Memphis can find hope in the removal of the statue.
That citizens’ voices are more powerful than corporate dollars, and our vote and engagement are the vehicles we will use to change this city for future generations.
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