Gender and Removing the Confederate Flag

Lots of people in my social media streams are talking about Bree Newsome, the community organizer who scaled a pole last Saturday and removed the confederate flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol. Her action was clearly about resisting racial oppression and racial justice, as she herself eloquently explained earlier this week:

“For far too long, white supremacy has dominated the politics of America resulting in the creation of racist laws and cultural practices designed to subjugate non-whites. And the emblem of the confederacy, the stars and bars, in all its manifestations, has long been the most recognizable banner of this political ideology. It’s the banner of racial intimidation and fear whose popularity experiences an uptick whenever black Americans appear to be making gains economically and politically in this country. It’s a reminder how, for centuries, the oppressive status quo has been undergirded by white supremacist violence with the tacit approval of too many political leaders.” [Blue Nation Review, 6-29-15]

But Newsome’s action — and the reporting and perception of the event — was also gendered. For instance, she explained that removing the flag was carefully planned by an intentionally gender-diverse group following the Charleston church murders: “The day after the massacre I was asked what the next step was and I said I didn’t know. We’ve been here before and here we are again: black people slain simply for being black; an attack on the black church as a place of spiritual refuge and community organization. … So, earlier this week I gathered with a small group of concerned citizens, both black and white, who represented various walks of life, spiritual beliefs, gender identities and sexual orientations.”

What’s more, the group decided to remove the flag, “both as an act of civil disobedience and as a demonstration of the power people have when we work together.” While Newsome has been portrayed as a solo actor in that moment of scaling the flag pole, she was acting in a much older tradition of collective action. The group also decided that the role of climbing the pole “should go to a black woman and that a white man should be the one to help her over the fence as a sign that our alliance transcended both racial and gender divides.”

Bree Newsome removes the confederate flag on 6-27-15 flying over the state capitol in South Carolina.
Bree Newsome removes the confederate flag on 6-27-15 flying over the state capitol in South Carolina.

This understanding of the action as resisting both racial and gender power hierarchies has been eliminated from much of the reporting about the event. For example, an online petition to drop the charges against Newsome delivers a succinct narrative about race that, while effective in social media (it already has over 52,000 signatures), leaves out the organizing group’s own larger, intersectional interpretation of its meaning.

In a statement earlier this week, Newsome was explicit about another aspect of gender in the context of activism and freedom itself: “We made this decision because for us, this is not simply about a flag, but rather it is about abolishing the spirit of hatred and oppression in all its forms. … I removed the flag not only in defiance of those who enslaved my ancestors in the southern United States, but also in defiance of the oppression that continues against black people globally in 2015 … I did it for all the fierce black women on the front lines of the movement and for all the little black girls who are watching us. I did it because I am free.” [emphasis added, Blue Nation Review, 6-29-15]

Perhaps not surprisingly, illustrators and cartoonists have been making the connection between gender and the removal of the bars and stars. In one widely shared illustration, Niall-Julian Watkins depicted Newsome in the act of defiance with the word, “Still” written below the image, “a reference to rapper Lupe Fiasco’s lyrics, and a nod to the tradition of black women activism.” [PRI, 6-30-15]

Artist: Niall-Julian Watkins
Artist: Niall-Julian Watkins

Artist Rebecca Cohen created another widely shared cartoon showing Newsome as Wonder Woman. She tole PRI, “The photos of [Newsome] were already iconic and historical in nature, everyone recognized that immediately. … I liked the immediate associations invoked by the Wonder Woman iconography — the all-Americanness, the feminism, empowered women.” [PRI, 6-30-15]

Artist: Rebecca Cohen
Artist: Rebecca Cohen
There are undoubtedly many other ways in which Bree Newsome’s action, its depiction, and wider interpretation are gendered and will be gendered as the story evolves. But just as Newsome herself has been in her public statements, we will have to be intentional about locating gender in those narratives.
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