By Christina Carnes Ananias
“What brought you here tonight?”
Artist Sonya Clark softly asked me this question the other night, as I stepped up to join her in unraveling a confederate flag. Her performance piece, Unraveling, is currently on view at Duke University’s Nasher Museum as part of their exhibition, Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art. I had come with my husband and our dear friends to help her dismantle the object. Her question, posed with a smile and after a warm embrace, was an intentionally—and hospitable—open-ended query, meant to invite conversation around this very specific act.
As she gently trained my hands to pull the wafting threads from the security of the tightly woven fabric, I told her I’d just moved back to Durham from Charleston, South Carolina, where we had lived during the controversy surrounding the confederate flag’s removal from the capitol building. I explained that this event had greatly influenced the discussions I facilitated in the Art Appreciation classes I had taught at Charleston Southern University.
For the three years that I taught the art introductory course, a discussion of flags had occupied a central place in the first few sessions of the course. This conversation demonstrated how images can be tightly tethered to identity—both personal and communal—and how carefully looking at images made from another perspective could engender empathy. When faced with the projected image of an American flag, some students were quick to grant it meaning. The words “Liberty,” “Freedom,” and “Prosperity” rang through the lecture hall—descriptions of these students’ experiences in America, embodied by the flag.
However, the enthusiastic responses cooled when Faith Ringgold’s God Bless America (1964) flashed across the screen. I asked them to consider what Ringgold’s painting of the flag might tell us about her experience as an African American woman during the Civil Rights movement. By attentively observing her painting, the students saw that, for her, the stripes had become prison bars, the stars had become an ominous sheriff’s badge, and the identity conferred by the flag was not one of freedom but prisoner. By viewing the painting carefully, they learned to see America through Ringgold’s eyes. In 2015, this conversation took on a particularly poignant valence when protests erupted over the confederate flag’s presence at South Carolina’s state capital building. All this I relayed to Clark.
“Oh, were you there for the murders?” was her gentle response to my facile report.
The intimacy of her question shocked me. I dropped the threads I was holding, stared at the flag, and mumbled a response. Was I there? Thinking back on the moment she asked it, I honestly do not remember if I responded with a yes or a no. In a sense, the correct response was yes; I had been in the Charleston area on the night of the murders. I remember the first words my husband spoke to me on the morning of June 18, 2015: “Something terrible happened last night.” I remember the memorial services, the flowers on the gate surrounding Mother Emmanuel Church, the prayers and the songs that filled the streets, the churches, and the homes. But in another very real sense, the correct response was no. No, I hadn’t been in that historic black church when Dylan Roof murdered nine people after attending their Bible study. No, I didn’t personally know any of the victims. No, I didn’t experience the tragedy of racism as my black brothers and sisters do every day. The murders—and the savage history of murder and murderous treatment embedded in the image of the confederate flag—were the reason Clark was solemnly unraveling the confederate flag next to me, guiding my hands back to the work she had so recently taught them.
The murders were the reason we talked about the flag in my class that fall. The flurry of op-ed pieces surrounding the controversy confirmed that the confederate flag meant many different things to many different people. And we discussed all of these interpretations in class. Yet, what became increasingly clear in light of the murders was that the identity conferred on African Americans by the confederate flag was not only prisoner, but prey. When the confederate flag was viewed through the eyes of the murdered, nothing else mattered. South Carolina removed the flag from its government offices later that fall.
This morning I was reminded of what one of my teachers, Stanley Hauerwas, often says regarding history: “The past is not the past until it is redeemed.” The empathy engendered by images is good, but it is not enough. Truly, to move forward, the hard work of reconciliation must be done. In slowly measured phrases, Clark described the different modes of response: “Bree Newsome did the work of amputation, I see our work here as brain surgery. Both are necessary.” Clark’s shocking question reminded me not to confuse my empathy for the experience of black Americans with the work of reconciliation. And as I rediscovered the vastly different identities conferred by this flag on my black sister and me, I found myself standing next to her—shoulder to shoulder—gently and patiently un-making the image that has so violently separated us. In this un-making, I received the grace of a small participation in God’s work of reconciliation.
Christina Carnes Ananias is a graduate student in the Doctor of Theology program at Duke Divinity School, where her research focuses on the intersection of theology and modernist visual art. Having worked with artists and students for over a decade, Christina taught various art history courses at Charleston Southern University before returning to Duke.