“We can’t let our future become our past if we are to change the world.” -Ben Harper
It was 1994 when Ben Harper, a new musician and activist, released his “Welcome to the Cruel World” album, featuring empowering yet sorrowful songs like “How Many Miles Must We March?” which is where I found the quote for this art. His music was raw, truthful and touched me in the center of my soul.. Ben Harper's “Like a King,” juxtaposed how far we claim we’ve come (Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream) with the reality of the L.A. police beating Rodney King, and the brutality so many Black people face when they encounter law enforcement. The brutal treatment of Rodney King was one of the first publicly shared videos that showed the ways so many Black men were treated by law enforcement in present day. In that song, “Our lives don’t mean a thing” is just one of the realities hanging over the heads of Black people when they go out into the world to drive, or walk, or dance or jog or play.
Those activities have never hit me as risky and life threatening... and that is where I have been able to indulge in a cloak of privilege that allows me to be protected from these realities that befall Black Americans every day. The absence of that visceral fear is an unearned privilege, and if I just snuggle into the comfort of this privilege, I know I am contributing to others’ oppression. We can’t allow our future to continue to align with the same system of conquest and oppression that this nation was built upon. It is beyond time for the United States of America to reckon with our past and admit where we got it so very wrong; clinging to the relics of an America built upon systems, symbols and structures that have always elevated white bodied people and disregarded the inherent value of the lives of Black, Indigenous and other People of Color.
It’s way past time to stop protecting “sacred” or “historical” practices, behaviors or symbols that devalue the lives of Black people and other People of Color. We must reckon with our violent history of conquest and racism in order to build a United States of America that upholds values of human dignity, respect and safety for all of its citizens. The very existence of reminders like these are the result of the systemic power of racism. I’m not advocating for violence when I state this. I am advocating for conversations where those in positions of power truly listen to why these monuments and symbols are an assault to the safety and happiness of Black Americans and other People of Color.
In my own community, there is a debate about ridding our university and so many other institutions of the name “Dixie.” Locals who defend keeping this name have even put out petitions, and cling to a narrative of “but it’s not racist here!” despite years and years of documented community mock “Slave Sales” - yes, you read that right…. As a community family fun event… Slave Sales - or Slave Auctions. Sponsored by a handful of local businesses that continue to thrive here, and covered in newspaper articles up until the 1990s! The 1990s, people!! The Dixie newspaper was called The Confederate, and Confederate flags were printed in yearbooks, etc., apparently those things are not racist because we are in Utah? Of course they are! OF COURSE THEY ARE!!
It’s not a new debate, this issue actually came up a few years ago when Dixie State College was transitioning to a University. I did support and push for the change in the name, yet those of us who pushed did not hit a tipping point that changed the minds of the majority in our community, so the debate went away, the name stuck. But with all of the national attention and accountability suddenly on the forefront, this issue is being revisited. I don’t recall if it was quite as heated last time, or if we all just knew that we could continue to push against the systemic racism and sexism in our community all we wanted, but we would continually hit a wall of denial, laughter and ultimately be dismissed as snowflakes.
But now, there is a level of accountability and questioning in our entire nation, and it is time to reckon with these symbols of slavery, violence and cruelty. Unfortunately, with change and accountability, comes a lot of resistance. Those pushing to keep the name Dixie as a huge part of our community simply out of a sentimental clinging to traditions - they have been the majority here for a long time. And those of us pushing against this vile history of confederacy (trust me - the confederacy was very much celebrated here) are entering dangerous territory. Some more vocal locals who are sharing actual newspaper clippings of community members and businesses enjoying the local “Slave Auctions” have even received death threats.
What is that? How is it not obvious how this clinging to a history of violence against Black Americans is wrong? How is it not obvious that these symbols represent a group of white people who formed a confederacy (a FIVE YEAR confederacy) that fought to continue centuries of the most harmful, violent, shameful personal concentration camps, rape, torture and stealing of Black lives our nation has ever engaged in? I think the sad answer is that… It is either obvious, and that is one more reason to keep things this way, or those pushing to keep the Dixie name are unwilling to look at how deeply harmful these practices were, and the harm that these symbols continue to cause on all Black people in our community.
I'd be lying if I didn't admit that privilege has been comfortable. It has provided my children an armor of safety not available to all children... It assures me that I won’t get pulled over if I speed a little, and even if I do, I just have to be nice and cooperative in my little community, and the worst I will likely leave with is a speeding ticket and a jolly, “have a great day, and slow it down, he he!!” Privilege lets me know I am safe in the systems. I might have to watch my back when walking alone at night, but if I call the police for help, I trust that for the most part they will be arriving to protect me and help me.
Privilege has allowed me to focus on other issues, while fellow Black mothers armor up to fight for the lives of their sons and daughters. These mothers and fathers are tired. The burden of dismantling the systems that oppress and harm them is not theirs to lift - it is the burden of those of us white people who see these problems and commit to every day actions to break down the barriers of opportunity and fight for safety and justice for our Black sisters and brothers. If we don’t…
Author, activist and poet, Sonya Renee Taylor phrases this so truthfully, “Systems do not maintain themselves; even our lack of intervention is an act of maintenance. Every structure in every society is upheld by the active and passive assistance of other human beings.”
For those of us who admit to this huge problem, you know that we can’t let our future just blend into what our past has been with no radical change. For those of us who are white, we know that these structures were built for us - and in my opinion, having lived in such a state of safety, I feel I owe my strength and my voice to putting a stop to these barbaric systems.
You may not feel safe shouting loudly, and there are still many ways to intervene, to be an accomplice in making sure these systems are not maintained by our complicity. Keep those emails going. Keep speaking up against racism in everyday settings. Teach your children to be active in protecting and including and understanding the true lived experiences of Black children. Keep calling the senators and demanding police forces be held accountable. Keep educating those around you. and never, ever stop.
I want to say, treat people how you were taught to treat them in kindergarten or church, but sadly there are deeply painful and racist lessons taught to little children in both of those settings. Denounce those lessons when you hear them.
That's how we all collectively stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity - by denouncing practices of exclusion and inequality whenever we see them arise. Because we just can't let our future become our past if we are to change the world. And we are going to change the world.