Image screenshot via Valdosta Daily Times. Taken by Adam Floyd. Eric Sheppard (center, pictured)
Editor’s Note: This article contains language that some may find offensive.
The hashtag campaign that erupted on social media initiated by 21 year old Valdosta State University (VSU) student and New Black Panther member Eric Sheppard.
During a protest staged at VSU, aimed at American anti-Blackness, Sheppard and other students walked on the American Flag to, as he explained in a video uploaded to Youtube, “step on” the cherished beliefs of Whitopia: white supremacy, institutional racism, mental colonialism, economic disempowerment, and cultural superiority.
“The meaning for the stepping on the flag was that that flag represents white supremacy racism, which is plaguing the entire Earth. You see? So when we step on that flag, we are stepping on racism, white supremacy. We are stepping on those things that mean that, that were erected alongside our genocide and our holocaust. We’re stepping, we’re releasing those chains from our mental capacity and from our physical capacity.”
The demonstration garnered national attention after Air Force Veteran and former Playboy model Michelle Manhart was arrested by VSU campus police, for attempting to stop the protest by snatching the flag off the ground, and refusing to return it to protestors.
Subsequently, Sheppard was threatened by white supremacist groups, prompting him to violate the school zone safety code, and bring a gun on campus, which police found in an abandoned backpack. Fleeing to Florida, he was “manhunted”, arrested, and returned to Valdosta, where he now faces trial.
Sheppard’s petition for virtual ears sparked Bryce Wagoner to hijack the challenge and issue his own patriotic call-to-symbolic arms. #FlagChallenge urged viewers to wear their patriotism, by planting an American Flag on their lawn or yard.
And, just like that, an online flag war caught fiber optic fire.
Stepping back to digest the situation sent me reflecting on my own experience with Eric which, unsurprisingly, is diametrically at odds with the terrorist portrait painted by the FBI.
Invited by two of my former students, Eric audited a few sessions of my “Introduction to African American Studies” course two semesters ago. During my lectures, he sat in the back, listened, and, when moved, politely raised his hand to ask if he could make a contribution to the discussion. At one point, a debate ensued (I posed a hypothetical about the merits, if any, of a marginalized group assimilating into the dominant culture), prompting Eric to reference and defend the melanin theory of Black racial superiority, a pseudo-scientific proposition advanced by Wade Nobles and psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing; and, while I made every attempt to empathize with the appeal of melanin theory to Blacks, and understand all too well the deep source of black rage, I opposed it to the arguments of evolutionary biologist Joseph Graves.
In his books, The Emperors New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium and The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America, Graves scientifically discredits the biological theory of race, with implications for any science-based proposition of any human group laying claim to natural superiority. Emphasizing “race” as a “myth” invented by Whites, he nonetheless insists that the empirical consequences of believing in socially-constructed race are very real, actual, and extremely dangerous.
What we really mean by “race” is culture. Graves writes “What we think of as race today is really a surrogate for membership in cultural groups. Remember that cultures actually evolve much faster than genes do and, therefore, cultural differences can become much greater than genetic ones, even in relatively short periods of time.”
I recommended both books to Eric, and encouraged him, as I do all my students, to maintain a healthy, critical position towards citizenship.
“Like all other organisms, America is an evolving species” I suggested. “Certain agents within any organism will trigger mutation and change.”
Desecrating the flag in the name of protest is one such agent. It is nothing new in American social life and has always been a hotly contested political instrument for engendering critical, genuine, and healthy patriotism. Think of masses of protestors from various backgrounds at the height of the Vietnam War, drawn together by a desire to express their disapproval of American governance, by burning the flag — a means of spurring radical change in the American organism.
The #EricSheppardChallenge is strikingly relevant in light of the controversy surrounding MoveOn’s anti-Confederate “Take Down The Flag” campaign mushrooming on Facebook and Twitter and the “debates” endorsed by Gov. Nikki Haley over the fate of this treasured symbol of white rule in South Carolina, were it continues to hang on capitol grounds. The debate is partly the aftermath of the recent killing of 9 African American Carolinians during a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, by self-described white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof.
For decades, many white southerners proudly claimed the southern cross as an embodiment of their “heritage” and “state rights,” without bothering to elaborate on the racist details of this “heritage” or the historical circumstances behind the need of southern states to assert their “rights.”
Horrific events as of late catapulted this issue back into the national stratosphere, with an added caveat. As several, private corporate retailers — Walmart, Google, Amazon, eBay, and Kmart — have opted to pull all their Confederate paraphernalia off the market; as memes contrasting Germany’s contemporary relationship to the swatiska with America’s own to the confederate cross have circulated on the interwebs; as police departments across the country face increasing scrutiny over its sordid history of racial profiling, implicit bias, and arbitrary use of lethal force against Black women, men, and children; some critics are taking the opportunity to raise more profound and difficult questions about what it means to practice citizenship and patriotism. Like Sheppard, they are forcing the legacy of the American flag into the conversation. I include myself in this group, friction and backlash though there is and will be.
In words that echo many of the points broached by Sheppard, The Root’s Kirsten West Savali, speaking with RT news, said the following
“We can’t talk about the Confederate flag without also talking about the American flag. This country is a white supremacist country. It’s complicit in everything that’s going on.”
History shows that this awkward, complicated, and strained relationship with the American nation-state and the values its flag presumably embodies, is neither unreasonable nor unwarranted. In point of fact, Blacks have always been uneasy about the stars and stripes. Understandable, given the fact that the so-called “founding fathers,” celebrated year after year, were notorious racists, and had a firm, blood-coated hand in codifying the mass-subscribed proposition that to be American is to be White.
For verification, look no further than the Naturalization Act, the legal matrimony of white race and nationality.
Even the broadening of whiteness, as documented by historian Neil Irvin Painter, did nothing to disturb this empirical reality. The best Black people could aspire to, hope for, was to emulate Whites or “pass.”
Wave after wave of turn of 19th century European immigrants would come to know this. When Toni Morrison reflects on this fact, she’s led to conclude that it’s not surprising that the first words new countrypersons learned fresh off the boat was “nigger.” Immigrants observed very quickly that, though poor, they were not “niggers.”
But, while openly saying “nigger”, as Barack Obama put it to Marc Maron, and overtly acting on the corresponding mindset, is what the Confederate flag stands for, the American flag represents a level of racism far worst and much trickier to exorcise.
Naturally, de facto white affirmative action, full of conceptual conflations and unfounded assumptions of cultural inferiority, keeps this heightened, cautious patriotic stance firmly in place.
Liberal Whites, so use to fighting Confederate-style racism, grow fidgety at the thought that Blacks would question America’s commitment to Black lives, and violate U. S. flag code. Why else would Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton end what many assumed was a powerful message in Florissant, MO, culminating into an indictment of the sordid legacy of anti-blackness, with “all lives matter”? Such a reaction comes with the privilege of not having to deal with the question of what it means to be American.
Unable to find an inkling or semblance of nuanced commentary offered by the most die-hard uber patriots, while scrolling through the comment threads responding to #EricSheppardChallenge, I wondered what kind of a world we’d live in if Whitopians spewing filth at flag desecraters showed as much disgust and visible agony at the sight of urban black poverty, Black wealth and health disparities, employment discrimination, mass incarceration, and residential segregation, as they do people trampling on and burning a piece of clothe.
Nah. True to form, the likelier response is quick dismissal of these national problems as the result of shiftless Blacks stifled by genetically determined cultural defects.
Sheppard spotlighted this superficial patriotism when he said
“You can see the psychosis of Europeans where they value the menial things and not the grander things. Where are we at? We’re in Valdosta, Georgia, right? Kendrick Johnson’s death was covered up. So, you care more about a clothe on the ground and me stepping over it with a boot than you do about a Black man’s death?”
And that is the point.
None of this is to suggest that symbols are frivolous. To the contrary. Last week, we saw — collectively witnessed — how powerfully symbols operate in the human mind.
Equally true is it that symbols, flags, are connected to a reality, a world which gave birth to them. Ridding the world of those symbols that signify obvious, incontrovertible hatred is but a step.
Anyone comfortable with and indifferent to anti-Black racial disparities that constantly threaten to rip apart an already fragile and anemic democracy forfeit any right to be outraged by flag desecration. And if this is the only way to hit a mass nerve, flag wars will, should, and must wage on.
The origin of species of American organism is systemic racism. Step on that, and then we’ll talk about sporting the red, white, and blue.