Bree Newsome is my shero. And my new favorite theorist and theologian of resistance. On Saturday, she scaled a flagpole in Columbia, South Carolina to take down the Confederate Flag, which has felt acutely offensive in the less than 14 days since a vile, misguided, millennial neoconfederate walked into Black sacred space and murdered nine of our people.
I woke to the news of the massacre of nine faithful souls at Mother Emanuel AME Church on a trip abroad for work and play. Startled and devastated, I lay in bed wondering whether to wake my homegirl sleeping next to me, because like me, I knew she was tired of waking up each morning to structural devastation and systemic heartbreak. That’s what these times have felt like – like no time to catch one’s breath between blows. Undone and outdone, I jostled her awake anyway, as the tears started to leak from the edges of my eyes.
I’m a church girl. My ardent feminism hasn’t yet been able to overcome that. Believe me I’ve tried. But I know that I am here today because of many a Wednesday night spent communing with God and the saints at Wednesday night Bible Study and Prayer Meeting. This isn’t so much my spiritual practice anymore, but it remains the practice of so many Christian folk I love. Dylann Storm Roof could have murdered any one of them. Any one of us.
In the aftermath of these killings, we’ve turned once again to debating the merits of the confederate flag. I despise the stars and bars. I resent having grown up in a place where my classmates and their parents flew that flag freely, pasted it on car bumpers, with the disingenuous tag line, “it’s heritage not hate,” and reveled in their nostalgia for rebellion. They expected Black folks to be silent and unoffended, expected us to ignore that the celebration of that flag essentially communicated the sentiment, “We wish y’all were still slaves.”
Bree Newsome offered the holiest of “fuck thats” to such foolery and went up the pole and took that shit down.
My heart still swells for her courage. But I also think we would do well to see all the ways in which her act of resistance opens up space and possibility for us in the realms of faith and feminism.
As she took down the flag, she spoke to it: “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” On the way down, and as she was arrested, she recited the first verse of the 27th Psalm: “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life: of whom shall I be afraid?”
The clear Christian framing of her act of civil disobedience matters for a number of reasons. As the families of the nine slain offered their forgiveness to Roof for his heinous acts, I was incensed at what felt like a premature move to forgiveness. While I feel compelled to honor the right of these families to grieve and process this loss in the way that makes most sense for them – after all this is first and foremost their loss—I also wonder about whether churches have done a disservice in making Black people feel in particular that forgiveness must show up on pretty much the same day as our grief and trauma and demand a hearing.
If God is indeed “Emmanuel” – translated “God with us” – then how could this God demand that we forgive, and forgive, and forgive again, while we our being led like so many lambs to the slaughter? How about we leave the forgiving to Jesus and the grieving to human beings, assuming that Black people are in fact human, and not superhuman? But here’s the thing – this isn’t a referendum on forgiveness. I’m clear that forgiveness does a particular kind of spiritual work, a work of healing, a work of freedom, that we need. My problem is that however important forgiveness may be as a personal act, forgiveness does not make for sound and effective politics. Maybe I’ve finally found an area in feminism that I want to remain personal and not political.
I don’t forgive Dylann Roof. I don’t forgive white supremacy. I don’t forgive white supremacists. I don’t forgive patriarchy. I don’t forgive capitalism. I don’t forgive these systems or their propagators (complicit though I also am) because we have not reckoned with the magnitude of their devastations, deaths, and traumas. I don’t forgive those who still have a knife at my throat. I’m not Jesus. Black women are not Jesus.
So Bree Newsome was a reminder to me that forgiveness is not the only thing faith can look like in public. Faith in public can look like a demand – for justice, for recognition, for grace. Faith in public can look like calling white supremacist evil exactly what it is and “coming against it.” Faith can look like a Black girl climbing a pole. Faith can look like that Black girl looking into the face of power and telling those come to arrest her that she ain’t “neva scared” in the name of God.
And because I’m me, and this is we, let me loop back to that penultimate line. “Faith can look like a Black girl climbing a pole.”
We wouldn’t be connoisseurs of Crunk in these parts if we did not point you to the hilarity of those law enforcement officers yelling at Bree, “Ma’am. Ma’am. Come down off that pole.” Watch here.
Bree’s non-violent direct action against the state of South Carolina places her in the best traditions of the Civil Rights Movement. There’s no denying that.
But Black people have been staring at that rebel flag forever. What is new and important is that Black women, largely because of a heady mashup of hip hop and Black feminism, now have a different relationship to the pole. I’m only being slightly flippant.
I mean, let’s not trip: Discourse about Black girls on poles is ubiquitous these days. Stripper culture made that flagpole a circumstance rather than an obstacle. T-Pain fell in love a few years back. Today Usher “don’t mind.” And despite how far we’ve come in pro-sex feminism, most bougie Black girls I know have as a goal the keeping of their daughters, if not themselves, off the pole.
So I’mma say that the pole here – flagpole though it were – still marks a liminal space of possibility for what Black resistance beyond respectability looks like. Bree Newsome’s Black girl body climbed a pole, quoting scripture, to take down a flag that is emblematic of so much violence enacted on the Black body by the U.S. nation-state. Her act exploded every simple discourse we are currently having about what faith demands, about what decorum dictates that we should accept, about what are acceptable forms of resistance for (cis) Black women’s bodies.
Bree Newsome has challenged and enriched my faith and my feminism. She has reminded me that how Black girls move through space always changes the terms of engagement. She has reminded me on this week when we celebrate marriage equality and the bible thumpers abound, that the only good use of scripture in public is to help us get free.
(If scripture got you spiritually and rhetorically beating the shit out of gay people, women, and Black folks, rather than bible thumping the shit out of capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy, you’re using it wrong. God ain’t on your side and you might have the devil on your team.)
I still don’t know where God was in that Charleston Church on June 17th. But I do believe God used a Black girl to serve notice on principalities and powers that be that a change is coming. The flag is back on the pole. But it flies somehow with significantly less swag. And indelibly imprinted on my memory is Bree Newsome’s body, fully in possession of the rebel flag, now untethered from its hinges. A Black girl with the trophy of white supremacy in her clutches is the only sermon on freedom I’ll ever need.