The heady mix of bloody tragedy and dogged symbolism in Charleston, South Carolina, these past few days has to remind one that the United States of America is so disunited as to make nonsense of its very name.
One wonders what really unites this great mass of land and peoples apart from a convoluted history of displacement, conflict, strife and slaughter. At home and abroad.
South Carolina is that place that historically symbolised those traits. Part of a chunk of land unfairly claimed by the British, French, Dutch and Spanish, Portuguese and other pirates against the rightful owners of its original inhabitants, South Carolina was Britain’s frontline in its struggle to fend off its rivals.
As part of land that in the mid 1660s Charles II had given as a present to a handful of noble lords — the so-called lords proprietors — in England, that part of North America was destined to become a hotbed of the most inhuman exploitation of man by man.
Slavery flourished there, and when the Union government under Abe Lincoln decided on Abolition, South Carolina was the very first state to secede from the Union in the week before Christmas, 1860.
Early in the following year, 10 other southern states had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America, triggering the Civil War, in which South Carolina lost more than 60,000 combatants.
The flag of the Confederacy is still flying atop some public buildings in Charleston, and, in wake of the massacre of church-attending African Americans by a white supremacist a few days ago, the continued flaunting of this symbol of the shameful past is seen as an affront and a lack of respect for the nine victims of Dylann Roof’s bullets.
The massacre, committed by such a young man, shows that the ancient prejudices and hatreds that informed earlier eras we presume to have been darker, are refusing to die, and that they have been passed down from generation to generation.
The use of social media to whip up racial rage is only going to make matters much worse as more young people sign in onto sites that are dedicated to the peddling of such poisons.
As the Charleston shooting comes on the heels of a spate of killings of apparently innocent African Americans by white officers, the question must be asked whether black populations all over the US will not see themselves as being targeted at all levels, and whether they will not feel the necessity to defend themselves by any means necessary, because the authorities have demonstrated their impotence in the matter?
I shudder to think of what could happen in a country that is saturated with firearms. The polarisation of racial communities could have devastating consequences as each group retreats into its cocoon and from there tries to inflict as much harm on the other side as it can.
We are told that young Roof had been browsing catalogues of alleged black-on-white outrages, and that’s what he says made him a mass murderer. Maybe. But if that is true, just suppose that a few black men organised a website that chronicled just a portion of what may be considered as outrages committed against black people by white people. And if these young men decided to avenge all those people who lost, not only their lives, but their humanity?
It’s chilling to learn that one of the websites these sick people turn to is lastrhodesia.com, wanting, no doubt, to make clear their allegiance to apartheid and its associations. It also speaks to a kind of nostalgia that will be lamenting the demise of Hitler, Franco, Mussolini, Pinochet and other monsters of that ilk.
And we will be deluding ourselves if we think that these are merely deranged nutcases operating on the fringes. Look at Europe and the steady rise of neo-Nazi and other far right political formations, and the positions they take on issues associated with black people.
The power of the symbolism of the Confederacy, be it in America or in Europe, is real, and we’d better sit up and take note.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an aocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org