One can never be alone in the South—you cannot take three steps without rubbing up against a ghost. The ghastly spectre of white supremacy has a more fleshy face, but the translucent silhouettes of the Cherokee, the Seminole, the enslaved, make their presence known to all who will listen. The House of Hades is no underworld, it is superimposed in unhappy juxtaposition with the lived present. Tiresias had to drink the blood of a slaughtered animal to warn of Poseidon’s wrath, but our ghosts require monuments and flags to speak from the grave.
And speak they do. They speak of rage, the rage of the yeomen, the overseers, the small farmers. But also the rage of the masters, whose dream of an empire of slavery evaporated before their eyes. Their rage fueled Redeemption, and then Jim Crow, and then the Southern strategy. They are a numerous host, gathering together whenever whites cleanse space, but forever upset when a black body intrudes. They become furies, resentful and defensive. Eyes blank as reason fades, and people remember that all they have is their anti-blackness. Shorn of history and in denial of African culture (just where do you think your meal of fried chicken, sweet potatoes, and black-eyed peas came from?), to be “Southern” is just to be not black.
A curious formulation given the number of black lives that have traversed this plane over the years. What the monuments and flags manage is a protection spell, a loud wall of white noise that drowns out the native nations, the Seminole Wars, the slave revolts, the atrocities of daily life as an enslaved person, and the promising times of Reconstruction and Populism and mass movements. Every lynching is a charm hung by white hate meant to ward off the good spirits of liberation.
Small wonder then that the backlash against Civil Rights and the deeper black struggles of the 60s and 70s created a generation of whites for whom these symbols are of paramount importance. They signify a consciousness and a history that is largely the creation of anti-blackness, and yet is predicated upon abject denial of the importance of race. To the extent that it is acknowledged it is denied a place at the hallowed table of relevance.
Certainly there were enslaved people and slave owners and certainly there were revolts and rapes and butchered bodies and broken bones and shattered families, but that distracts from the real story of the Southern whites. Their politeness and hospitality (never mind the African roots of these sensibilities) is what’s key. Their honor is second to none (whatever that even means). These brave men and their honorable Southern ladies (who never sought passion in the sweaty embrace of black arms or rioted over bread in March and April of 1863) wore fine clothing and bemoaned the lack of culture in the world. Their memory is long lost, the tragic victim of being terribly misunderstood.
But the realm of hungry ghosts isn’t even primarily made of these. Ghosts can rarely hold together for any length of time, they fragment and recombine into monstrous multitudes. Sometimes they even mix with their enemies, producing products of unhappy unions of black and white. That’s why the one drop rule must be in effect. That’s why “bi-racial” is really just black in this system. Neatness is also a white supremacist value—maybe even the central value.
Life, however, is anything but neat and consequently the land of the dead is a messy place. Bubbling up from beneath our feet is the good soil, sown with the blood and tears of the toiling labor of the oppressed. When the monuments and flags move aside their dampening spells weaken, and the floor beneath our feet—beneath our very feet—cracks to yield its bountiful harvest of the dead. Enzombied they rise to remind us of our true heritage, of wars on sovereign nations and white settlers. Of genocide and slavery. Enfleshed once more, the ghosts energize their ancestors and even win over the progeny of their former enemies.
Vainly the representatives of the flags and monuments don ghostly disguises to exorcise the land and conjure their own spirits, but this is a sign of desperation. When this point of terror is reached it means their orderly and neat existence is slipping from their fingers. A new day is rising. A new flag is flying—red, black, and green. Liberation is raising its many-faced head once more. And all those people who have nothing but their anti-blackness become exposed to the many-faced gaze of liberation.
Battling specters and fantasies may seem small or irrelevant, but beneath its thin veneer it is a battle across the ages, across the realms of the living and the dead, a battle against death. The zombies awaken and become aware of their conditions. Monstrosities revolt, putting flight to the white townsfolk’s pitchforks. Devils in the cotton field turn their gaze on the pristine homes. Overseers turn to run. The time for finishing unfinished business is on.