Written by Brian James Spies
According to Paul Krassner, in his 2011 essay in the Huffington Post entitled, The Trial of Abbie Hoffman’s Shirt, “In October 1968, Abbie Hoffman was arrested in Washington for wearing a shirt that resembled the design of an American flag… Prosecutor Benton Becker argued, ‘… the Government has a legitimate interest in maintaining the sanctity of its symbols.’”
Power structures create and maintain symbols and signifiers of identity so as to maintain control of both the outcome as well as the terms of the discourse. Any attempt at re-appropriation or disruption of these symbols is a clear and a defined threat to the established order.
As early as anyone can remember, we are told to not judge a book by it’s cover. The idea is to value the internal, the unseen and elusive over the superficial and obvious. This sentiment is often extended to people as well. Dr. King said we should be, “… Judged by the quality of (our) character not the color of (our) skin…”
It is into this parable that one Rachel Dolezal, a white woman masquerading as an African-American Scholar of Africana Studies and the leader of a local chapter of The NAACP, enters the conversation. For as, in a December 2015 interview with The Guardian Newspaper, Ms. Dolezal was quoted as saying, “… I identify as black. Nothing about whiteness describes who I am.” Thusly, she argues that her narrative is one of blackness, despite the cover assigned her at birth.
Intentions notwithstanding, her actions, much like those argued for by Prosecutor Becker in the case against Abbie Hoffman, act in an effort to maintain the sanctity of the symbols of white racial supremacy. They serve to reinforce arguments of reverse racism and the deplorable notion that there is in African Americans an inherent laziness that manifests itself as an innate unwillingness to pull themselves up by their collective bootstraps.
For if a race has its roots, not in ethnicity or a collective history of institutional oppression, then it is instead merely a system of shared cultural cues. Blackness is merely natural hair, dark skin, and gospel music. Sunday bests and chitlins with collard greens on the table. A race is not a systemic form of classification and marginalization that people from Rachel Dolezal’s background can’t possibly begin to understand the weight of but instead a performance, a minstrel show for white folks to put on like a dookie chain. The message being, “She can do it, Why can’t you?!” Why can’t black folks shake off the chains of 400+ years of bondage and oppression? Why can’t they be like white folks and just “Get‘er done!”?
In the early 1990s, Hammons’ “Untitled” (African American Flag) (1990) was born of a time of increasing racial strife. The crack epidemic was at its peak. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 (H.R. 5210) was criminalizing blackness in its selective sentencing which punished the cheap crack cocaine popular in the inner city ghettos more than the expensive powdered cocaine popular with Wall Street tycoons and the moneyed Park Avenue class. In the coming years, America would see the inevitable outcome of this legislation with the Rodney King Beating and the L.A. Riots and later in the decade the reactive Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994 (H.R. 3355) which furthered the marginalization of black and brown skinned people under the guise of law and order. It was this particular America into which David Hammons claimed to assert his Americanness. Re-appropriating the star spangled banner’s formal structure while replacing its colors with the Pan-African flag’s red, black and green, he demands an America that reflects his own reality, one separate and free from that of his oppressor but still of it and in it. This act is radical and revolutionary. It disrupts the picture of what an American is, what one looks like.
In 2004, while I was working at the Democratic Party headquarters near the campus of Penn State, I became friends with an older woman whose wardrobe consisted of some combination of the colors red, white and blue. George W. Bush was running for what would become his second term and the country was extremely divided. One day I inquired about her wardrobe choices. She replied that she wasn’t going to let Bush or his supporters define what being an American was.
Similarly, David Hammons’ re-appropriation of an American flag that, as the symbol of a nation that has made many African Americans feel like they aren’t really Americans, was an attempt at the reclamation of an object that signifies for African Americans over 400+ years of pain and suffering. This was a way of reclaiming his Americanness in the face of a culture that continues to deny him it. Much like the iconic civil rights era placards pronouncing I AM A MAN, his flag is saying, in essence, I am black, I am American. We don’t get to define what that means.
How do Rachel Dolezal’s actions in appropriating blackness seek to silence this act of protest? Like white girls flashing gang signs and rapping along to Kanye’s Gold Digger without fully comprehending the implications of those signifiers of, and responses to, black suffering, Ms. Dolezal’s adoption of black identity is more than merely a performance than it is an act of maintaining the sanctity of the symbols of a system of white racial supremacy. In America, black people aren’t really Americans, their rights are illusory and disappear when actually exercised. This is the reality that informs the work, in general, and in particular of Untitled (African American Flag), by Mr. Hammons.
This work is not ours, we cannot claim it as such. Rachel Dolezal was playing the part of Elvis Presley and Vanilla Ice, propping up a system of oppression that in doing so she helps to legitimize and the fact that she was so successful at it only demonstrates how important the work of David Hammons’ still is.
– In an interview with the NBC talk show Today on Tuesday, April 12, 2016, Rachel Dolezal discussed the publication of her as yet to be titled book about race and identity, set for release in March 2017 by independent publisher BenBella Books.