US: As a Black woman from the South, removal of Confederate symbols is personal

The fight over monuments asks, who is an American hero and who is a 'symbol of hate'?

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Some people say Confederate symbols pay homage to Southern pride and President Donald Trump has defended Confederate monuments. But I got my first taste of the racist meaning behind the Confederate symbol when I was just 5 years old.

a person riding a horse: Work crews remove the statue of confederate general Stonewall Jackson, Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) © Steve Helber/AP Work crews remove the statue of confederate general Stonewall Jackson, Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Growing up in Florence, Alabama, a city in the northwest corner of the state, Confederate imagery was everywhere -- bumper stickers, a monument in front of the county courthouse, bandanas, and most notoriously in the form of a flag.

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As my mother and I were on our way home from the grocery store, a group of White men in a truck with a large Confederate flag hoisted on the back, stopped next to us at a red light and shouted "n----rs." When they drove away, I fearfully asked my mother why those men were calling us that name. I will never forget the bewildered look on her face or the hurt in her voice as she explained to me what it meant.

Unfortunately, that would not be the last time my mother or I would be called that racist term. And for me, and many other Black people, the term is inextricably linked to the Confederate symbol and those who glorify the South's racist, slave-holding history.

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Eventually, I became numb to the word and the painful meaning of Confederate imagery, so much so that I would roll my eyes driving past the massive Confederate flag flying over I-65 between Birmingham and Montgomery. After seeing the images for so long, I was desensitized to the pain during my undergraduate years at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, a city that I dubbed my second home. I would pay no mind to the Confederate statues that lined the city's historic Monument Avenue.

Lately, I've been optimistic and also jaded -- because the debate has gone on for so long without action -- about their removal. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, signing a law removing the Confederate emblem from the state flag, NASCAR banning Confederate flags from its events, and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney using his emergency powers to remove Confederate monuments and statues, including the ones on Monument Avenue (except a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee that is state-owned property), are actions I never expected.

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Watching videos of Confederate statues be taken down in places around the country, especially in Richmond, has been an emotional moment that gives me chills and holds a personal meaning.

In April, I took an AncestryDNA test to take a deeper look into my African roots. Unsurprisingly I found the heritage of my ancestors from Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, Ghana, Benin, Togo, Senegal, and even European ties to England, Ireland, Scotland and Sweden embedded in my genes. The deeper I searched, combing through Census documents, death records, slave schedules and speaking with family members, the footprints of my DNA track from Alabama to Virginia -- where my ancestors arrived on its shores on slave ships over 400 years ago and were sold.

I wonder what my ancestors, who toiled the land on plantations and cried out for freedom through songs and chants, would say if they were here today about the initial creation and eventual removal of the ghostly fixtures of those who held racist ideals. If they could speak from their graves, what words would they utter? Many of them weren't alive when the statues were erected. How would they feel about them going up in the first place?

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The emotional pain caused by Confederate symbols and imagery is an extension of centuries-worth of trauma from slavery that has been passed down from generation to generation and exacerbated by police killings of Black people. The removal of these statues and symbols are reflective of a changing of the guard of who tells America's history that has been festering for some time. It's no coincidence that Virginia is once again at the heart of the discussion since it's one of the beginning chapters in America's dark history.

Being the daughter of the first Black fireman and the first Black female deputy director for the Emergency Management Agency in my hometown, I always heard about egregious experiences each of them faced in childhood and in their careers. My father told me that the night of his first shift as a firefighter in 1981 a wooden cross was burned in a field across the street from the fire station (an act of intimidation used by the Ku Klux Klan that was corroborated by his former colleagues to me later). My mother told me of an incident in which she was called the racist term again by a White director at a meeting in front of White colleagues from across the state.

I'm in awe of my parents' resilience and outlook on life after all the racism they have endured. My parents never returned hatred with hatred, instead they chose to act with love. Both of them taught me to treat everyone with love, compassion and respect -- even when others treat me differently because of the color of my skin. My father tells me, "let not your heart be hardened," which is inspired by the Christian scripture Proverbs 11:17 and is the title of his memoir about his painful experience as a Black firefighter. He grew up poor in Florence on the city's west side. He always wanted to be a firefighter since he was very young. Before becoming a firefighter, he served in the US Navy as a Corpsman.

Our country still has a long way to go on its journey toward healing and reconciliation, but actions speak louder than words and removing Confederate symbols is a start.

a person standing in front of a car posing for the camera: Joe Duster is Florence, Alabama's first Black Firefighter and Lieutenant Fire Inspector. Ethelene Duster is the city's first Black female deputy director of the Emergency Management Agency. © Chandelis Duster/Family Photo Joe Duster is Florence, Alabama's first Black Firefighter and Lieutenant Fire Inspector. Ethelene Duster is the city's first Black female deputy director of the Emergency Management Agency.

Historians debate America's history of racism and Confederate monuments .
On the heels of the death of George Floyd, protesters have dismounted several statues around the world after learning the history of the person the art depicts. Over the years, they have come to mean many things to different people, including a way to remember, a work of art or simply a place for pigeons to roost.

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