Monday, June 24, 2013

On Black Power, The Butler Medal and My Third Tattoo.

I really want to get a new tattoo. It will be my third. I have one on my arm that says "Joy" because that's my mother's (and my own) middle name. She has the same tattoo in the same place but on her right arm instead of her left. (She's left handed.) My right wrist has "fear itself" because, simply, I love FDR and I have an anxiety problem.

Twottoos.
I read James M. McPherson's The Negro's Civil War: How American Blacks Felt And Acted During the War for the Union for a class with Danny Noorlander (congrats, SUNY Oneonta) because he let us choose any non-fiction book about the 19th Century on which to write our final paper. The Negro's Civil War uses a wide-range of primary sources to investigate the obvious myth that African Americans lacked agency during the Civil War. McPherson pulls from speeches, newspaper articles, diary entries, etc, to prove that African Americans (free, freed and slave) from all over the country, were aware of what the Civil War meant for their social status in the United States. McPherson serves as a narrator because the book is made up of almost entirely primary sources. For being only like 400 pages, it does a good job (especially for it's time, 1982) covers politics, battles, emancipation, and the fight for equality and civil rights, and always gives multiple opinions on each major event in the War. 
All you have to do is ask to borrow it. 
What I'm trying to say is that I feel like I know and have thought a lot about the topic of African Americans fighting in The Civil War. I even wrote this poem, which I read at Beloit baccalaureate in May of 2012:
After 150 Pages of James M. McPherson’s The Negro’s Civil War

Learning about the Civil War from the African American perspective means taking your Abraham Lincoln poster out of its frame and rolling it up under the bed. 
You can’t look at his face now that you know what he believed.
It means trying to learn patriotism. 
You lived through September 11th and saw all of those flags but loving the country that enslaved you is harder. 
You find out that angry white people lynched freed blacks on the streets of Brooklyn, blocks away from where you almost went to college.  
You have to stop yourself from crying in the library, because just when you think it can’t get any sadder, ten pages later it’s sadder. 
You force yourself to sit on the porch at midnight in 30-degree weather and read Paul Laurence Dunbar and you aren’t allowed to Tweet about how cold your feet are. 
It means you start pretending that last Halloween when you went out dressed as Frederick Douglass and got blackout drunk—that was a political statement.

It means realizing that if you were a slave you would have let all of it happen to you. 
You thank your grandmother for moving up to New England during the Great Migration.
You wouldn’t have learned to read or write but at least you would have known how to complain about real things, instead of just looking out of your bedroom window and groaning when you see it’s snowed overnight. 
It means wondering how you ever managed to have white friends.
You learn to be grateful that the capacity to forgive was passed down genetically. 
You wonder if you could have fallen in love with any type of master. 
You wonder who would have found you beautiful with matted hair on your head and dialect in your mouth.
The brilliant thing about my Beloit education is that so much of it overlapped. A year after reading The Negro's Civil War, I took a class with my favorite professor (who first introduced me to McPherson and is probably the best professor at Beloit College fullstop), Beatrice McKenzie, where we learned about African American history through reading tons, basically. We treated the black power movement with the same amount of thought as we did the nonviolent moment, and yet I found myself (and still do, although I took that class in the spring of 2012 (the semester after first reading The Negro's Civil War)) more able to comprehend the hostility better. For me, the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement are clearly connected by violence. The violence of slavery, of the War itself, of Mathew Brady's photos, of beatings at sit-ins, of the Edmund Pettus bridgethey all sort of morph together into one big mass of white-on-black violence for me.


That violence makes me angry. I'm not necessarily as angry as Newton and Davis were at my age, but I consider them both to be huge influences on the way I think about race. I think all people of African American descent deserve to be as angry as they need to be, whatever that means. I don't know how productive that anger is, but I know that that anger has been a constant undercurrent propelling me towards all of my American history classes and the poems I've written since I took them. (By the way: add, to my anger, my guilt for "only" being half black and not even "acting" black and being feeling like I can only connect with the "black community" via history. I am thinking about all of these things almost all of the time.) How I feel about the white-on-black violence of the last few centuries is the reason why I believe that slavery was the number one cause of the Civil War and that the deaths of Confederate soldiers and citizens during the War were absolutely necessary. I believe that we should be proud of the Civil War because, you guys, we won. I am a proud Northerner and a proud African American and a proud citizen of this country because Lincoln entered a War he knew would result in (eventually) freeing the slaves (when it was politically viable) and the North, with the help of African American soldiers, won. If Lincoln had been a steadfast liberal advocating for abolition he wouldn't have won the presidency in the first place, and it was politically necessary for him to wait as long as he did. I wish he (and all the presidents before him) hadn't waited, but like every other American citizen, I'm not happy all the time about history or politics. 

That brings us to the Butler Medal, which I don't remember reading about in McPherson and that I discovered while google imaging "US Colored troops badge" and thinking about tattoo ideas. If I can save up some money, I want to get the Butler Medal (or an adapted version of it) tattooed on my body.

All donations to my "get this tattoo" fund can be directed to sashadebevecmckenney@gmail.com
All reasons why I shouldn't get it can be directed to the comments below.
"Inscribed with the Latin phrase meaning “Freedom will be theirs by the sword,” this Army of the James Medal was awarded...for gallantry during the 1864 Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. It is one of two hundred medals commissioned by Union general Benjamin F. Butler and remains the only medal in American history designed specifically for black soldiers. After Butler’s removal from command, black troops were forbidden to display these “unofficial” medals on their uniforms."
First off, I'm not sure that my more radical black power beliefs mesh well with the idea of a medal "commissioned" by a white Union general. Then again, Butler's "removal from command" and the fact that "black troops [were] forbidden to display [the] unofficial" medal kind of do. I'm conflicted. I don't want the tattoo to be too big, but I do want it to be in a fairly visible place. Visible because I am young and stupid and angry about what white people did to black people (side note: not to mention what citizens did to immigrants, people like my mom's side of the family) and want to get a tattoo that shows off how I feel. I know that's stupid and reactionary but I am 23 and I want to remember this version of myself. I want to remember the US Colored Troops, and for other people to ask and remember.
 If I end up getting it, I intend the Butler medal tattoo to be a black power symbol because Colored Troops killed their own Confederates. (For lack of a better word, how badass is that? And how badass is the phrase "freedom will be theirs by the sword"? ) The version of history taught to us in school is whitewashed in order to instill artificial and unsupported patriotism instead of the alternative: keeping people informed about the horrible things that have happened to minorities and women in this country and challenging them to love their country despite it. 

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