Possibly Even Magic

Note: In the lead-up to the election, RD.net is prodding leaders to submit creative and concise pieces (500 words or less) on both hope and resistance.

Bree Newsome, June 27, 2015.

By Ric Hudgens

In the early 1980s, not long after the death of Steven Biko, I registered for an independent study on the nonviolent struggle in South Africa. I knew little of nonviolence or South Africa and wanted to learn more. Based on my semester-long research, I concluded that there wasn’t much chance without bloodshed for a peaceful outcome in South Africa. Of course, I was wrong. Academic research is linear, but real life isn’t. There were things below the surface and things about to surface in South Africa that I couldn’t predict.

Despite the turmoil of recent weeks, I sometimes find myself hopeful. It is a cautious, chastened hope, but hope nevertheless. My friend Tom Roddy used to say, “God draws straight with crooked lines.” Despair pretends to know too much. Things look bleak on many fronts, but if you discount surprise, you are bound to be surprised.

Case in point: the upcoming fifth anniversary of Bree Newsome’s most visible act of civil disobedience.

On the morning of June 27, 2015, 25-year-old Bree Newsome, drove to the state capitol in Columbia, SC, and scaled the flagpole in front of the capitol building to remove the Confederate battle flag displayed there. “In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down. You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today,” she declared.

Less than two weeks before, on June 17, the Charleston massacre occurred. During a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Church, nine African-Americans were killed.

It was a despicable, random act of darkness fueled by a vast reserve of white supremacist myth, hatred, and ignorance. Ten days later, Newsome performed a counteract of inspired, focused light, drawn from an even greater aquifer of faith, hope, love, courage, and defiance.

“By the time Ms. Newsome Bass was released from jail seven hours after her arrest in 2015, the flag was back on its pole, almost as if it were never taken down. But another image came from that day, an image that inspired posters, illustrations and paintings: a black woman from the South removing the flag that represents a society that oppressed her ancestors and those who looked like her for centuries.” (Tariro Mzezewa, “The Woman Who Took Down a Confederate Flag on What Came Next,” New York Times, June 14, 2020)

Images and symbols have immeasurable power to shape, form, and deform.

The current uprisings aren’t the result of actions five years ago. But I have to believe they contributed. The Confederate flag, an enduring symbol of “the lost cause,” is finally coming down all across the South. NASCAR and the Marine Corps have banned it. Statues to Confederate heroes are being removed. Newsome’s act contributed to a more substantial chemical reaction.

The coronavirus, the economic collapse, and the anti-racist uprisings are changing our social landscape. Unprecedented numbers of deaths, massive unemployment, and civil unrest are a potent mixture. Each one alone would be tumultuous. Together simultaneously, eyes are opening, attitudes changing, symbols falling, and statues tumbling. The consequences of it all are difficult to foresee.

In a recent article on unpredictability, Brian Resnick drew an analogy from simple physics. The movements of a single pendulum are predictable. But add a second pendulum to the first, a double pendulum, and you exceed predictability. “It teaches us to understand the mechanics of a system — the science of how it works — without being able to precisely predict its future. It helps us visualize how something that seems like it should be linear and predictable just isn’t.” (“How chaos theory helps explain the weirdness of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Vox, May 23, 2020).

History is only linear in retrospect. Humans are not pendulums. Human history is more like a double pendulum: chaotic and unpredictable.

“The space that exists for many of us, as a young black girl, is so extremely limited so that you really can’t go very far without being an activist, without being in defiance of something,” said Newsome of her actions that day. Her defiance five years ago contributed to something I would not call chaotic, but alchemical.

One definition of alchemy I’ve always liked is “the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained.” I would suggest history is neither linear nor chaotic, but alchemical; closer to magic than physics.

Initiate an action, instigate a protest, activate some defiance, bend a knee, raise a fist, and (when it’s safe to again) hold a hand. See what happens. The result may be alchemical.

America is involved in a massive experiment right now. The ordinary is recombining in extraordinary ways. No one knows where it’s going. There will be sadness and heartbreak ahead. There will always be blood. But there may also be glimpses of light and unforeseen progress. Gandhi called his life “experiments with truth.” Thoreau observed that ‘If one advances confidently in the direction of [their] dreams, and endeavors to live the life which [they have]  imagined, [they] will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

As South Africa and many other examples teach us there is an unpredictability in nonviolent direct action.

We don’t know enough to despair. The future is uncertain. Making history is a messy business. We don’t know what’s impossible. Things are happening below the surface, and others are about to surface. Alchemical things. Messy, but hopeful. Possibly even magic.

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