On a recent trip to downtown Charleston, I took a friend to see the Vesey monument at Emmanuel AME Church. The small Vesey memorial tucked into the street-level entrance inspired me to jot down the following thoughts on his story, a story that, although I grew up in Charleston, I never knew until I left the city and read its history on my own.
The postcolonial need to interrogate national and nationalizing narratives drives one to look reflect on the national and nationalizing aspects of one’s education, observing the forked, truncated, and crooked paths eschewed in learning to obey deceptively homogenizing norms of identity. As a white, heterosexual southerner, I’ve always been particularly fascinated by triangulations of US history that one could say channel conflicts of class, race, and ethnicity in specific directions that ultimately, quietly uphold our most treasured national doctrines.
The story of the abolitionist John Brown is a compelling example insofar as he embodies the universal values of freedom and equality that all US citizens are guaranteed under the constitution. That he lead a raid on Harper’s Ferry in the name of ending the institution of slavery makes him a martyr in the most American of causes, liberty and freedom, and, as with the national narrative of the Civil War that broke out shortly thereafter, renders him a figure for the expiation of white guilt over the sins of the era. His story is taught and ideologically important because he demonstrates that whites were willing to fight and die to free enslaved Africans.
The ideological underpinnings behind the privileging of a narrative like Brown’s are thrown into sharp relief when one considers a figure like Denmark Vesey. If you are unfamiliar with Vesey I encourage you to look him up. A freeman who, the story goes, planned a slave revolt in Charleston in the wake of the Haitian Revolution (another of History’s under sung events), he was executed along with many of those thought to be his co-conspirators in 1822. Unlike Brown, Vesey is a relatively obscure and controversial figure, a status born out by the two decade-long fight to have a statue erected in his honor and the ambivalent articles written about the monument’s recent unveiling in Hampton Park (see pieces addressing the controversy in the NYT, and Esquire). The very fact that there was controversy around the monument suggests a policing of who can fight for freedom, in whose name such a fight can be undertaken, and under what conditions. To reframe what I state above, one could say that Brown’s narrative feeds in to long standing narratives of the roles Anglo folks play in the world, whereas Vesey’s disturbs those narratives at their very foundations. Vesey is, in many respects, the decolonizing subject described by decolonial thinker Frantz Fanon: a man who rises up to take his freedom at any costs, a man for whom negotiating with the colonial system is not at all an option.
With July 4, the anniversary of US Independence, bearing down upon us in the calendar, this conversation is more relevant than ever. Is Vesey any less worthy a hero than Washington, Jefferson, or someone like Johns Brown? If so, why?