The Southern Fabric
September 4, 2019
Scholar Malinda Maynor Lowery reflects on a photograph by Southbound artist Jerry Siegel. As part of our Call & Response series in conjunction with Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South, we’ve asked artists, writers, and poets to respond to a photograph of their choice in the form of short written pieces.
By Malinda Maynor Lowery
In 2019, the Confederate flag triggers me like it never has before.
This photo fulfills my wish to destroy that which abuses us on a daily basis, so much abuse and so quotidian as to seem normal, part of the southern fabric. But the Confederate flag is not the southern fabric; there is nothing normal about it or the fantasy racial hierarchy it represents. Its normalcy exists only in the white supremacist imagination, yet the violence it provokes is very real.
The woman in this photo is therefore enacting a kind of secret fantasy for me: “meeting violence with violence,” as Robert F. Williams demanded in his 1962 memoir/manifesto Negroes with Guns. This photo brings to mind a black & white picture of Williams’s wife, Mabel Williams, posing with her pistol, confident in its power to defend and persuade. A power to overcome fear. But the gun is merely a vehicle; that power comes from within and it is she who overcomes. Adding to the photograph’s power, neither Mabel Williams nor this shooter in Dallas County, Alabama, serve an exotic or hypersexual girl-with-a-gun fantasy. They are not Charlie’s Angels, Bond girls, or videogame vixens playing a role for men. They are Black women channeling their tenacity and the power of their history through a weapon and toward an enemy that is equally relentless.
Performing violence helps illuminate how the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves structure our identities, our presentation of self. From there, it is not hard to see how identities actually structure events, not just how we remember them. These identities can enact events of liberation, but also terror and enduring trauma. In 2019, shooters haunt me as they never have before. Racial resentment and toxic masculinity take ruinous form in mass shootings, where enemies are in the eye of the beholder and violence is the corrosive evil within. Siegel’s photo also triggers a fear—what would I do if faced with a shooter? Why is my daughter obsessed with lockdown drills at school? How can we be safe from what race and patriarchy have wrought?