Silent Sam: Geographic Marker of Violence, Politics, and the Racialized

About the Author:  Don Holmes, is a Ph.D student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Don is a native of Mississippi and is passionate about the pursuit of higher education.    He began his studies at the University of Southern Mississippi where he earned a degree in English Literature and African American Studies.  Don is also a United States Veteran. 

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In Julian Carr’s Words

            On June 2, 1913, Julian Carr, a North Carolina industrialist and philanthropist, spoke at the spring dedication of Silent Sam on the campus of the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill.[1] The United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned John Wilson to sculpt a bronze statue honoring students who died fighting for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Carr, according to UNC historian Peter A. Coclanis, was a “man of his times,” seeking not necessarily to forgive Carr for his overt racist attitudes, but to, perhaps, not press upon him (or his contemporaries) our present-day values.[2] While there is some merit in Coclanis line of reasoning—our expectations of Carr and his actions should be incredibly low—it is apparent in Carr’s speech that Silent Sam was not merely a token to Confederate memory. It was also the production of a geographic marker that extolled the memory of violence onto the black body.

            Much of the protest around Silent Sam’s presence have been fixated on Carr’s abuse of an unnamed black female’s body, which the UNC benefactor recalled fondly:  One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these university buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shotgun under my head.[3]

Carr’s words invoked the intricately connected contours of race, space, and violence. Carr insulated the space around Silent Sam as a space that would perpetually call into cognizance the memory of racial violence onto the black body. He identified the space the beating occurred, both the race and the sex of his victim, and the violent act he undertook. Carr does more than remember his unquestionable authority in mutilating the black body; he reminded those gathered of this continued power. Silent Sam’s placement then becomes a marker for geographic violence onto the black body, mind, and spirit. Within its conception was the “ideological landscape” in which violence would map the South's geography and the violence therein onto the black body. Carr hoped to press upon the crowd a different view in which “the political geography of America would have been rewritten.”[4]

            In this essay, I write about the production of space as violent around the Confederate monument, Silent Sam, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I contend that due to the racist attitudes around Silent Sam’s commemoration, the iconography’s location produces memories of violence and trauma. Because violence occurred at these sites, the space around it is thereby inscribed forever with this violence. Silent Sam is an example of how race, violence, and space are connected, creating violent geographic markers that have, for decades, littered the South in forms of Confederate iconography.[5]  Further, I explore how Confederate memory and space reaffirms white supremacy not solely as a belief but as a genuinely accepted American institution.

Location Politics

            Questions that consider both the social and political vulnerability of blackness, as selfhood and self-identification, must also consider how location factors into the paradigm. As such, the formulation becomes more about location politics—perspectives of visibility, exposure, and cultural meaning—more so than processes of uplift and advancement. In writing about the politics of location, Thadious M. Davis offers an instructive tool that explores how locations become mementos and markers to white supremacy. “This politics of location enables a connection [...] between a spatial organization and racialized voices,” Davis writes, “and, by means of that connection, a reformulation of marginalization and domination from an alternative perspective.”[6]

            How do we view history and in what ways have these perspective shaped the space around Confederate markers? In short, the Confederacy may have lost the Civil War, but they won a major cultural battle. The dominant perspective on the history of Silent Sam, the central context of this piece, suggests that the marker is to remember those who died fighting for the “Lost Cause.” The monument symbolizes the deafening of marginalized voices attempt to interrogate the subliminal history around its construction. The contextual and historical location of Silent Sam produces a perpetual vulnerability onto black bodies as they walk past it, protest its being, and demand its removal. The iconography is not spatially separate from either the history it represents nor the violent context it exudes.

            How then do monuments create such an atmosphere of distancing? The distance between the location of the statue and the seat of authority of UNC (South Hall) is a stark reminder of its true intention. That is, intentionality speaks to both the social and political motives of its locality. The former was to inculcate in the general psychic that the South “would” rise again—Silent Sam faces the North—while the latter was to exemplify positions of power, firmly within the grasps of white men. Location politics are about the power and who has the authority to will it. As such, power becomes sharable to later generations, such as generational wealth, political influence, and access to education. Silent Sam is located within a sea of diverse students to further show who had power, who willed power, and who shall remain in power. Its location creates a penetrable and tangible violent reminder to those descendants who it symbolically fought to keep in perpetual subjugation.

Geographic Violence

            The violence between the space that Silent Sam occupies and the black bodies that have surrounded it over the decades is immutable in its violent overture. It is a matter of acknowledging the violence that the statue represents more so than suggesting that the statue causes violence. Indeed representational and symbolic violence can be harmful and adds to the psychological trauma black people have experienced for decades. Marisa J. Fuentes suggests “there was an obvious link between enslaved bodies in urban spaces and architectures of control.”[7] Not only does Silent Sam symbolically represent links to confederate violence, but it also evinces the memory of this violence upon later generations. What is more, we can now see ethos of white supremacy laden in Silent Sam’s most ardent supporters.

            The nature of Confederate iconography, in this case, Silent Sam, infringes upon notions of liberation, uplift, and forward moving positionality—the position of peoples within specific social structures. In essence, it is difficult to define the personal necessity of one’s racial identity if symbols are displayed that labor to prove blackness as inferior. The geographic violence inherent in Silent Sam could become a space for political empowerment and articulation, a place to reengage the historical context and translate structures of power into political strategies and projects for students and visitors, alike. But, of course, such actions and ideas have been sidelined due to state laws and University policies that would rather keep quiet on the harmful effects of Silent Sam instead of forging new ground.[8]  Not only are racial tensions more visible, but black voices also become further marginalized because Silent Sam bears more power and more space (even more political protection). It is the failure to adequately articulate how this racial and dominant power has transmuted physical violence into mental properties that may be difficult to describe.

Politics of the Body in Raced Spaces

            Raced spaces represent the production of hegemony within a space that exudes and confirms notions of white supremacy. If Silent Sam is a memento to white supremacy, then the space around it, perhaps stretching the entirety of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, becomes a volatile raced space. The space continually deteriorates black selfhood and personhood due to the intention of its construction, what it represents to white supremacists, and what it represents to the marginalized. 

            The black body is tediously mapped onto the systematic and oppressive space around it, more broadly in the United States, but especially at sites of Confederate (re)memory. This writer is not suggesting that Confederate history not play a vital role in how the American story should unfold. It is, however, my intention to explicate that while some buttress Confederate iconography removal as a symptom of presentism, others see also the historical violence that created the Confederates, their descendants, and the copious laws that further maligned and regulated the black body within raced spaces.[9]

            Voices of power suggest that old monuments should be anodyne and dissenting voices are evoking narratives that wrongfully distinguish these monuments as racist, violent, and out of place. By not calling for the removal or contextualization of monuments that sought to reinvigorate the racial practices of the antebellum south, these voices are hitherto in support of white supremacy. Nothing about Silent Sam or other similar monuments breathe unity and comradeship. The notion of their construction was to express domination and power over freethinking black people and to remind them of the borrowed space between white and othered peoples. It is a matter of understanding the positionality of black bodies within these spaces. Put in the words of Nadia Brown and Sarah Allen Gershon, “bodies are sites in which social constructions of difference are mapped onto human beings. Subjecting the body to systemic regimes [...] is a method of ensuring that bodies will behave in socially and politically accepted manners.”[10] If Silent Sam altered the space around it to be a reminder of the hegemonic restraints black bodies would needlessly endure in 1913, then in 2018 its occupation becomes even more apparent.

            In April 2018, UNC history PhD student and social justice activists Maya Little doused Silent Sam in red paint and her blood. Little’s act of civil disobedience stemmed from a long line of unanswered calls to Carolina’s chancellor, Carol Folt, and the University’s administration (both campus and institution-wide) to speak more concretely about Silent Sam’s presence on the campus. Instead, faculty, students, staff, and supporters of the university have only received vague emails that shield the university’s administration as a neutral entity. Little’s herald response epitomizes the desires of the voiceless to find new measures to shed light on institutionalized racism and racial practices that some feel thrive at Carolina today.

            Anne Anlin Cheng’s “The Melancholy of Race” responds to this lack of vocabulary in discussing “the critical analysis of race relations and representations” within an American racialized state.[11] In Little’s case, her blood represents a response to the intangible grievances of the marginalized, which, in so many ways, is incapable of being placed into words or in language. The production of Silent Sam’s occupied space is just one of these intangible grievances that foster exclusion, demarcation, and subservience. Silent Sam’s creation was meant to ensure the “otherness” of black bodies; its continual existence at Carolina places black bodies into a violent raced space with little to no reprieve from political power.

Silent Sam as Instructive

            Silent Sam is a product of racism not of heritage. Heritage cannot be supplanted in the place of hatred no matter the amount of time between Silent Sam’s dedication and recent protests because the space around Silent Sam is immutably violent. It was constructed to represent the violence inherent in “Southern rights and Southern liberties,” and to lay further bare the historical tragedy of the black body.[12] The Confederate marker is controversial because it still bears the fruits of its original labor.

            Silent Sam’s inclusion on the geographic plane came along with an increase in violence onto black bodies in North Carolina and throughout the American South.[13] These statues spurred anger in White Southerners towards black advancement, educational and intellectual growth, and operations in black enterprise. Silent Sam’s removal or contextualization around the hatred it represents would be a useful educational tool for Carolina’s students. To reengage the meaning of the monument would not mean to rewrite the history that led to its construction but to underscore the purpose behind its production and the impact of its lasting legacy.

            I submit that our exploration of the American South must interrogate the divisiveness and longevity of anti-black iconography. Silent Sam not only alters the space around it as violent but also directly impacts political systems that should govern fairly and equitably. Silent Sam is instructive because it should be use as a vehicle in which Carolina students learn of this University’s often-violent racists past instead it is protected under a cloak of trumped-up state laws that encourages silence. It teaches us how racism, a socially and politically constructed phenomenon, is a conundrum with which we have the tools to solve but not the hands to complete the action.

[1] During this time, the University of North Carolina was not a part of a system of schools as it is now. It was simply the University of North Carolina.

[2] Peter Coclanis, “Julian Carr did wrong, but also a good deal right,” The News & Observer, September 26, 2017.

[3] Julian S. Carr, “Unveiling of Confederate Monument at University. June 2, 1913” in the Julian Shakespeare Carr Papers #141, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

[4] Ibid.

[5] Though noted Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee opposed Confederate monuments, many sprang up at the turn of the 20th century decades after the Civil War. There construction was not an in effort to celebrate the past but to, in many ways, instill and cultivate white supremacy. For instances, a second wave of Confederate monument dedications coincided with the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

[6] Thadious M. Davis, Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 3.

[7] Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2016), 37.

[8] To remove Silent Sam or alter the monument in anyway requires support from the North Carolina Historical Commission, which was signed into effect under a 2015 law. The University of North Carolina’s Chancellor, Carol Folt, has used this law in her decision not to remove the statue.

[9] After the American Civil War, the Southern United States entered into an era known as the Reconstruction Era. The primary goal was to renegotiate power in the American South, allow black men, both free and previously enslaved, to become active citizens by voting, owning land, seeking political office, and participating in entrepreneurial enterprise. Reconstruction efforts were stifled when former Confederates regained power of the Southern States and instituted copious laws that reregulated voting power to only white men, removed black politicians from duly elected offices, and instituted Jim Crow Laws.

[10] Nadia Brown and Sarah Allen Gershon, “Body Politics.” Politics, Groups, and Identities 2017, vol. 5, no. 1, 1-3 (April 2017), https://doi.org/10.1080/21565503.2016.1276022.

[11] Anne Anlin Cheng, “The Melancholy of Race” in Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 25.

[12] Carr, “Unveiling of Confederate Monument at University. June 2, 1913.”

[13] In the last decade of the 19th century and throughout the early 20th century (1890s to 1920s), lynchings in the American South increased just as Confederate monuments dedications grew. 

Copyright 2018 Don Holmes.  All rights are reserved and may only be used at the permission and discretion of the copyright holder.