‘Divided and now United, this is our America’

How one trip to a Rebel fort opened my eyes to America’s race problem


As a white Englishman, I’ve always found it hard to empathize with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US – I’ve always been sympathetic to the cause but been unable to empathize and connect with it in any meaningful way.

There’s countless layers, hundreds of years of history and infinite nuances that have led to the formation of the civil rights activist group, and I’m not going to pretend to understand all of that, but visiting Fort Sumter today provided me with an understanding beyond anything I could ever read in the press.

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As a broad background, Fort Sumter was a fort based off Charleston, South Carolina which served as a tactical base for federal forces during the American Civil War.

In a nutshell, the civil war was taking place between the southern and northern states over whether or not to abolish slavery. Southern states such as South Carolina, Texas and Alabama had for years relied on slave labour for the expansion of their cotton and tobacco trades, whilst the north was more industrialized and saw the abolition of the slave trade as a fundamental aspect of a society based on freedom and liberty for all.

I was excited about the trip and learning more about the American Civil War, something very foreign to me having grown up in Europe, and things started well.

The ranger, a federal representative, explained the geography of the Charleston coast and the various forts that existed in the area, mentioned in passing that the war was over slave labour and – despite asserting at the beginning that she was a conversationalist not a lecturer – spoke confidently about the fearless men from both sides who fought for what they believed.

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Then, speaking ever-more slowly and dramatically, looking over a sea of white faces, announced: “Divided and now United, this is our America”. She then turned and, pointing to the American flag at half mast over Fort Sumter, exclaiming that it was at half mast in memory of the tragic shootings of the policemen in Dallas, Texas, earlier this week. No mention of the black people systematically murdered by the police for years prior, just like there was no mention of the slaves half these “fearless men” were fighting to retain.

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Now of course, the shooting in Dallas was tragic, and not all policemen are racist. But the key distinction here is that neither are all black men and they have the right not to be killed just as much as the policemen do. The difference is that policemen haven’t suffered for years under the guise of justice at the hands of an institutionally racist service designed to protect, not harm us.

Sitting on that boat, I grew a new found understanding for the frustration black Americans must feel which is directed at the police and beyond. I had sat, and seen for myself, someone celebrate the rich and diverse history of America, failing to discuss or mention the horrendous suffering of generations of black people after slave labour. Someone explain this was ‘our country’ to a plethora of white faces. Someone point to the half-mast flag and commemorate the dead policemen without even an utter of sympathy for the innocent black men who have lost their lives, too.

Even as a white Englishman I felt insulted and outraged. I was on a federal ferry and felt as though I’d been subjected to the most blatant federal propaganda, and as I sat still amongst hundreds of grinning, clapping Americans, even I felt ostracized and furious.

Bear in mind when reading that this was written in Charleston, a place where nine black people lost their lives at the hands of a white terrorist who acted “to ignite a race war” before being arrested and taken to the police station via Burger King.

I’ve travelled through Delaware, Washington, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina since the Texas shootings and every state has had its flags at half mast ever since.

Where were the flags for Alton Sterling, for Eric Garner, for Philando Castile? If I couldn’t see why black Americans feel ostracized, silenced and abused before, I do now.

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