Smith students hear from activist famous for removing Confederate flag South Carolina statehouse

  • Bree Newsome, left, and Smith College theater professor Andrea Hairston talk Saturday at the 12th biannual conference hosted by the Black Student Association at Smith College. MAUREEN O’REILLY

  • Bree Newsome and Smith College theater professor Andrea Hairston talk Saturday at the 12th biannual conference hosted by the Black Student Association at Smith College. MAUREEN O’REILLY

  • Bree Newsome looks at an image of Nina Simone and Simone’s quote: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” MAUREEN O’REILLY

For the Gazette
Published: 2/3/2019 11:50:59 PM

NORTHAMPTON — “Justice doesn’t only come in the street,” Bree Newsome, an artist and activist, said to a crowd of over 100 people Saturday night at Smith College.

Newsome gave the keynote speech for the 12th biannual conference hosted by the Black Student Association. Newsome implored her audience to consider their talents and their consciousness, an everyday tool of justice and activism present across society.

One way to engage one’s consciousness is to ask “what’s at stake?” when faced with oppressive structures, Newsome said. As an activist, Newsome said, “I need people to operate where they are (in society) with their consciousness.”

Newsome’s most famous act of nonviolent protest was scaling the flagpole outside the South Carolina Capitol building to remove the Confederate flag in 2015.

“By removing the flag, we forced South Carolina into a moral crisis,” Newsome said, of whether or not to put the flag back up. Newsome scaled the flagpole 10 days after white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans who welcomed Roof into their prayer meeting.

“As a Christian, I had a crisis of faith,” Newsome said, because she was taught to invite others into her church. Although scared, Newsome felt “deeply committed” to the nonviolent direct action she took with fellow activist Jason Tyson.

Symbolism was both the impetus for her act of protest and its result.

“The threat of (racist) violence made the Confederate flag in South Carolina untouchable for all those it oppressed,” Newsome said. “This isn’t simply about about a flag. It’s about abolishing hatred and oppression in all its forms.”

A black woman, assisted by a white man, climbed up to remove the flag.

The protest also invoked an unintentional form of symbolism.

Police officers aimed their tasers at Newsome but when Tyson hugged the base of the flagpole — putting both at risk of electrocution — the officers backed down. This is an example, Newsome said, “(of) how we see police escalate or de-escalate due to skin color.”

Newsome described how famous activists, like Harriet Tubman and Mahatma Ghandi, looked inward to ask themselves what was at stake if they proceeded with the status quo before outwardly challenging it.

“Constantly dismantling destructive ideologies that we have internalized,” Newsome said, is one way to decolonize one’s conscious and culture. “It’s not possible to uncolonize because we cannot undo history. We can only decolonize.”

Newsome countered a criticism that today’s activist movements lack visible leaders.

“It’s more accurate to describe it as ‘leaderfull,’” Newsome said, noting that social activism isn’t a monolith. “Everyone can apply what (skills) they have to the cause of justice.”

The Q&A segment between Newsome and Andrea Hairston, a professor of theater at Smith, focused on the conference’s theme, “Vibranium Visions: Art and Tech through the Black Eye.” This year’s theme can also be called “AfroFuturism,” which Smith senior Michaella Mentu defined as, “black people have a place in the future where we are thriving.”

Both an example and an inspiration for the theme is the “Black Panther” movie, said Black Student Association co-chairs Indira Aoudou and Arabia Simeon. The movie imagines a fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is powerful due to its vast store of vibranium, a fictional, highly valuable metal.

Rosie Poku, a first-year, said that growing up in Georgia, she “had seen Confederate flags everywhere,” which were “normalized” in her surroundings.

“It’s powerful to see someone who looks like me tear down that symbol,” Poku said.

Poku said she is thinking about Newsome’s message on how to decolonize in her surroundings, both in her future career and at Smith, which Poku described as “a predominantly white academic space.”

Poku attended the talk with her roommate, Mosa Molapo, a first-year from Johannesburg, South Africa, who said that Newsome’s message of using one’s consciousness wherever you are will stick with her.

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