As I type, I’m sitting in the Atlanta airport waiting for my flight to Charleston, SC. I’m on my way to College of Charleston to visit some classes and give a public lecture, “The Artifacts of White Supremacy,” about the Klan’s use of material objects to promote their version of white Protestant nationalism. As I’ve noted before, it’s a weird time to be a scholar of white nationalism and white supremacy. It’s hard to feel good about what I’m writing when our present moment resonates so much with the historical moments I study.
As I was writing and revising this talk, something gave me hope: The stories the Klan wanted to tell about their objects and their vision of white Protestant nation were contested stories. The meanings that the order attached to their objects were not necessarily the stories that won out. What a powerful reminder as I watch folks offering up counter-narratives of what America is, in spite of the Tr*mp’s administration’s attempts to control the story.
The Klan hoped the robes and fiery cross told one story of their white Protestant nation, and now, those are symbols of racism and hate. The story that you want to be THE STORY doesn’t necessarily become the story we remember or tell. It’s a good reminder to all of us that we don’t have to assent to dominant narratives. We can challenge them, we can offer different stories, and sometimes, we can win.
Here’s a glimpse of my talk for College of Charleston:
The Klan told a story of importance of white Protestants from the nation’s founding until the 1920s, and their artifacts (the robes, the fiery cross, and the American flag) materialized the order’s commitment to Protestantism, white supremacy, and 100% Americanism.
The Klan wanted a homogeneous, white, and Protestant America, free from the corrupting influence of “diversity,” whether it was political, religious or racial. These artifacts communicated this desire and presented the order’s brand of white religious nationalism to themselves and to outsiders. The robes, cross, and flag also documented the order’s intolerance of any group, people or movement that challenged the order’s vision of the American as a nation founded and maintained for white people. While there’s a long-standing tendency to discuss racism as about personal beliefs, paying attention to Klan objects shows how hate, faith, nationalism, and racism all become tangible in the creation, discussion, and use of artifacts.
But, the meaning of objects are never settled, and often, the story that the Klan wanted objects to tell was not the one that everyone else heard. Robes, fiery crosses and the American flag ended up telling competing stories about the Klan’s idealized vision of white Protestant America and their promotion of intolerance and racism.