The intro and the selection of When Bullets Begin to Flower and the discussion in class got me thinking about symbols and oppression. The question “Who gets to share what meaning?” inspired a great deal of unrest regarding symbols we see every day, but it also called attention to he power that a symbol or ritual can have.
The first major conclusion I came to is that a symbol which is defined as something (object, person, etc) that has an alternative, representative, or shared meaning can be a vehicle for systemic oppression. A symbol is exclusive. Only those who have the privilege can access the meaning of the symbol. Take the nike swoosh for a simplistic example. Only those who can afford nike brand products get to “share” its meaning. Symbols effectively create groups, often of those who have, and those who do not. The breast cancer pink ribbon can be another example. Those who purchase something with this symbol only did so because they had the opportunity to do so. Does the symbol really get “shared” with a patient who does not have a family who can pay medical bills let alone buy a bumper sticker? I then began to think that performance (which in itself is a ritual) can serve the same divisive purposes. I read the piece on Street Theater before I knew we did not have to but I am glad I did because it brought to my attention the reaffirming qualities theater can take on. Look for example at ancient Greek plays that catered to high status characters and a clear patriarchy. Look at minstrel shows that reaffirmed what whites thought to be true of blacks in America. Can these things (symbols and performance) serve to hurt a group of people?
Conversely, the reading also made me realize the positive results symbols can create. For the oppressed in Africa, poetry served as their symbol of revolution. In some cases the nature of symbols that I previously referred to as divisive can serve to further group solidarity. Only those who are in the group get to “share” the symbols meaning. Thus, outsiders and even on-lookers are not permitted to feign understanding with those in a marginalized position. This aspect is especially beneficial to nationalist movements such as the one in question in the reading. Allowing for a group identity to be formed by and around the symbol of poetry serves to create unity amongst the targeted. Unity then allows for action as one solid unit making the fight for independence more practical and achievable. In this case the symbol serves as a way to bring people together for a cause of revolution. I have come to the conclusion that maybe the question should be Who should share what meaning? Should people who are not able to access a symbol be forced to share its meaning? And, conversely, should people who are not members of a certain group be allowed or permitted to share a symbol that they do not fully understand?
A symbol that the poem Black Mother called up for me was the American flag which we have all had enormous amounts of contact with whether voluntary or involuntary. The lines about the fields of Carolina and Virginia reminded me a lot of the history of the United States and how we use the flag to symbolize the great aspects of our nation. As I read the poem I kept realizing how easily we forget (or choose not to remember) the less great aspects of Americas history. While I believe that the flag is a beneficial tool to unify Americans and to allow for us to celebrate and recall our diverse history, I think that the truth is sometimes hidden. I know as a child I was taught that the flag meant bravery, freedom, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. While reading this poem it felt like there should be other words to represent what is not being represented.