Arts and the Confederate Flag: Ed Madden’s Evocative Poem “When we’re told we’ll never understand”

On Saturday, June 20th, 2015, thousands of impassioned South Carolinians gathered on their statehouse grounds to peacefully stand shoulder to shoulder and speak truth to power.

Three days earlier, a disturbed young man, one of our own, walked into a place of solace in our sister city, shattered its peace, and stole the lives of nine Black innocents. In its illness (sane people don’t commit these kinds of atrocities) and confusion (insane people try to sort out the monsters in their heads, sometimes unsuccessfully), the young man’s troubled spirit had sadly fallen prey to the racist rhetoric (obviously, rhetoric only begins to address the horrors perpetrated by both organized and institutional racism)  of the worst of us–those who, rather than see us as the family of humanity that we are, work to divide us by the color of our skin–and he found misguided solace (in the form of an evil rubric) in the darkness they offered. The symbol of that darkness–the Confederate flag.

The thousands of South Carolinians who gathered on their Statehouse grounds on Saturday did so to call for an end to the darkness that has reigned over our state for far too long. They asked our governor, our legislators, and our brothers and sisters who call this beautiful state our home to look toward the light. To take down this symbol of darkness. To take down the Confederate flag.

Columbia Poet Laureate Ed Madden created the following poem in response to this historical moment. It was beautifully read from the Statehouse steps by another local poet, Al Black.

Watch Al read the poem in its entirety here. (With thanks to Wade Sellers)   – cb

Al Black reading Ed Madden's poem below. Photo by Leslie Gilroy

Al Black reading Ed Madden’s poem below. Photo by Leslie Gilroy











When we’re told we’ll never understand


Someone says a drug-related incident,

someone says he was quiet, he mostly kept to himself,

someone says mental illness,

someone says a hateful and deranged mind,

someone says he was a loner, he wasn’t bullied,

someone says his sister was getting married in four days,

a newsman says an attack on faith,

a relative says his mother never raised him to be like this,

a friend says he had that kind of Southern pride, strong conservative beliefs,

someone says he made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that you don’t really think of it like that,

someone says he wanted to start a civil war,

he said he was there to kill black people,

the governor says we’ll never understand.




He is not a lone wolf,

he is not alien,

he is not inexplicable,

he is not just one sick individual,

he is one of us,

he is from here,

he grew up here,

he went to school here,

he wore his jacket with its white supremacist patches here,

he told racist jokes here,

he got his gun here,

he learned his racism here,

his license plate sported a confederate flag here,

the confederate flag flies at the state capitol here,

he had that kind of Southern pride,

this is not isolated this is not a drug incident,

this is not unspeakable (we should speak),

this is not unthinkable (we should think),

this is not inexplicable (we must explain it),

he is not a symbol he is a symptom,

he is not a cipher he is a reminder,

his actions are beyond our imagining,

but his motivation is not beyond our understanding

no he didn’t get those ideas from nowhere.


mental illness is a way to not say racism

drug-related is a way to not say hate

loner is a way to not say one of us

we’ll never understand is a way to not say look at our history


Look away, look away, look away [to be sung]




Ed Madden

20 June 2015




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