Maya Little is far from finished.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Little is a woman of action—and courage. On April 30, Little stepped onto the base of Silent Sam, the Confederate monument erected on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus in 1913 by the Daughters of the Confederacy, and doused it with red paint and supposedly some of her own blood. It was an act of protest, one of many that have been pitched against Silent Sam for decades.
North Carolina may not be Little’s home state, but as a black woman in America, the fight against white supremacy—and its symbolic representation by Confederate imagery—has always been her fight. Born and raised outside Columbus, OH, where she said Confederate flags were hung up in her high school, Little completed her undergraduate degree at a school in Maine then spent a year in China teaching and learning the language. It was after that program that Little found herself at UNC, North Carolina’s flagship college and the oldest public university in the nation. There, she studied for her PhD in recent Chinese history; she also listened to the conversation surrounding Silent Sam before taking the issue into her own hands.
Little was far from the first to take such a public stand against the statue, but she could end up being the last. On Aug. 20, Silent Sam was finally pulled down, toppled by a coalition of North Carolina students and protestors who decided the statue had been perched on campus for far too long. It was a moment of elation for some; for others, rage—at “outside agitators” and those who would disrespect dead soldiers, but mostly at the concept that people of color could chart a new course for the storied campus.
The ensuing legal battles that have followed the toppling have proved no less infuriating than the refusal of campus leadership—namely Chancellor Carol Folt—to offer anything more than hollow, long overdue apologies with no action to match the words. In the meantime, Little, who is taking the semester off, has faced trials of her own. In her court trial, which wrapped on Oct. 15, the judge found her guilty on a misdemeanor charge of defacing a public monument but called for a “prayer of judgement,” which means the charge will remain on her record but she will face no other repercussions beyond the professional and personal stigmatization that comes with that mark. Her trial in front of UNC’s Honor Court, who charged her with “stealing, destroying, or misusing property,” is set to start today.
I spoke with Little about Silent Sam, about UNC’s leadership (or lack thereof), and about the trial she’s set to face today when she walks into Honor Court at 3 p.m.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Splinter: Before we get to the UNC chapter, I grew up in North Carolina, born and raised; I went to the vile Duke but was from a small town near Salisbury. And there, we had a Confederate soldier statue right on Main Street. It always felt more like a fact of life until I was able to break out of that particular bubble. What was it like growing up around Columbus for you? I don’t know what the Confederate heritage is like there, in terms of how deep it runs, so was there any sense of that for you when you grew up?
Little: Well, yes. I also grew up with the fact of white supremacy and white violence, too. I was very hesitant in how I approached that because of fear and because of my career and how I grew up, for quite a while. But I grew up between Columbus and a small town, and there were Confederate flags there, too. Interestingly enough, I saw quite a few growing up. There was a Confederate flag in my geometry teacher’s classroom, a huge one—and this is in Columbus, OH. I saw many Confederate flags when I was in Maine, in this town actually where Joshua Chamberlain, who took the surrender at Appomattox, taught. So Confederate flags and imagery were never unfamiliar to me, just growing up as a black American.
Splinter: I was just out in Idaho for a story, and I was talking to some folks from the northern part of the state—and this is a state that borders Canada and Washington—who acknowledged there are plenty of Confederate flags even up there. I always find it bizarre, as a Southerner, that that imagery reaches so far outside the actual former Confederacy. I shouldn’t, I just always thought that was something contained to that stretch of the South; then, as I grew up, I learned that is very untrue.
Little: I know. And then people always talk about the meaning. My geometry teacher—born and raised in Ohio—I asked him when I was in high school why he had the flag in his room and he said it was for state’s rights and rebellion and revolt against the government. No coincidence, in that same high school I was told by a biology teacher that black people are racially inferior, not good at learning, and impulsive. When I complained to a headmaster, I was told that the teacher had been there for a long time.
So for me, in terms of how this relates to who I am—I grew up in a single-parent home, lower-middle class, and I was given a lot of scholarships to go to elite high schools and colleges and a program at UNC. And like many other kids in those situations from more impoverished backgrounds, kids of color, I was told that this was the only way I could do something with my life and make something of myself and prove I was worthy to society. The funny thing about that is it’s within these spaces that I’m told that I’m doing something productive and supposedly I’m valued—I’m one of the good black people, right? I’ve faced so much racial harassment and prejudice and it feels like a scam. What we have at UNC is kind of similar. It’s people being told they’re lucky to be there and being told that the university is doing so much for them when they can’t even rename or remove buildings named after people who would have lynched them.
Splinter: Did you have any politically active role models growing up, or is that something you developed later on?
Little: My mom was the only person in our neighborhood when the Iraq War started saying that the war was bad, that we shouldn’t be there. My mom’s a teacher at a juvenile detention center. I have always grown up, despite the constant degradations, with my mother raising me to think about people who this country abuses and tries to hide.
Splinter: Can you walk me through the conception of your protest? What kind of conversations drove you to make such a visually-driven, physical rejection of Silent Sam?
Little: When I see that statue, I see all these things on campus physicalized in the form of our buildings, but also the way that black people are treated on this campus. I mean, look at the workforce, at the people who feed us, who clean up, who direct traffic. Those are people who are not making a living wage and are largely abused by the working system at UNC. The Honor Court, for instance, 56 percent of their cases in 2016 were against students of color, even thought UNC is 63 percent white. It was the way I’d walk around campus and see black and brown people who are from these neighborhoods being harassed when they come onto Franklin Street by the police.
What I see every day is white supremacy—in action, physicalized in buildings and names, and ways that this university wants to memorialize people. Seeing that, we’re seeing blood; we’re seeing a foundation built on violence toward black people, a campus that was literally built by black, enslaved people. This university has trained people who have been instrumental in Jim Crow, who have been instrumental in disenfranchising poor people and people of color, like Art Pope. So that is black blood, that is violence. To me, to call this statue a historical object without showing its absolute full context of what this campus was built on is ahistorical.
The statue has been painted many times, to celebrate North Carolina, to celebrate UNC beating Duke, to celebrate N.C. State beating UNC. In those cases, the painting of the statues was just fun, it was just a UNC tradition. But whenever the statue has been painted with graffiti that says, “Who is Sandra Bland?” or “Black Lives Matter,” well those are instantly condemned and are deemed so inappropriate that they must be removed from campus.
Splinter: You’re a PhD history student, and I know it’s probably been a busy few months, but do you ever take a moment to think about your place within the history of protest against Silent Sam? You know, in 15-20 years, someone’s going to look on the history of the statue, and you’ll be a pretty major dot on that timeline. Do you let yourself think about that?
Little: When we look back at history, especially the history of UNC and Chapel Hill, what I try to bring out are the histories of resistance to white supremacy, and there are so many. As a North Carolinian, I’m sure you know that what so many in the state government and university officials don’t want to acknowledge is that these aren’t people who were just reacted on, but were people who were trying to build communities that were better and more equal and stood up to white supremacy. When I think about that, I think about Bayard Rustin being tried in 1948 and a judge telling him that the Negroes wanted Jim Crow and that Rustin and his interracial band of Freedom Riders were outside agitators. That’s what we’re being called right now.
Splinter: You referenced the 1948 case of Rustin; you can fast forward 20 years and that was Jesse Helms’ bread-and-butter, selling the idea that for black people, Native Americans, and any non-white person, Jim Crow was something that they wanted. By painting people as an outside force, as people who otherwise wouldn’t have a stake in this particular fight, it’s an easy sell.
Little: It is, and people eat it up. To me, it’s historically tragic, but also you take strength in the fact that while we have to continue, they’re using the same argument. People who would now be commended in public discourse. With the rise of more open white national discourse in media and government, it is different, but it’s the same rhetoric. And it’s to establish, like you said, that not only are these people not North Carolinians, but as a dog whistle, these people aren’t like us. They aren’t us.
It’s also to say we shouldn’t care what happens to them, because if they get hurt, that’s OK because they’re not a part of us, that we need to get them out of here by any means necessary. And having Sheriff Blackwood of Orange County say, ‘These aren’t innocent UNC students, these are outside agitators,’ is not only again creating that ‘You aren’t North Carolinians’ facade, but also, if we do any violence to you, it’s totally justified.
Splinter: I think people from the small towns and rural areas like where I grew up think is UNC is a liberal bubble that doesn’t really reflect the attitudes or beliefs of people outside those campuses. How do you weigh the statues coming down in Chapel Hill and Durham versus the dozens of others standing across the state? How do you take the message that’s coalesced on UNC’s campus and spread that to towns where that change is going to come much slower?
Little: We can relate it to small towns, because their history is tied up in that, too. There’s a writer that said that Chapel Hill is like a lighthouse that thinks it shines a light onto the darkest regions of the South but like all lighthouses is dark at its base. Underneath all that stability, that beautifully trimmed campus, is a savagery, that brutality built on exploited labor and white supremacy. And you can look at so many towns in North Carolina, big and small, and see the same thing. You can look at populations of white Southerners who have been disciplined to believe that their ancestors, many of whom were forced at gunpoint to join the Confederacy, fought for their homeland. I mean, that was written on the statue. That was a statue dedicated to UNC men who served, all of whom were slaveholders and officers. But that kind of historicization—you can see that in every town. You can see the few wealthy land-owning white people that had a stake in that racial hierarchy. Erasing history is a struggle between poor white populations.
There are black and brown people all throughout this state who have been abused and hurt. Again, putting these things in town squares was part of getting these white populations to think of themselves as white Southerners rather than people that are part of a community with people of color.
Splinter: North Carolina, in terms of the legislature, seems pretty content to throw these ideas of removing or re-contextualizing these statues to forums and commissions, while the people—the students and citizens of Chapel Hill and Durham—were more interested in taking action once they hit a boiling point.
Little: The idea that people in these towns aren’t taking physical action isn’t true, either. In Salisbury, around the time [Silent Sam] came down, someone threw white paint on the Confederate statue there. I think that the national lens is focused on towns like Chapel Hill and Durham, but it should be more focused on towns like Salisbury, where people have been taking direct action. A lot of what people focus on in those places is tragedy and poverty, but they don’t talk about resistance. And I wish I could tell you more stories of resistance from these small towns, but I’ve heard of a number of Confederate monument destruction or damaging out of very small towns in the South.
There’s a reason, as we discussed, that people want to focus on direct action being taken by college students and outside agitators and not as something that many people are doing in North Carolina.
Splinter: UNC Chancellor Folt has been confronted time and again over Silent Sam. Recently she released an official apology on behalf of the university for its part in white supremacy. But she hasn’t done much by way of material action when it comes to the statue, which has been one of the main criticisms she’s faced from students and faculty and staff alike. How would you characterize her response? And then also, have y’all ever personally spoken about the statue?
Little: No, I haven’t had any private recourse with Chancellor Folt. I have, a number of times, been at events she’s been at and tried to ask her why she won’t remove the statue, and she’s completely ignored me. I know someone in the chancellor’s office recently met with the North Carolina president of the Daughters of the Confederacy. So, what I want to clear up is how Chancellor Folt portrays herself and how she wants people to see her. She says, ‘Look, I can’t do anything because the [North Carolina state] legislature will punish me and punish this school.’ But the legislature has been punishing the school and she hasn’t done anything about that. Where was Chancellor Folt when HB2 was passed and trans students were afraid they were going to be charged and prosecuted for using the bathroom? Where was Chancellor Folt when the Civil Rights Center was closed? What material actions did she take then?
Chancellor Folt has taken action around Silent Sam—she’s taken action to protect white supremacy, to protect Silent Sam. You can’t tell me you haven’t done anything when you’re willing to pay almost $400,000 to have it protected night and day by UNC police. You can’t tell me you haven’t taken action when you’ve allowed police to beat and arrest students and community members around it.
Splinter: In your court trial, the judge ruled that you were guilty but that you wouldn’t face any sort of sentence, right?
Little: Right, and that will show up on my record. I can’t appeal my charge. Just to lay it out in the context of the trial I was at on Monday, Barry Brown—for coming onto campus, punching a student in the face, and bragging about it online—Barry can appeal his case, and he doesn’t have a sentence, either. I can’t, I will have that on my record. I said it when I went in there, I don’t look to these courts for justice, they historically have not been a place for black or brown people to get justice, a lot of people who get hit with petty fines and sentences without punching someone in the face.
Splinter: How are you feeling about Honor Court?
Little: Again, I don’t see this as a body of justice. We’ve asked them since May, when they brought the charges, to drop them. Over 6,000 people have signed a petition asking them to. But the Honor Court—if you look at its history—I’m not surprised they decided to continue with the charges.
I would ask them to think about Silent Sam. To think about what it means to defend and call a white supremacist monument property that cannot be vandalized, that cannot be taken down. I wonder how far they want to extend that. If the university hangs a noose on campus, is that protected property? What if the university names buildings to honor people who supported the KKK and Jim Crow? Is that something that needs to be protected over students who are constantly humiliated and degraded by those buildings and monuments every day?
Splinter: I’m curious what you think about the national media coverage of your protest and the actions of other activists in this arena. Do you have any criticisms or advice for people reporting on these issues?
Little: I ask people in media to think about the terms that they’re using, like “outside agitators.” I ask them to challenge, historically and through research, things that people like Chancellor Folt and Sheriff Blackwood say. I mean, Chancellor Folt apologized for slavery; what kind of material action has she taken against it at UNC? I don’t think any story would be complete without that.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, we’d seen white supremacists doxxing, targeting, and murdering anti-racist activists, often times in accordance with local police. For many of us, we’re fighting for our lives, and when someone in media or journalism is documenting that because they want to show what’s happening, they should be aware that there are people in this struggle who are fighting for their lives. It’s not just something to witness, something to watch; you’re partaking in that struggle when you document it.
From the beginning, the thing that’s forced UNC to consistently confront white supremacy has been direct action. Working with the university, with the mayor’s office, with the police has gotten us nothing but silence and harassment. What has changed the landscape and made other people in other places think about change is people taking it into their own hands.