When two hate groups took their place on the steps of the South Carolina Statehouse earlier this month, words were exchanged between members of the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panther Party. In an ironic moment of extremes demanding justice from one another, one image seemed to stick out from the rest.
A Black activist demanded the attention of social media and the nation with his sweatshirt — a middle finger placed upon the Army of North Virginia rebel flag. Malik Stroman came up with the idea of the shirt two years ago, and 25-year-old artist Zipporah Joe’l Peay was more than happy to create it.
NewsOne spoke with Peay about the design, how it came to be, and her artistic journey so far.
Aggressive behavior from members of the KKK and Neo-Nazi supporters was clear to see on July 18, when the pro-flag groups gathered just blocks away from anti-flag supporters on South Carolina’s Statehouse steps. Tensions were high and several fights broke out. Five people were arrested for various crimes, including disorderly conduct and simple assault. Peay says she stayed clear of the protests for her safety, but noticed her friend Malik was there wearing the sweatshirt she designed for him two years ago.
“He came to me with a basic idea,” she said. “He’s from Blythewood, South Carolina and he’s into protesting, so he told me, ‘I want a middle finger on top of the Confederate Flag.’ I said, ‘Ok, I can do that.’ I’ve known him for a couple of years and he just wanted to support my artwork.”
Photos of Malik in the sweatshirt were spread all over social media by celebs like Janelle Monae and Big Boi, and the image was seen nationally on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. Peay was taken aback to see one of her creations being appreciated by so many people.
“I’m really humbled by the experience,” she said. “I still don’t think it’s sunken in. I was telling Malik, ‘Dude, you’re going to be in history books!’ and he said, ‘That means you’re going to be in the history books too!’
“I stopped working regular jobs to do artwork three years ago. It’s been a lifelong thing for me. I don’t consider myself a hardcore artist, but in South Carolina, it can be harder to get yourself out there. Everyone draws from inspiration. Mostly, I draw females from different demographics and ethnicities and colorful things that aren’t always heavy (like the image for Malik),” she said.
Using a creative mix of oils, paint, and wood, Peay helps emulate crazy, sexy, cool images of women in their natural habitats.
Peay believes the flag’s removal from state grounds was a great gesture by Gov. Nikki Haley, but created more problems for the residents of South Carolina.
“It’s just really weird, because I hang out with different types of people and some of my Black friends found out their White friends were in support of the flag,” she said. “It was shocking, because we all sit and have conversations and their stance on it was never said before, so it seemed like they were choosing sides. We’re neighbors, but I see you throwing up Neo-Nazi signs. How am I’m supposed to feel when you live right beside me?”
After accused Charleston gunman Dylann Roof’s obsession with the Confederate flag and White supremacy was revealed in June, retail giants like Walmart, Amazon, Target, and even NASCAR discontinued sales of the flag. The rebel flag, which many see as a symbol for southern pride, was something Peay was exposed to in her rural town of Columbia, South Carolina. But to the artist, it wasn’t about the modern traditions of the Confederate emblem, it was the stereotypes being championed by flag holders.
“You should always teach awareness of character,” she said. “What’s taught in the south — not by all families — are stereotypes about Black people. There needs to be some type of light switch that shows them, when you teach stereotypes on accident, it becomes a constant behavior.”
While Peay comes to terms with the behavior of her fellow southerners, she’s also creating t-shirts for people who loved her sweatshirt for Stroman. Still wary about the attention, Peay is happy the image can be admired as a memento in one of the most racially charged times of the new millennium.
“People liked it so much, so we want to give them an opportunity to have them,” she said. “We’re going to do a small amount of orders. We’re both from South Carolina where this is going on, and that would be unfortunate if someone else tried to make money off of our situation.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Zipporah Joe’l Peay, Twitter