Figures in history captured tangibly carry a touch of magic. The verisimilitude that results from the sculpting of clay, the painting of a portrait, from well-traveled light caught with chemistry and film… The resulting artifacts, to me, go through an exhausting time travel, never-failing to amaze.
I am a Southerner, at least as defined by the number of years I have spent in the South. My first memories were formed at a cozy home overlooking deep forest, on a lane named for Robert E. Lee. I had to learn it and memorize it, along with my phone number, city and state. I was quite young, but not too young to wonder who he was.
Back in those days, my eyes were often assaulted by the Confederate flag. I have watched it cart-wheel by, under Rebel cheerleader skirts. When I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, I had to teach at a school named Jefferson Davis. And friends had graduated a school named for Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Even as I should, perhaps, become used to it – I never did. Well, not until moving here to Richmond. Here, growing older, I began to give up some of my anger for resignation. I never imagined these monuments disappearing from here. And that is important to note. I have often offhandedly referred to Richmond as the capital of the Confederacy – and in the present tense.
I, and I am sure many other Americans, take Monument Avenue to be a reflection of Richmond’s character. It memorializes and re-asserts a racist history and tells our visitors where they stand. It did to me when I was a child. When I took these objects into my regard, these objects, these flags, told me I was on enemy territory. That I was where White was Right and Blacks get Back. The country twang seemed menacing, the dripping honey drawl seemed cruelly insincere.
In the hearts of Black Americans, these symbols represent injustice and an absolute disregard for their feelings. It doesn’t even need to be passed amongst us in a whisper. Every one of us questions and comes to terms with it as we mature. We come to terms with the omission of our stories. We come to accept that where we live, we are not wanted and that there are those who attach a nobility where it is neither fitting nor deserved.
If they appear beautiful to you at all, that’s because you have become accustomed and perhaps inured to the inanimate and, to you, harmless relics. Perhaps they have been there so long that you connect them to your environment and would miss this, to you innocuous, larger-than-life figure on a horse. To you, it may appear majestic instead of looming. But I ask for their removal. I will stand by this wish that, I feel, would bring deliverance for me and many. The years I have spent here in the Southern United States would take on a brighter hue in memory. I know this because I have again summoned memories of my neglected Tennessee as I see change proceed. Even the eyesore of a Nathan Bedford Forrest statue on TN’s I-65 I had to drive past, daily, to go to high school, may be hidden from view in the future. For me, now in Richmond, all of this has sparked a bit of hope.
They say a lot about a place, these monuments, one reason why I left Tennessee at my first opportunity. It relates to why I have been known to claim a broadly “East coast” or even “Northern” identity. After all, my parents met and fell in love in New York City. I have family and friends in New Jersey; where also I attended college. I spent some time in New York after graduation. Spectacular times.
But there is a reason I returned to the South and have not left. I have communed with the land and with the people I’ve encountered. The more I learn it and them, the more fortunate I feel. And I like the sunny summer days, heat beating down upon me. Virginia’s colorful autumn feels not so different from New Jersey’s, not so different from Tennessee’s. Even North Florida gets a strong chill in the air. Just shift the dates a little and the experiences can blend.
Frankly, I do not like writing about race. I especially detest examining hate groups. I experience a visceral repulsion. Even evoking the concepts can feel dangerous like you are unleashing a demon and setting the stage for carnage. And I almost feel that it gives publicity to their cause: to the KKK, the Nazis, the racists. As if dignifying their position. And ceding an entire area of my mind to contemplate this effrontery. Even to take offense seems to give some sort of win.
I would obviously love to move on to another topic. I would spend time contemplating beauty in all its forms, appreciating the different cultural experiences and perspectives that the world has to offer. However, racism is not ours alone. It may spring from the human condition: the fear of difference.
We must teach love to eradicate hate. Passivity is unacceptable. What do you think those statues tell children, especially when the context goes unexplained? They teach white supremacy.
A museum can hold the Confederate monuments and memorials. We can preserve them for future generations to see and discuss. Of course we must learn our histories to paint the backdrop on which our current controversies appear.
To change the future in a real and lasting way, we must confront the past. To out the stain, you must identify the substance and then act to eradicate its traces. By traces I mean, we must reform our institutions: our politics, our city planning, our criminal justice system, our segregated schools, our corporate cultures and our workplaces. To move civilization forward and past this, we must as a society condemn racism and white supremacy. Replace the statues and commemorate actual triumphs, accomplished people and momentous occasions. We have begun to do this. The new Maggie Walker statue found on Broad Street is indeed a beautiful sight to behold.
Yes, include the people who were harmed. Richmond intends to honor Dr. King on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, next year. A true hero. That is encouraging. A monument to Emancipation is slated to be raised. Other Black heroes added to our city’s vistas.
But call evil by its name.
We have just seen a virulent strain of racism run through Charlottesville, Virginia. Only time will tell whether we will succeed in fighting it. We need to move on from this argument, in the wake of what happened on Saturday, August 12th. We need to channel our dismay into reasonable action, you may protest – not rash destruction. But the Charlottesville spectacle and outcome need to be addressed. The Jewish community, the LGBT community and all nonwhites were vilely disrespected on Saturday by the same people who cherish these likenesses. Heather Heyer was murdered by domestic terrorism fueled by KKK beliefs. Nazi emulators walked boldly through our streets.
The eagerness to remove or destroy these monuments stems from a sentiment that is not new. It is just only now bursting through what was once a stoic facade. I, as a Black woman, have long harbored a subterranean hatred for these pieces and, by extension, for the former Confederacy. I want some of this anger to subside. A panacea this is not. A step in the right direction it is.
~By Kortenay Gardiner