I do not know how to start this. I've tried many times since last Saturday, August 12, 2017, as I, along with the rest of the country, watched events unfolding 45 minutes away from my home in Richmond. The scenes could have been in a grainy black and white documentary of an ugly past that, thankfully, our society has defeated. Images of men with torches, shouting calls for segregation and, if need be, war upon non-whites. But these images were not in grainy black and white. They were full color, and very current. Because you see, racism is not dead. Racism is very real.
The organized march of the "alt-right" and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville showed the face of white supremacy in the United States, and sparked a national focus on the Confederate monuments found in many Southern cities and towns.
I have been back and forth at best on the state of these monuments. Being from the South, I grew up under the myth of the "Lost Cause" of the South. The Civil War was fought by majority poor Southern whites who did not own slaves, but were under the impression that they were fighting for their states' rights to govern themselves. Of course, one cause removed from this popular view is that the states' rights being fought for was the right to own "stock", as human beings were referred to in Richmond, VA.
I, of course, realized this. But I did not want to admit it. If history is written by the victors, what does it mean to be on the losing side? The authors of Southern manifestos post-Reconstruction offered a solution by developing the myth of the "Lost Cause", and hailed the heroes who defended the rights of the Southern States. Thus, a "New South" rose from the ashes of Confederate defeat. It was one built upon the romantic narratives of the humble beginnings of Robert E. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, and the reality of legal segregation. It appropriated the moonlight and magnolias, the plantations, and the tradition of simple, hardworking southern farmers who wanted to operate without government oversight and taxes. It uplifted the poor white who was on a social caste not much higher than a slave. Most importantly - and menacingly - it white-washed the slaves themselves. In the words of Robert E. Lee, "The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy" (The Slaves' War, Andrew Ward). Thus, the "happy, loyal slave" fought the North because he knew he would be worse off without his benevolent master there to see to his needs and protection. It is interesting to note that this New South rose in opposition to a growing movement of poor whites and blacks who worked together under the Readjuster Party "to break the power of wealth and established privilege" of the planter elite. The best way to maintain power is to divert the attention of those fighting the established power, and in post-Reconstructionist Virginia, that diversion was to get the poor blacks and poor whites to fight one another, just as the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705 made poor whites slightly more socially acceptable than blacks, giving them a false sense of social security. These narratives were not developed until the 1890's, a generation after the Civil War ended. It was then when the monuments were erected, literally casting the ideals of the New South in bronze, and placing them upon marble pedestals.
The monuments not only reinforced the New Southern narrative, but also staked out a claim on certain areas of the city. This was the case in Charlottesville (See this wonderful article by UVA PhD candidates), and certainly it was the case in Richmond, as our beloved Monument Ave. has been a traditionally white neighborhood surrounding the grand boulevard of monuments since the Civil War, far removed from the sinister slave markets of Shockoe Bottom: the "Wall Street of the South", where the second largest slave market in the country, and the entry point of slaves into the South stoked a massive economic machine.
With the knowledge of this history, and in the face of it I admit, I value the monuments as artistic achievements, and as agents of conversation, keeping race and civil rights in the forefront of our minds. I have been an advocate for creative engagement with the monuments, and have talked openly about my desire to see a Richmond biennial, where artists nationwide could submit proposals for engagement with the monuments themselves, thereby maintaining active conversation and new ways of seeing.
But this is not my viewpoint anymore. As I said, distraction is the number one weapon used against beneficial change. The monuments focus the conversation of race on America's past policy of chattel slavery and the wounds of the Civil War. While it is important to acknowledge this as part of the national history, and a seed of current racial tribalism, it should not be the primary topic of conversation in a country plagued by unequal housing opportunity, disproportionate sentencing of black convicts for the same crime as white convicts, police brutality, and crime in the nation's low income neighborhoods which limits the freedom to rise above the grasp of poverty and violence.
So take them down. Move them to a museum dedicated to the study of the "Lost Cause" myth and the reverberating effects of slavery and the Civil War where they can be engaged by academics and those who are willing to view them in this context, and let the wider society move forward to address current issues that effect our communities. In their place, let us remind ourselves of true heroes, like Elizabeth van Lew, who faked insanity to spy for the Union right under the nose of Jefferson Davis in Richmond.
Before I conclude, however, I would like to address policy and protest. Just as the monuments are a distraction, let us remind ourselves of the potential of protest as a distraction. In the wake of Charlottesville, there has been a chorus of denunciation of the alt-right, neo-nazis, and white supremacists. I agree with this denunciation. There is no place in a healthy society for people who consider themselves superior to others based on race and heritage. I will state, however, that the chorus quickly grew into a shout of clichés and sound bytes ad nauseam. If every person feels compelled to say the same thing, by all means do so: you have confirmed you are of the majority opinion. This opinion has already affected major corporations. The C.E.O. advisors to Donald Trump have already resigned/been fired for standing with the majority. Now what? Shall we keep yelling the same slogans in perpetuity? Or can we begin to suggest policy to back up the slogans? For example, a healthy society cannot tolerate intolerance. I can see this. Racism, however, is a condition of the heart and mind. Shouting slogans or debating has been proven to merely reinforce one's already held beliefs. So what is to be done about those who hold racism as a belief? Begin suggesting policy, even if that policy takes time. I doubt very seriously our current society would tolerate reeducation camps for white supremacists, or French Revolution style justice. What about better education in public schools to addresses the myth of the "Lost Cause", and teach a deeper understanding of slavery and black history to all children, not just those to whom it applies? Racism will not be destroyed tomorrow or next year, but a deeper appreciation for the diverse cultures that created this wonderful experiment in freedom we call the United States is certain to affect the hearts and minds of children into adulthood.
What about the religious among us? Are we making sure our clergy are in the right place? Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." What are we doing to keep one another accountable as fellow human beings? What are we doing to grow one another and carry out the commands of Christ to "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" (Luke 10:27)?
As a society, we need not speak alone, but act. What will our actions say about us? That we protested bigotry and racism? Or that we proposed real change, and fought together for it?