One of my goals for this blog is to give some insight into how I turn an issue into a post—or any piece of writing. One element of a solid writing practice is to expose one’s ideas to the larger virtual (and textual) world of thoughts and thinkers, and also to write as if in dialogue with actual humans. But—there’s always a but—I believe that there is a period that one needs to sit with an idea—and then a draft—before sharing, particularly when one is tackling knotty and perhaps controversial issues. Even more so when one has very strong feelings about that issue. The sharing then begins with those closest to us, who serve a crucial reality-check role, and then outward in concentric circles.
This wonder stuff I’ve been writing about? It’s hard to tap into sometimes. There’s a folder on my desktop full of very unwondrous and seriously not wonderful fragments of writing, frustrated and angry protoposts about what we will see and hear—and mostly not see or hear—in the coming days here in RVA.
It’s clear to me, after 24 or so hours of reflection (and discussion with my wife and collaborator, Erin), that I needed to wait before writing any more, and certainly before posting. So I reread a transcript of an interview with Bryan Stevenson, one of the most hopeful and wonder-seeking fighters for social justice I know. Then I read an essay by Marilynne Robinson in the New York Review of Books called “Fear.” That piece, which brims with practical and existential questions, is as much an exploration of a set of pressing of issues—American nationalism, guns and the Second Amendment, Christianity—as it is a sharp critique of our society. There are some fundamental contradictions between who we say we are as Americans, Robinson writes, and how we behave, at home and abroad. We should look at these. Reflect.
I also paused long enough to find a VCU News story about anthropology major Michelle Taylor. Taylor, with the help of a professor, discovered a familial connection to George Gilmore, a man who was once the property of President James Madison. “I’ve always loved history, but I couldn’t ever really connect with it personally,” Taylor told the writer. “I knew some of my family’s history, but I didn’t know how it connected to American history and African American history. So when I started researching my own family and seeing how it connected to an American president, everything just kind of came together for me.”
Gilmore’s cabin, which I have visited, is not far from Montpelier, Madison’s home. When Erin and I were there last year, we saw the beginnings of the newest additions to the property: the shells of rough wooden cabins, reconstructions of shelters that people enslaved by the Madisons might have lived in. These structures were within view of the Madison family homestead, which is where they stood a century and a half ago. Slavery was a fact of life, a key to Southern—and American—prosperity. To erect those cabins at Montpelier, a site formerly devoted to memorializing one great man, is a powerful statement. It reveals the hidden, the suppressed—and it is an essential step toward building a more honest, more real, evidence-based narrative about who we are as a nation.
John Mitchell Jr., a man born into slavery who came to edit one of the nation’s most important African American newspapers, wrote this editorial after witnessing the unveiling of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on what would become Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Mitchell’s language in his own newspaper, the Richmond Planet, is careful for a reason: His life depended on it. Even a prominent black person such as Mitchell could only be so critical of the actions of white citizens. Direct accusations—or general charges of racism—might very well have provided a perfect excuse for his opponents to burn his paper’s offices. Or to lynch him. This is not speculation: “Mitchell was threatened with lynching for his efforts against mob violence,” we learn from the Library of Virginia.
Blacks had fought for full citizenship but had not yet achieved it in 1890, and some white citizens were working very hard to roll back what rights African Americans had earned after the Civil War. In 1902, a new state constitution would take the right to vote away from black men, along with a portion of poor white men—women, of course, could not vote at all. Virginia would also enact a series of laws, among them the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, that effectively turned public spaces into whites-only preserves.
Various races during the UCI Worlds will plow down Monument Avenue, past enormous memorials to men who led and defended a system that enslaved millions of their fellow Americans. There are no monuments to the enslaved, who both endured and helped defeat that system. UCI riders participating in the team time trial will cycle through what was once the heart of our nation’s second largest slave market, Shockoe Bottom. Roughly 350,000 people were sold in Richmond and forced to travel to the Deep South to harvest cotton and sugar cane. There are scant public memorials to them, and more than a century and half after this internal slave trade ended, there is a debate about whether to create enduring monuments on the sites where fortunes were made from their bodies. (The City of Richmond is holding public meetings to discuss its plans to create a memorial on the site of Lumpkins Slave Jail, a fraction of the real estate that it had targeted for the construction of a baseball stadium. The next and last meetings are September 28 [Virginia Union University] and September 29 [Franklin Military Academy.])
Is it important that thousands of visitors, from across the country and the world, might come to Richmond and only absorb the mythic magnificence of the Confederacy, as projected by the many monuments scattered across RVA? To me, it is, terribly so. And it is to other Richmonders, some of whom petitioned the city, the state, and the organizers of the race to change the routes. (That didn’t work.) One group, the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, will hold a press conference at the Jefferson Davis Memorial on Saturday, September 19.
The Confederate myth has been deployed historically to threaten, to destroy community, and to erase records of achievement and accomplishment among black Americans. It was fashioned into stone and installed in public spaces all over the country at a time when resistance might have meant death for black citizens.
“The land is cluttered, littered with these icons to the glorious Confederacy, and we don’t say a thing about slavery,” says Bryan Stevenson, who I have written about here before. His great-grandparents, like mine, were born enslaved. “And that makes the landscape a lie. It is not telling the truth about this history. So we have to change that landscape.”