Maybe the Robert E. Lee statue should remain … Just a thought

I live in Washington, DC, but Richmond is my home. I don’t get there often, but I was there a week or so ago and drove down Monument Avenue for the first time since the removal of the statues of Confederate icons and soldiers. It was a sultry Sunday afternoon in July. Summertime in Richmond. Few cars. Few people.

IJefferson Davis. pedestal stopped at the pedestal that once held the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. It surprised me. I felt nothing. When a Richmond friend texted me early in July that the Stonewall Jackson statue was coming down—now, right then—I immediately started surfing the channels. For hours, I streamed reports from a Richmond TV station, watching transfixed as something I couldn’t imagine ever happening, happened. So, when I stopped at that pedestal, I expected to feel some emotion—joy, relief, happiness — something. But I stood in front of it and felt nothing.

I drove on to the statue of Robert E. Lee. It was always the centerpiece that loomed over Monument Avenue. And there it was. Still standing, but oh so different. Instead of the cold solemnity and haughty arrogance I remembered, there was a vibrancy, an energy I could feel even before I got out of my car. There were a few vendors at a respectful distance, and some people walked around the monument, with reverence, for what had become a memorial for lives lost to police brutality. I felt the power of the entire tableau.

The Robert E. Lee statue was still there, but no longer proud and majestic. The dignity of that plaza now rested solely in the messages written vibrantly and boldly across the pedestal—a rainbow of reds, blues, yellows, greens. Before my eyes could read any words, my spirit took in the colors, so alive, blending from one into another. Then, as I focused, the first word that registered was “TAMIR” in huge block letters, honoring 12-Robert E lee statue. TAMIRyear-old Tamir Rice. Slowly, I circled the statue. Some messages were profane—F_ _ _ the police—but most were profound, with BLM or Black Lives Matter appearing multiple times as I rounded the pedestal.

History is written upon that statue now—a far more complete history than it ever offered before. Huey Newton’s name is there. Marcus David Peters is memorialized there along with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, and so many more. The words “2nd place” appear several times, possibly noting that this general was not the winner of that war. There’s also: “No justice, no peace.” When I look back on pictures of this statue from just a few weeks ago, I see the messages have multiplied. The anger—bottled up for decades, centuries—has spilled out in many of the words and phrases and organic thoughts reflecting what the community feels must be said: “Black Transwomen,” and “Whose schools?” and “Whose streets?” Statements, more than questions.

Yes, Robert E. Lee is still there, but what made his society then and what makes ours today is now clear. Written in the bursts of words and names and painted with the stark explosion of colors.

Lee doesn’t only represent the Confederacy. He represents white supremacy, not just a hundred and fifty years ago but in the predominance of white leaders in statehouses, in media, in businesses today. He represents a narrative that was seeded, nurtured, and has blossomed in America for 400 years. And this is not just about individuals who shout hateful words and wave the flag of those defeated in a long-ago war. It is about a culture and a way of life that has only recently started to become acknowledged: a way of life that advantages white people and disadvantages Black people and other people of color.

I am glad that the effigies to the Confederacy on Monument Avenue are being removed. Maybe that is why I was surprised by the unexpected profundity of seeing Lee at Marcus David Peters/BLM plaza. Raw and confrontational. Keeping the statue there—with its modern-day messages—provokes different thinking. It juxtaposes a white historical marker against today’s racial reality. Maybe we learn more by seeing what’s been changed but is still there—that collocation of past and present—than simply the vacancy of something that had been.

Context is important. Just a thought.

 

 

 

I am my brother’s keeper. Part 3. Black and Native.

Note: Part 1 was published on May 18, 2020. Then the story was interrupted by the tragic killing of George Floyd (Part 2 posted on 5/27). Now, back to the original story noting the involvement of the Indigenous community, and many others, in the Black Lives Matter movement.

In all my Daughters of the Dream posts, I comment through my African American lens. That is who I am. That is how I identify. In truth, however, my maternal side of the family is primarily Native; members of the Chickahominy Tribe of Virginia. I have known this all my life, but it mostly went unacknowledged. The federal government did not recognize the tribe until 2018. But more importantly, in many ways, it was also unrecognized by my family.

Big Mama and Papa Joe. separate pics side by side
The author’s maternal grandparents, Dora Adkins Charity and Joseph P. Charity.

Using Ancestry.com, I watched the evolution of the racial identity of my maternal grandparents. On early census documents, my grandmother was noted as Indian, full-blooded as the saying goes. My maternal grandfather was noted as Mulatto, which he was by the definition of that term, mixed Indian and white. Then they both become Mulatto, along with their children, of course. Subsequent census documents list them as colored, then Negro, then black.

My mother and her siblings were raised as African American. Perhaps my grandparents had internalized the negativity the white, dominant population associated with being Native. The only time I can remember my mother celebrating her Native heritage was when she casually commented one Thanksgiving that there was no need to observe this holiday (even though she did). “It was just the beginning of white people taking Indians’ land,” she said.

Now, I have started the journey of celebrating all of me.

Chief Stephen Adkins
The author with Stephen Adkins, Chief of the Chickahominy Tribe of Virginia

Just as I would not overlook a racist image of an African American or a racist comment about one, I am becoming more attuned to my Native roots and culture.  For years, I have recognized the racism in the names of some sports teams. But when conversations turned to looting following the murder of George Floyd, how many of us thought about the original looters — those who took the land of the Native peoples in this country?

Native and black, they are both a part of who I am.

But what about those identities that are not a part of you or me? Just because it is not our identity, racism cannot be ignored. Racism hurts all of us. As Martin Luther King said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” The racial mosaic of those who continue to march and speak out against police brutality and racism, six weeks after the murder of George Floyd, gives me hope. An increasing number of Americans seem to believe — truly believe — we are our brother’s keeper.

Confederate statues and the day of reckoning … from symbolism to substance

Earlier this month, in Richmond, cce3a16c-4ae1-46ae-b447-003f2caaa949Virginia, the statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was toppled. It had stood on Monument Avenue since 1907. Virginia’s governor had already announced he would remove the 60-foot tall statue of Robert E. Lee, the figurative centerpiece of this avenue dedicated to Confederate leaders. But as evidenced by the messages written on that statue over the last few weeks, the Governor’s announcement was too little, too late for those protesting the brutal murder of George Floyd and championing what is beginning to be fully understood: Black Lives Matter.

Any child of the South, as I am, knows the statues weren’t only to celebrate the leadership of the Confederacy. The statues were to celebrate white supremacy. Most of these icons were erected between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. They were intended to underscore that the South may have lost the war, but in other ways, they had won. The sentiments of the South—the true belief of most white leaders across America at the time — was that white supremacy/leadership would not be threatened by the mere act of ending slavery. That message was delivered powerfully through legislation and actions — Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the prominence of the Ku Klux Klan — along with the construction of these massive statues.

Now, roughly a century after that period in history, citizens are calling for a reckoning. The Jim Crow laws, lynchings and prominence of white supremacy have been largely camouflaged in modern times, as Michelle Alexander revealed in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Policies and practices to maintain the predominance of white rule, white privilege, white supremacy have been prettied up, as my Dad used to say. Look carefully though, and you can see where and how institutions and systems routinely give white people advantages over black people.

Map of the Confederate Statues in America. Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019
Map of Confederate statues in US, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019

But you don’t have to delve deeply for symbols of the Confederacy. Confederate statues are abundant. Confederate flags are flown proudly across the country, even included in the Mississippi state flag. The image is displayed on bumper stickers and incorporated into clothing.  The statues and Confederate memorabilia were/are intended as a reminder of the underpinnings of the Old South and that the South — at least its philosophy on race — could rise again.  But, today, in many quarters, even that iconography is beginning to be relegated to the past.

In 1945, after World War II, the Allies banned all symbols of the Nazi regime. Flags were destroyed. Statues were taken down. Displaying the swastika was declared a crime. Nazis deemed criminals were sought, arrested and tried at Nuremberg. Everything that celebrated Hitler and his thinking disappeared from Germany. There was clarity. The philosophy of white Aryan superiority might continue to live in the psyches of some Germans. But, there would be no public venues created to celebrate what the government saw as the most shameful time in its nation’s history.

When an end to apartheid came to South Africa, there were trials—truth and reconciliation. The oppressed and the oppressor were brought together to acknowledge the pain and try to move the country to heal.

In the (re)United States, not only were there no real punishments* for the South after the war, the sentiments of the South seemed to shape the post-war values of the entire country. The government of America has never addressed the racial core of the Civil War. That’s the crux of the issue:  America has never come to terms with slavery as this country’s original sin nor has it recognized the ongoing subjugation of black people.

Maybe until now.

Today, we, the people, are proclaiming it is time for that day of reckoning. The tearing down of these statues is a beginning, moving the country from the symbolic dismantling of the Confederacy to substance: an examination and re-calibration of all the elements of America: health care, education, housing laws and practices, banking and business, the judicial system, and so much more. All that underpins how America operates and ensures the advantaging of one race over another must change.

The dictionary says that the day of reckoning is “the time when one is called on to account for one’s actions, to pay one’s debts, or to fulfill one’s promises or obligations.” That sounds right to me.

 

*Note: The forty acres promised to formerly enslaved people to start their new lives was to come from 400,000 acres confiscated from Southern landowners by the federal government. That would have constituted a punishment, maybe even the beginning of reparations, but that land was ultimately returned to the original owners.

 

 

The Day … The Moment

This month, on June 19th—Juneteenth—many in the black community will celebrate the end of slavery. In a twisted chain of events, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were the last in the country to learn their freedom had been granted. While emancipation was effective on January 1, 1863, Union soldiers didn’t bring the message to Texas until June 19, 1865, almost two-and-a-half years later. That was the moment.

derek chauvinWill the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin also be remembered as the moment? Will May 25, 2020 stand as the day when America finally understood racism and bias are real, the tipping point, the day leading to racial justice, not just for Floyd, but for all African Americans?

The image of Chauvin, with his hand casually in his pocket as he pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck until he died, could be the picture marking a racial epiphany for America. When I watched the videos of Floyd’s murder, I thought of the grainy images from a century ago of smiling white families, ‘enjoying’ the prospect of a lynching. In case you missed that in history, men, women, and children often came out on a Sunday afternoon to be ‘entertained’ by a human being twisting at the end of a hangman’s rope.

Black bodies swinging in the summer breezeStrange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…” sang Billie Holiday in 1939.

The song’s lyrics originated as a poem – ‘Bitter Fruit’—written by Jewish-American writer, teacher, and songwriter Abel Meeropol. Helynching wrote it in 1937 as a protest against lynching. Although fearing reprisal, Holiday sang the piece with specific rules for that part of her performance. There must be reverence. She would close with it; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on her face, and there would be no encore.

Eighty-one years later, was Chauvin—sensing his own limelight—offering a macabre form of sick entertainment, and conscious of it? Mesmerizing the crowd, showing the power he had over George Floyd as he cavalierly murdered an unarmed, handcuffed man? Black oppression is real. Has white America finally got it?

I think—I hope—so. I see and hear a difference in the language used and actions taken. Sadly, the event isn’t substantively different from so many in the past and the marchers with uplifted signs may seem the same, but the responses by those in power seem different. I see chiefs of police kneeling in solidarity with peaceful protesters. News commentators acknowledge that most protesters are nonviolent, but agitators have been LDN-L-PROTEST-LA-0601brought in to foment hate and destruction. I hear elected officials stating the unrest in their cities and states has been brewing for decades as racism and bias have gone unacknowledged and unaddressed. I see Facebook posts asking how white allies can be engaged. People are looking not just at what happened, but why it happened and they are calling for change.

It is far too early to know where these responses may lead. But I don’t recall this level of what seems to be racial understanding being revealed in the past. Are these just platitudes, idle gestures? Maybe. I hope not. I prefer to think there was a confluence of events, a perfect storm. The pandemic with the resulting unemployment of thousands already underemployed. The murder of Ahmaud Arbery in February. Breonna Taylor, killed in her home in Louisville in March. The racial profiling of Christian Cooper combined with the killing of George Floyd. All have revealed—powerfully and clearly—racial injustice in America. I feel a difference. I pray this is not merely my hope. This has to be real. America cannot continue as it is.

We know our country has been flawed from its beginning. Founded on racism and bias in favor of wealthy white men. That faulty foundation has remained stable for centuries. The cracks and fissures now seem too large to ignore. We may finally be ready to address the original sin and the decades-long repercussions.

I am fully committed to envisioning and creating a racially just, racially equitable America. The time is now, this is the moment.