I was just about to do a happy dance and celebrate the new year when I recalled my mother’s voice: “Look for the good in anything bad that happens.” So, I stopped and reflected on a year that seemed to brim with ‘bad.’ And I’m glad I did. Without that, I might not have realized all the good that has come from the past year’s tragedies.
If it hadn’t been for the COVID-19 quarantine and the quiet of self-isolation, would the world have watched, been absorbed by, and responded to the horror of the murder of George Floyd? And if not for George Floyd’s murder (and far too many others), would racial reckonings have emerged across the country?
Would Black Lives Matter Plaza have been born in Washington DC, offering a visual counterpoint to remarks and policies coming from the White House right across the street?
Would monuments that devalue human life have come down, not just in the United States, but around the world?
Would the symbol of the Confederacy on the Mississippi state flag have finally been replaced?
Would racist team names have been removed from the pro sports teams of Cleveland, Ohio, and Washington, DC?
Would recognizing the need to repurpose police funds, moving from militarization to mental health support, have gained the traction it has?
Would books on invisible racism and the need for racial equity have topped reader’s lists as more and more Americans, particularly White Americans, seek to understand—and address—the truth of America?
Would we have understood the fragility of our country’s democracy and the massive efforts to suppress voters? And without that, would we have voted in record numbers moving away from the toxicity of fascism toward a healthier democratic America?
I grieve the tragedies of 2020, but just as my mother wisely told me, from the bad has come good. The foundation laid last year is what we will build a more positive future upon.
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.
I 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-year-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.
Earlier this month, in Richmond, Virginia, 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.
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.
Picture this. The coronavirus is over. Scientists have given the “all clear”. One million white people have gathered on the Mall in Washington, DC with signs that read “Black Lives Matter” “I am marching for Ahmaud Arbery” “I march for Trayvon Martin” “I march for the thousands of black men and women imprisoned who simply can’t pay bail to get out” “I march for clean water in Flint” “I march for quality grocery stores in black and brown neighborhoods.” “I march for the black people who white leaders don’t listen to.”
Can you see it? Can you see one million white people marching for black lives, for black bodies?
I appreciate all my white friends who have posted their outrage on social media about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. I value your allyship and your sense of humanity. I also value your public statements. Many think the thoughts, but then don’t write the words where one of their friends, or family, or colleagues might see them. “You know,” they say, “I have to pick the right moment.”
White people, as Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in her 1619 essay, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” I’m not saying that white people didn’t participate in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or Selma or the March on Washington or in countless other protests to make America’s promise true. You have. But, I need you to step it up. America needs you to step it up.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Black people’s voices have been, and continue to be, powerful in enabling our own liberation, 400 years ago, 200 years ago and today. But to paraphrase racial justice advocate, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, “Could women have gotten the vote without the leadership of men? No.” Black people can march, and will march, until the soles of our feet are raw. We will protest until our voices are strained to a whisper, but white people, we need you to step it up.
In large measure, your people run Congress … your people lead states … your people run business, the Fortune 500 companies … your people control the media. You run America. Raise your voices. Step it up.