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.




Invisible … Coming into focus?

Do you see it? Probably not.

Why? Because it’s largely invisible, at least to many white people.

What is it? Racism.

For compassionate, empathetic people, it is hard to see, or maybe even believe, that the world revolves around you. No one wants to think they are that self-centered, but as the saying goes. “it’s not personal.” You have not created this dynamic, it’s systemic. But you benefit, and if you are not actively paying attention and fighting against it, then you are complicit, a part of the problem of race in America.

I understand you may not believe me, but just read for a couple of minutes.

White people are the standard, the default, the given in America. When I was in high school, the census had two racial categories, white and non-white. While that is no longer true, even today when you are reading stories in the newspaper, if no race is noted, the person in the story is almost always white. Sometimes a person of color isn’t defined by race if a picture is included with the story. Check it out the next time you’re reading a book or a news article. Does the story just proceed with people or characters being introduced until it says John’s Latino neighbor or Sue’s African-American colleague? Neither John nor Sue will have been described racially. That’s because they are white and our minds have been programmed to immediately and unconsciously perceive them as such.

out of focusSometimes it is not as obvious. You have to dig a little deeper. You have to focus for the picture to become clear and then compare to see the pattern.

When Paul Manafort was sentenced to 7.5 years in jail, did you think it was a fair sentence? He could have been jailed for up to 24 years in one court and 10 years in the other. Fair—maybe, maybe not—but when you compare, something appears. Black people know it. They may not have known the exact sentence, but they remember Kwame Kilpatrick, the black mayor of Detroit who received a much, much longer sentence for similar crimes. Twenty-eight years (the maximum was 30). When one compares the nature of the financial crimes they both committed, the thought isn’t necessarily that Kilpatrick’s sentence was too harsh, but that Manafort was sentenced on white standards for similar white-collar crimes. It is not just Manafort compared to Kilpatrick, it is white defendant after white defendant.

The rules are different. It isn’t our imagination. This disparity is real.

Do you remember the response to Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte? In Rio for the Summer Games, he and his friends made up a story about being held up at gunpoint. Then a video emerged showing Lochte and his friends kicking down a bathroom door and fighting with a security guard. A big deal? No, not really, except that his story played into a perception that Rio is a dangerous city. The issue of race comes in with the response from the International Olympic Committee, “We have to understand that these kids came here to have fun. Let’s give these kids a break. Sometimes you make decisions that you later regret. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on.” These ‘kids’ were in their early 30s.

But when dealing with black kids, actual kids, a study from the American Psychological Association found that “black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.”

Is that what happened to 12-year-old Tamir Rice, playing in a Cleveland park with a toy pistol, when he was killed within seconds of the police arriving?  A caller had reported that someone was in the park playing with a gun. The caller had even noted that the gun was probably fake. ‘Life goes on’ is not the carefree reality for all.

The invisibility of racism has been made clearer to me as I have heard one phrase repeatedly from many white people. As they read my book, Daughters of the Dream, or as they move along their own racial justice learning experience, many say, “I had no idea.”

Even though they were relatively close to me, a high school or college classmate or a professional colleague, they had no idea of how I experienced America, how different it was from their experience. I understand. It is hard to see what has been invisible to so many for so long, but I hope the truth of America is coming into focus.

“I’m woke” say many.

Are you? Are you really?

I hope so. A just future for America, and for all who live here, demands it.