Opinion: An open letter from France to Virginia on history and Confederate statues

by | Aug 18, 2017 | OPINION

Dear Virginia,

I am from Virginia, but live abroad in Nice, France. I have been following the events in Charlottesville with growing concern. Angry mobs, domestic terrorism, equivocation from politicians, and the thought that those who don’t remember history are bound to repeat it.

Virginia is a beautiful place, green and lush, with rivers and rolling blue mountains giving way to a broad tidal plane before the magnificent Chesapeake Bay and the beaches of the Atlantic ocean. I get profoundly homesick just thinking about it. Should I die far from home, make sure I make it back to Nelson County, I want to be buried under a Tulip Poplar.

And my state has history. People hunted and fished there for thousands of years before the first Europeans came. People from Europe came in search of a better life, and they came to Virginia first — America was founded in Virginia. The last battle of the Revolutionary War was fought in Virginia. Eight US presidents were Virginians. It’s not a stretch to say we gave the rest of the world modern democracy with the Virginia Declaration of Rights, it’s a history to be proud of.

But history means nothing without context.

Virginia was built on the backs of slaves. In 1619 the first African slaves were kidnapped and brought as chattel to Virginia. For the next 245 years, Virginia participated in a system of human bondage that reduced millions of human beings to the most wretched state, revoking their humanity in the process, subjecting them to humiliations, to violence, and deprived them of all rights.

The same rights which we as members of an open and free society strive to make sure benefit everyone in equal measure today. Deprived of liberty for 245 years, families were broken up at the whims of a privileged class. For 245 years men were robbed of life and limb and worked until death, women were sexually abused, beaten, and forced into ignominious servitude for the benefit of only a few. For 245 years the pride, energy, and soul were sucked out of entire generations so that a few men in Virginia could profit.

There is no ending to the description by which humans sank in the pursuit of enslaving other humans. The innumerable indecencies that one set of humans inflicted on another continued de facto for another 100 years, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

We remember this in Virginia. We fought a war over it. We fought a war that killed more Americans than had ever been killed before or since. And when I say we, I mean Virginians. In 1861, Virginia voted to abrogate the Constitution and to secede from the Union because the federal government had gone too far in “having perverted [constitutional] powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slaveholding States.” That is history, not fiction.

Never let anyone tell you Virginia left the Union over some inconsequential question of state’s rights. Virginia left the Union in order to protect the institution of slavery, upon which its entire economy was built. Slaves built Virginia. They were driven to death in order to build its roads, its bridges, its buildings, its canals, and to work its fields. All economic riches were brought up from the earth through the sweat of men and women men who were owned by other men. The prospect of losing all that wealth was intolerable to the to the men who signed the Ordinance of Succession from The United States.

And then the blood flowed.

Of the 600,000 men who died in the Civil War, 30,000 of them were from Virginia. At Bull Run, Fredrericksburg, Chancellorsville, Richmond, The Wilderness, Spotslvania, Cold Harbor, Lynchburg, and Petersburg – for four years Virginia ran red with the blood of Americans.

We remember.

I love Virginia, and I love Richmond, but we have got a problem— those Confederate statues.

The statues that sparked the chaos and bloodshed in Charlottesville – they have to go. This isn’t erasing history; history is in books, in the memories of men and women who lived, and who died. We know a lot about history in Virginia, which is why the statue of General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville has to be removed. The same goes for Richmond, the historic capital of the Confederacy. The statues of Lee, Stuart, Jackson, Maury, and Davis stand proud on treelined Monument Avenue – they cannot stay there.

After the Civil War, we know of the horror that cowards in hoods who stalked the land at night, instilling fear and terror in the hearts of Black Virginians. We know what happened in the daytime when the law wasn’t applied to all people equally; when one group of people can exact summary justice on another just because they want to.

We know history in Virginia.

We know what it means when justice does not apply to all in equal measure, what it means to live ‘separate but equal’, and the hatred and violence that comes with that bankrupt and hollow ethos. We know of the shame that is little boys and girls who grow up without the same opportunities as their neighbors because they are not from the privileged race.

We know history in Virginia.

We know what it means when people who love each other can’t be married because the color of their skin is different. We know what it means when white supremacy is allowed to run roughshod over the land with torches and nooses — we know history in Virginia. And we put an end to those disgraces because we believe in the idea that all people are created equal and that all people should have an equal chance to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Virginia, is not a place that was built on personalities or idols, but rather built on ideas that we, the people, are constantly and endlessly trying to realize. This will never  be embodied in statues. We have not always lived up to those ideas but our history is one of struggle, of strength, and of progression. Yet here we are, in 2017, with Virginians dying in the fight against white supremacists.

Those white supremacists do not respect the principled ideas that the Commonwealth was founded on, but rather stone and iron — the statues of long dead men, traitors, and insurgents that fought to preserve the system of human bondage we revile today.

Perhaps those statues could have stood and gathered moss and reminded men and women what happens when human greed and arrogance cause us to forget that all people are made equal. Perhaps those statues could have stood and served as solemn memorials for all those who died for the benefit of a few and who were hurdled into oblivion by men who believed they were a superior race. But they haven’t.

Instead, like the Confederate battle flag, they became the totems of white supremacy. Those who know history understand the dark things which were done under the cover of those symbols. They are things that no Virginian— indeed no American— can ever tolerate. The suggestion that Confederate statues on Monument Avenue be removed won’t be easy for some people to accept.

But they’ll endure because we know history in Virginia.

In order to preserve history I suggest that Belle Isle, the site of a civil war prison, be turned into an open air museum dedicated to telling the story of American slavery – in the style of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. The statues should go there, so people can see them and learn the most accurate version of the history in Virginia and the US. They can learn about the millions of people who were taken from their homes and forced into slavery. They can learn about the horrors of the Atlantic passage that brought them here. They can learn about what it meant for men and women to live as chattel. They can learn about the economy built on the backs of men of women, at the point of guns, with whips and chains, but who yearned for freedom and dreamed of the day where they would be accorded the rights we take for granted.

Then people can also learn about the underground railroad and fugitive slave laws, about three-fifths compromises and the craven Virginia politicians who did not stand up for what is right. They can go there to learn about heroes, too: about Harriet Tubman, about abolitionists like John Brown, Lucretia Mott, and Frederick Douglass. They can learn about the Virginian slave revolts led by Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser. They can learn about that terrible war, and those men who renounced their oaths to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic to protect the institution of slavery.

And in the end, they can learn about the historical propaganda of the Confederate Lost Cause that has led us to this point in history. The myth of gallantry and the veil of Southern genteelness that was used to rewrite history after the war and led generations of people to believe that this kind of heritage and culture should be protected, while they carry torches and salute supremacists in our streets. They can learn about how racism poisoned reconstruction, about Jim Crow and why those statues were erected—not to preserve history, but to re-write it, mythologizing a tragic end to a tragic war — and about the bitter heritage that we all live with today because of it.

They can learn about it all in Virginia because we know history.

Yours Faithfully,

Alex Chabot

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.

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