To the Editor:
I have been silent because words are hard to compose when something is close to the heart.
Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, I was born and raised in the shadows of Confederate statues and now live in the literal shadow of one. I grew up in a city where racism was shrouded by the cloak of debutantes, cotillions and tradition. I attended high school near downtown Richmond where I ran track, marched in JROTC, and played around the monuments. Like so many Southerners, I, too, have traced my lineage back to an ancestor who owned slaves before the Civil War. Speaking out is the smallest way to offer reparations, but, as an academic, I know and believe that words hold power.
I am a public memory scholar, which means I study how these public places and spaces rhetorically operate in our society. How they carry memory not only of the time that they were constructed, but also how they symbolically operate today.
Most of these statues were constructed and unveiled during the Jim Crow Era, making them representative of racism and oppression. They signify an invented, constructed fictional past of honor and heritage. I further know that addressing these divisive topics and belief systems can splinter relationships both personal and professional, but I know in my heart that this is not only the right thing to do, but the moral thing to do. As close friends of mine say, “if we want to be better, we have to do better.”
I have been silent because I fear physical harm, but know that others face much worse every day. As a white, able-bodied, cis-male, gay man, I am always at risk, but realize that my queer family who are Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) are literally dying in the streets daily because of the hatred, bigotry and homophobia that the statue represents. I can no longer stand to see another beautiful face in the news or to chant a dead BIPOC person’s name in the street. It sickens me, and I will speak out about it.
I will no longer be silent because, much like during the AIDS crisis, silence can and does equal death in this situation. As the statue continues to stand, people of color are literally dying. I challenge county leaders to act upon moving the statue immediately. It no longer stands for the values of our town and looms upon us daily to represent hatred and bigotry because of its invented past.
As the writer James Baldwin said, “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”
We are now cracking under that invented past of the statue. Let us dismantle it so that we can move forward in a life full of love, hope and peace in our little mountain town.