By Roger Vance
Yes Virginia, recent events make it clear we really need to talk. It’s time to talk straight about our unvarnished history, time to talk about recognition of that history and its tangible lasting legacies, about reconciliation and about redemption.
So, let 2019 be the year.
This August will mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival in Virginia of the first 20 enslaved Africans. Captured in present-day Angola and bound for Mexico on a Portuguese slave ship, they were stolen by marauding English pirates who subsequently traded them to Virginia colonists. Thus, in 1619, began nearly two and a half centuries of brutality inflicted upon millions of Africans imported into North America and bred as chattel in the colonies, in Virginia, in the United States and lastly in the Confederate States of America.
The institution’s centrality to the shaping of the nation and the moral and legal compromises it required, set the course toward cataclysmic conflict, and embedded a malignant strain of racial hatred that lives on.
At the outset of the Civil War, there were an estimated four million enslaved men, women and children in America. Virginia’s slave population led all, with nearly 491,000. Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession in April 1861, repealing its ratification of the Constitution of the United States, claimed the Federal Government had perverted its powers “not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.”
The unequivocal core of the rebellion and the Confederacy was the defense of the institution of slavery, as evidenced in the southern states’ declaration of causes for secession. Justifying slavery, even among the most learned and righteous, necessitated a belief in the supremacy of the white race and the innate inferiority of the African. Dehumanizing enslaved Africans was essential to promulgating the theory of white supremacy.
While slavery in America ended with the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, white supremacy survived, and thrived, becoming the fuel and tool for the terrorism that overthrew Reconstruction within a decade and forestalled the promise of equal rights and justice for black Americans for another century and beyond.
On the eve of this past Martin Luther King Day, a swath of Loudoun, including my home and those of my neighbors in Hillsboro, was littered with racist and anti-Semitic propaganda boldly asserting the white supremacist ideology of the Ku Klux Klan and embraced by Hitler’s Nazis and their 21st-century spore.
These cretinous and cowardly actors are of the same ilk of those who brazenly took to the streets in Charlottesville in August 2017 with torches to rally round and defend a statue honoring Confederate icon Robert E. Lee, solidifying the unbreakable link between today’s white supremacists and those of the Confederacy. There were no “good people” in that mob.
Just days after the KKK leaflet drop in Loudoun, photos from the 1984 college yearbook of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam emerged depicting individuals garbed in costumes representing two pillars of white supremacy: “blackface” degradation and Ku Klux Klan intimidation. The governor’s confused and unconvincing explanation only served as an accelerant to the flames of indignation that swept across Virginia and the country.
Beyond “embarrassment,” felt by many Virginians, these incidents reinforced a visceral distrust and vulnerability ingrained in the gut and psyche of black men, women and children, who are reminded that—in their country—for centuries black lives literally didn’t matter.
But, as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The time is always right to do what’s right.”
In the first instance, Hillsboro called out the Klan as the cowards they are and chose to stand alongside those so vilely attacked, refusing to remain silent, proudly proclaiming that “hate doesn’t live here.”
In the second instance, an overwhelming—and bipartisan—outrage fueled calls for the governor to resign, to which he has yet to heed in the apparent hopes of finding redemption. He may be encouraged by the generosity of spirit among a majority of black Virginians who, polling reveals, are willing to leave the door open for the governor’s redemption.
With that spirit, Virginia, we need to talk. More to the point, we need to understand our history and confront the structural racism—and its symbols—that still exist, in the hope of finding reconciliation, and ultimately redemption.
We need to recognize and understand the brutality of enslavement that began 400 years ago and the inhumanity inflicted to provide wealth, prosperity and privilege—privilege that has accrued across generations. We need to recognize that white privilege was rescued from the ashes of defeat by white supremacist terror and codified through racist laws—written and defended by venerated Virginians—that eviscerated the 14th and 15th Amendments, which guaranteed former slaves’ civil and voting rights.
We need to recognize that the course debasement of former slaves in popular culture fed racial superiority among whites and helped rationalize American apartheid. We need to acknowledge that the romanticism of the “Lost Cause” was the spearhead to a bald revision of history that stoked racism and emboldened the 20th-century rise of the KKK. We need to know that the erection of statues to the Confederacy in the early 20th century was not a benign memorialization, but rather a key ingredient to the propagation of white supremacy.
Virginia, as hard as it is, we need to know the convulsions of virulent racism exhibited in the 1950s “Massive Resistance” legislation to prevent integration and defend Virginia’s legally sanctioned racial caste system—which passed in the General Assembly as Confederate flags were waved in the gallery—was largely mainstream. It took most of Virginia another decade after Brown v. Board of Education to integrate its public schools.
We need to recognize—to come to grips with our history—its depth and reach and its relevance to today, and unravel that thread that still weaves injustice.
Without recognition, there can be no true reconciliation, and certainly no redemption. How can we move forward if we don’t actively pursue this path?
Yes Virginia, we need to talk. Now is the right time.
[Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column, A View from the Gap, is published monthly in Loudoun Now.]