Vance: Virginia, Let’s Talk

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

[Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column, A View from the Gap, is published monthly in Loudoun Now.]

6 thoughts on “Vance: Virginia, Let’s Talk

  • 2019-03-02 at 12:36 am
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    We need to talk about the problem of overstating the significance of the year 1619 and using that as an us verses them, this-point-forward history narrative.
    No different than white history, black history and the enslavement of Africans does not begin in 1619. The Atlantic Slave Trade was in full swing by the time 1619 rolled around, the English, Spanish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, each of these nations and others played a role in the “inhumanity inflicted to provide wealth, prosperity and privilege”. People from Africa did not just appear on the shores on Virginia and Mayor Vance explains as much above. But what I can’t figure out why, if he knows this, does he want people to think slavery began only 400 years ago, “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”?

    1619 wasn’t even the first time enslaved Africans were living in North America, they were brought by the Spanish to what is now South Carolina, almost 100 years before 1619. Does that not count as Black History or part of the history of slavery? The year 1619 allows us to ignore the fact Africans were enslaved in Bermuda by May 1616. Does this not count either? Why don’t those enslaved souls not matter? Who cares if they were in Bermuda, Virginia, or on Mars, what happened to them was inhumane. Hundreds upon hundreds of stories like this occur in history before 1619.
    We want to simplify the history by always making it black and white, literally. The worse part of the whole 1619 narrative is it deprives black people of a huge part of Black History. White peoples history narrative is 1492, black people don’t get a history until more than 100 years later in 1619. I must ask, what exactly is it we are going to accomplish talking about the history of slavery and race when starting off the conversation by suppressing Black History itself? Something is very seriously wrong with getting lectured by a white guy about what white people need to recognize they did wrong, when that white guy doesn’t recognized Black History; it is not slavery and oppression, but slavery and oppression are a part of Black History and it did NOT start in 1619. And implying as such makes it as if people of color are being used to push a wrong narrative purposely, so just stop with the 1619 soapbox.
    I couldn’t agree more with Mayor Vance, “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”.

  • 2019-03-04 at 9:49 pm
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    Thank you, Mayor Vance. Excellent letter.

    Predictably, we see here three (so far) white cowards who are desperate to do anything to avoid talking about this difficult subject in good faith. Sadly, they’ll be left behind – and they won’t be missed.

  • 2019-03-05 at 11:31 am
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    Your comment is disgusting and borderline racists David. Worse, I know you know better.

    I’m more than happy to review Mayor Jimmy’s politically motivated attempt to lump ALL Virginians in with the dolts in Richmond.

    Starting at the top: No one is alive today who was involved in American slavery. You’d be hard pressed to find someone even two generations back who was involved in slavery. My people didn’t arrive until long after slavery was abolished. I refuse to be burdened with some collective sin me and mine never committed. Democrats are trying to blame their personal problems on Virginians. I’m not having it.

    Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession: Passed by Democrats who couldn’t handle the election of a Republican President (sound familiar?) So, they did what Democrats always do when they don’t get their way; they got violent. In this case, the most violent catastrophe America ever endured. The War: Conducted by Democrats. Resistance to Reconstruction: Democrats. Jim Crow… that’s right… Democrats yet again.

    The mysterious KKK and largely anti-Semitic flyers which oddly, no one has ever seen placed or knows anything about in Loudoun: The KKK was created by and for Democrats, who yet again, didn’t get their way, so they resorted to violence to suppress anybody who popped up on their hate matrix. By the way, Democrats have a current anti-Semitic problem in Congress, and Loudoun Democrats just elected anti-Semitic delegate. Nazi’s were socialists, something the current socialist Democrat party seems to be silent about even as their proposed public policies are creepily similar.

    Hasn’t it struck you as extremely odd that with hundreds of cameras on traffic signals, homes, and street corners, the police are mystified as to where these flyers come from? I find it very odd indeed.
    C-Ville: Have you read the report commissioned by the city about that day? You’re not alone, because it was roadblocked by Democrat Gov. Terry Mac’. Instead, we get a report from a state contractor paid for with $300,000 tax dollars that was smoke and mirrors. Check this out: https://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/government-politics/lawyer-leading-charlottesville-s-review-of-violent-rally-hits-roadblocks/article_ce8710cb-33d2-531f-a92b-6597c990c76c.html

    Somebody paid for C-Ville. Somebody paid for the buses and the tiki torches. And Richmond Democrats don’t want us to know who. Why is that?

    If the Mayor is into tearing down statues, then why not bulldoze battlefields, or any other historical marker that doesn’t fit his world view. By his logic, why not tear down the WW2 memorial on the courthouse lawn? After all, it was Democrats who oppressed hundreds of thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry. It was Democrats who put them in concentration camps.

    The Mayors reference to the “massive resistance” in Virginia in the 50’s — Democrats, led by the all-powerful Harry Byrd Democrat Machine.

    And what led to the Mayor to write this oddly omissive missive? Our current crop of elected officials in Richmond and they’re ridiculous actions. All Democrats. Again, Mayor Vance erroneously attempts to lump all Virginians within what is a uniquely Democrat Party problem – both historical and current. It’s wrong, and he knows it.

    We both grew up in Loudoun David. I know, because I played soccer against you. The only thing I was a coward about was getting in front of you when you built up a head of steam down the sideline. You were a beast. You and I both know blackface was unacceptable in the 70’s-80’s in Loudoun. How is it that we knew that then, but somehow, we’re still talking about it today? It’s a ploy played by a political party that must deflect from its own history and current quagmire.

    It must be working for you to call me a “white coward” and say I avoid talking about this in good faith. I’ll ignore your hate and trump it with love: I have held out my hand to you many times offering to have you out to the house, crack a bottle, party, and solve all of the world’s problems. You’ve never once taken me up on it. I extend it again.

  • 2019-03-07 at 12:14 pm
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    Hello Roger,

    I am an immigrant. I moved to the United States (Loudoun county) in 2006. I am still adjusting to my adoptive country and your letter makes me realize a huge cultural shift is still required of me.

    You see, I am from a country where we recognize personal responsibility and don’t collectively blame entire populations for the sins of others. Could you provide guidance on how I can atone and find redemption for the actions of strangers?

    More importantly, my two boys, born in the US, are 6 year old. At what age is it appropriate to tell them they carry the burden of slavery and the rampant and pervasive racism you describe?

    Do you have good age appropriate books you can recommend for me to make them feel all this guilt and shame they so thoroughly lack today?

    They are clearly missing out on this and I don’t want to wait any longer. I would rather they grow up believing they are at fault for all those things you describe.

    In fact I would go further. I am extremely concerned they have not been exposed to this xenophobia in our public school system yet. Based on your letter I would think the melting pot our schools are nowadays would be a perfect breeding ground for all that hate. Yet children from all backgrounds and races seem to befriend each others constantly.

    As I am sure you are aware, younger children have a harder time learning such abstract concepts. They would understand so much better why they must feel this guild and shame if they experienced all that you describe firsthand.

    What can we do to realign our education system to the fantasy your so passionately describe? If you have a letter template I can send to the school board asking them to expose our children to your make-believe version of our commonwealth, that would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you in advance. Best regards,

    – Jeff Mach, Leesburg

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