Today is my proudest as a native Virginian, thanks to the announcement by Governor Northam (another born and raised Virginia boy) ordering the removal of the 6-story tall monument to Robert E. Lee in downtown Richmond.
The decision could not have come easy for the governor, knowing that a vocal minority of his constituents will rage, but also because in doing this he has needed to evolve his own thinking, which for most of us would have been the heavier lift. I know, because like the governor, I am a white guy of a certain age raised amidst tales of the noble, daring, underdog General Lee, a native Virginian cheered by ragged troops as he passes on his good grey steed Traveler. Like the governor, I underwent three years of Virginia history classes in elementary school, reading text books that not only never mentioned the extermination of the original Virginians, but that substituted the word “servants” wherever the phrase “enslaved persons” should have gone. I even remember an amateur minstrel show at the white high school’s auditorium on the 100th anniversary of Virginia’s secession from the Union, where white leaders in our community dressed in black face and ragged tuxedos. I played a role in that play as the son of a Confederate soldier, and in my skit ran onstage to my hoop-skirted mother shouting, “Father! Father! Here comes father!” to announce his return from the war.
It was not until 8th grade that our county fully integrated its schools, and my re-education began. I am grateful for that. Looking back, maybe I should say that was my proudest day. Because that’s when I began to walk the path the governor too has followed. My first black teacher was Irvin McQuaige, a tough love fireplug of a football coach who made it clear to us that nothing he was putting us through at practice compared to the cotton fields he worked as a child. He spoke in Bernie Mack staccato, made sure our integrated football team set an example of racial equity and comradeship for the school, and that we were undefeated in district play. (Coach McQuaige later became a beloved high school principal in our county.)
Some of my white friends left for the local military school, segregated at the time, but most stayed on. It was the early 1970s. The black students led walkouts when administrators made particularly bone-headed (ie, racist) decisions, but our county got through the era intact. That our sports teams won championships, setting shining examples of interracial teamwork, helped. Black and white students alike are friends to this day.
I think we all know what happened when Governor Northam went off to study medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. That photograph in black face will forever haunt him. But his journey from that day to this mirrors my own and that of so many other white Virginians.
I’m a little younger than the governor. Went north to college, where I spent a semester-long independent study reading all of Faulkner, whose entire Nobel Prize-winning oeuvre is a wrestle with slavery and its aftermath in the Deep South, and where I studied history under Professor David Herbert Donald. Hearing this barrel-chested white scholar dissect and disprove with plain evidence lies I’d been raised on about the Lost Cause and the happy servants and what people I knew back home still called “The War of Northern Aggression,” all with a Mississippi drawl, frankly blew my mind. Professor Donald taught me what history is all about (he almost made me a historian). History is about facing the evidence, about wiping away cobwebs of myth and self-serving lore. It’s about reading the ledgers of humans sold alongside cattle and the postcards showing lynchings all over the South. It’s about letting the facts guide your opinions. What a concept.
Which brings us to this past week, when everyone watched the slow and agonizing death of one man beneath the knee of another, and when the steadily growing protests across the country (and the world) made the white knees on the necks of black, brown and indigenous Americans over all these centuries plain for anyone to see and maybe finally reckon with. Governor Northam saw it, and it changed him. It pushed him along a path he’s been on his whole life. The governor had already signed legislation that has made life easier for under-served Virginians, but until yesterday he hadn’t taken any step that might answer that yearbook photograph, that might punctuate the achingly slow revelation so many of us white Virginians have journeyed towards in our own lives. Yes, there is so much work to do. Yes, our black friends are like, what took you so long? Yes, it’s only a symbol. But what a symbol! He’s done it now. The Lee statue is coming down. I’m so proud.
One last thing. If you were not able to listen to the entirety of Governor Northam’s remarkable announcement, I highly recommend it. One of the most moving speeches I’ve heard in a week of moving speeches: