Why this White Virginia Boy Feels So Proud Today

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:

Dear Governor Northam

This is the letter I sent to Virginia’s governor this morning, as we cross the line of 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 in America. Let’s all keep pulling together in keeping that curve bent down here in the Commonwealth.

Dear Governor Northam,

Like many Virginians, I have family members who have come down with coronavirus.  We wait to bury my wife’s grandmother, who died in the early days of the pandemic.  My wife, an occupational therapist at the Richmond VA hospital, spends part of each day 3-D printing face shields and zealously guards the one N95 mask she’s been allowed.  My sons, both Virginia college students, came home at spring break and studied via Zoom the rest of the semester.  My older son, an ocean rescue lifeguard in Nags Head, has been trained to maintain health precautions to the extent that he can (he wishes beach goers there would do the same). My younger son, a film student who lost his chance at a summer internship, is still working in his bedroom, picking up special effects editing gigs online and wondering if it will be worth it to do his senior year if it’s just going to be more of the same.  I’m a professor, had one week to convert my hands-on laboratory classes to virtual versions back in March, and spend part of each day now gaming out strategies for how to manage these courses in the fall.  We all wear masks when we go out, we stay home otherwise.  We even turned down an invitation to a Memorial Day picnic at a neighbors’ house, because older people would be there, and we’d hate to think we somehow might have infected them.

I say all this by way of introduction.  One other thing:  All four of us voted for you.  We applauded your swift and straightforward coronavirus restrictions, even though they directly impacted our lives, because as we have seen they “bent the curve” of deaths this spring.  Since then, however, we have been disappointed by your team’s management of the information and guidance we receive.  Your confusing sort-of-mandate about mask wear in public places, for instance, does not seem to provide any additional incentive for sensible people; in fact, one might think it is intended to poke the hornet’s nest of never-maskers who marched on the Capitol early on.  Your team obfuscates in answer to simple questions.  Perhaps they don’t intend to, but it’s worrying.

I teach my sons and students not to complain without offering a suggestion, so I would like to practice what I preach here, if you please.  This is what I ask:

Recognize that most Virginians will act responsibly when provided with the facts they need to make decisions and the tools they need to act on them.  Trust us to do the right thing.  Understand, however, that we need those facts and tools in order to do so.  That said, please:

Follow Tennessee in making all Covid-19 testing free.  Set up testing tents in the parking lots of county libraries or public schools across Virginia at least once a week; for those who cannot travel to those locations, offer a roving test van and a call-in number to schedule a test.  Turn no one away who wants a test, whether they are symptomatic or not.

At these testing sites, provide literature and guidance on what to do if the test is positive.  Provide explanations for home quarantine, including information on how to notify people we have been in contact with while contaminated, encouraging them to quarantine as well.  Offer free paper masks to anyone who needs one.

(If testing and mask giveaways at this level are still unavailable, clearly explain why, and say when they will be.  If testing must be rolled out in stages, show us the plan for that.)

Put the power of Virginia’s church congregations to work supporting their parishioners who are in quarantine, with food delivery, phone check-ins and prayer.  Other volunteer groups, such as the Lions Clubs, PTAs, and Scouts, may be enlisted to similarly support people who are spending two weeks in isolation.  Reach out to them and provide guidance on how to provide this support safely.

Provide free on-site testing at least twice weekly for all residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as New York is doing.  Do the same at all Virginia state prisons.  Encourage any business where people must work in close proximity indoors (grocers and meat processors, for instance) to do the same.

Provide emergency salary protection for anyone who must quarantine and make it illegal to penalize any employee who is in quarantine.

Break the stupid and unhelpful rule that says nursing homes, prisons, and food processors do not have to report out their numbers of infections.  Communities need to know where the virus is spreading in order to act safely on those risks.

Please provide more accurate, up-to-date and granular local data about the virus’ spread on the Department of Health webpage.  Include the information noted in my previous point.

Explain in plain language what you will do if the virus comes back.  What would trigger back-tracking on the phases of reopening in a particular community?  Stick to whatever plan you have in place for this. Make it clear to all of us that you are acting on the triggers and that you have the numbers to back up your plan.

Please continue your efforts to prepare the state for an upsurge in cases.  At each of your press conferences, list how many ICU beds have been added, how many ventilators, how much PPE.  How are health care workers being trained to meet an upsurge?  Show your constituents that the Commonwealth will be ready for the expected upsurge in the fall.

Finally, if a business chooses to reopen, yet an employee does not yet feel safe to go back to work, do not rescind unemployment benefits for the duration of the crisis.  Workers need to know that the governor has their back.

Governor Northam, as I said, I am confident that most Virginians will act as responsible citizens who care about each other in this crisis.  We have already shown that, in following your initial guidance and bending the curve of cases.  But we need honest, open, and clear information and direction from your office in order to continue on this path.  One more suggestion, please be sure to model mask wear next time you go out?

Thank you for your leadership and for your team’s hard work. Stay safe, stay well,