Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Importance of Sending the Right Message

Several weeks ago, several members of my home owners' association proposed changing the name of the main road from Stonewall Street to Stone Wall Street. The degree of divisiveness and the bitterness of Stonewall Jackson's defenders has been both enlightening and frankly, saddening. I though we had come farther, but the clannish nature of humans  runs deep.

When I moved into the community 25 years ago, I didn't even make the connection. I didn't look closely at the stone entry way, since we don't pass by it when driving to our house or walking through the neighborhood. We live in the farthest corner of the community, facing a street outside the community.  I assumed "Stonewall Manor" was simply a stately moniker dreamed up by the developer to sell houses. The marker was made of stone and until today, I never looked closely at the image. Most of the streets are named for Confederate generals (Stonewall Drive, Jackson Parkway, Drexel Street, McNeil Street, Holt street, Colby Street, Rockbridge Street). A few seem innocuous, (Shenandoah and Academy, though the references are clear), and some are sneaky (Little Sorrel--Stonewall Jackson's horse, Villanova--the almamater of several Confederate generals, including Robert E. Lee). An obvious pattern.

In fact, the Yeonas brothers, the developers responsible, were deeply prejudiced and named the community and streets in intentionally, as a statement during the civil rights movement and as integration was coming to Virginia. The original purchase papers prohibited African Americans from buying houses. Thus, the community and street names were not chosen through a sense of nostalgia, an interest in history, or from an honest respect for the people. They were chosen specifically for their intimidating emotional impact and are nothing more than a reflection of deep-seated bigotry.

How can you hang a Christmas Wreath, a symbol of peace and forgiveness, around an image intended to intimidate and humiliate?

One objection to removing the street names is the cost. Your address is deeply rooted in the paperwork of life, and changing it would bring considerable pain and suffering. Several have suggested only changing on the name of the community, which is painless, so let's discuss it on this basis. There will long remain a few historically named places and roads. We don't change the name of a city from Saint Petersburg, to Leningrad, and back to Saint Petersburg around here. But we can economically and painlessly remove this face, the association, and change the name of the community with minimal effort. The intent to the greater community will be clear.I think that is enough.

Some insist this honors a great man.The following letter, written by the surviving  descendants of Stonewall Jackson to the City of Richmond, makes the view of the immediate family view clear: history should move onward, away from this dark time.


"Dear Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and members of the Monument Avenue Commission,
We are native Richmonders and also the great-great-grandsons of Stonewall Jackson. As two of the closest living relatives to Stonewall, we are writing today to ask for the removal of his statue, as well as the removal of all Confederate statues from Monument Avenue. They are overt symbols of racism and white supremacy, and the time is long overdue for them to depart from public display. ...

Last weekend, Charlottesville showed us unequivocally that Confederate statues offer pre-existing iconography for racists. The people who descended on Charlottesville last weekend were there to make a naked show of force for white supremacy. To them, the Robert E. Lee statue is a clear symbol of their hateful ideology. The Confederate statues on Monument Avenue are, too—especially Jackson, who faces north, supposedly as if to continue the fight.

We are writing to say that we understand justice very differently from our grandfather’s grandfather, and we wish to make it clear his statue does not represent us.
Through our upbringing and education, we have learned much about Stonewall Jackson. We have learned about his reluctance to fight and his teaching of Sunday School to enslaved peoples in Lexington, Virginia, a potentially criminal activity at the time. We have learned how thoughtful and loving he was toward his family. But we cannot ignore his decision to own slaves, his decision to go to war for the Confederacy, and, ultimately, the fact that he was a white man fighting on the side of white supremacy.

While we are not ashamed of our great-great-grandfather, we are ashamed to benefit from white supremacy while our black family and friends suffer. We are ashamed of the monument.

In fact, instead of lauding Jackson’s violence, we choose to celebrate Stonewall’s sister—our great-great-grandaunt—Laura Jackson Arnold. As an adult Laura became a staunch Unionist and abolitionist. Though she and Stonewall were incredibly close through childhood, she never spoke to Stonewall after his decision to support the Confederacy. We choose to stand on the right side of history with Laura Jackson Arnold.

Confederate monuments like the Jackson statue were never intended as benign symbols. Rather, they were the clearly articulated artwork of white supremacy....As importantly, this message is clear to today’s avowed white supremacists.....

Ongoing racial disparities in incarceration, educational attainment, police brutality, hiring practices, access to health care, and, perhaps most starkly, wealth, make it clear that these monuments do not stand somehow outside of history. Racism and white supremacy, which undoubtedly continue today, are neither natural nor inevitable. Rather, they were created in order to justify the unjustifiable, in particular slavery.

One thing that bonds our extended family, besides our common ancestor, is that many have worked, often as clergy and as educators, for justice in their communities. While we do not purport to speak for all of Stonewall’s kin, our sense of justice leads us to believe that removing the Stonewall statue and other monuments should be part of a larger project of actively mending the racial disparities that hundreds of years of white supremacy have wrought.

As cities all over the South are realizing now, we are not in need of added context. We are in need of a new context—one in which the statues have been taken down."

Some insist that he was a progressive man. I think it is very significant that his great-great grandsons point out that Stonewall Jackson's sister opposed slavery and was a staunch abolitionist. If her brother did not like slavery and was a man of strong principle, he too could have made that choice, freeing them and paying them a fair wage. Teaching children who were enslaved how to read can hardly begin to amend for the decision to become a leader in a war to defend slavery, an indefensible institution that reached beyond our present day comprehension in its cruelty.

Finally, he is elevated as patriot who did his duty and served his country. In fact, his duty was to fight for those who could not fight for themselves and his country was the United States of America.

I'm not an active champion of politically correct speech. I won't pretend that I am without prejudice and conservative political views, burned deep in my brain from my youth. But as a thinking person I have the ability to act based on what I know is right, and after living and observing the world for 56 years, I have become quite liberal in most things (other than personal spending habits).  Liberal views aren't always my first reflex, but after consideration, I feel generally right with them. They feel kind.

I regret that people see this as divisive. At most, it should stimulate thoughtful discussion. Really,  there isn't that much to argue over. Slavery, the Confederacy, and racisim are wrong. That's long settled. Should we bear the expense of changing road names, or just change the name of the community and revise the marker? That's a business conversation. Thus, the debate can only be divisive if we dig our heels in rather than talk, and if we stubbornly believe the world will get better by doing what is easy.

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