Governor Robert McDonnell declared April Confederate History Month in Virginia. In his declaration Governor McDonnell called for Virginians to "understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War."
In his original declaration, McDonnell made no mention of slavery as a root cause for the Civil War. His insistence on remembering only "leaders, soldiers, and citizens" refuses to acknowledge the existence of black people in the South. There were some black soldiers who fought in the Confederate army, but the vast majority of African Americans contributed to the Confederate effort through the violently coerced, unpaid labor that was part and parcel of the their dehumanizing, totalizing, intergenerational, chattel bondage. McDonnell seems to believe that this reality is unworthy of remembrance.
It’s taken me nearly two days to respond to the Governor’s declaration of Confederate History Month and his flip erasure of black life, suffering, and struggle because this particular news story is profoundly personal.
On my father’s side we traced our family tree as far as we could follow it and discovered we are descended from an African woman sold into slavery on a corner in Richmond, Virginia. My father and his siblings grew up in the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond. They attended racially segregated schools. Despite being nearly starved for school resources by the state, my father and his twin brother became the first in the family to attend college. Both became college professors.
My uncle had a distinguished career as a student at the University of Virginia. My father went on to become the first Dean of African American Affairs at the University of Virginia in 1976.
I grew up in Virginia. I had social studies teachers who referred to the Civil War as “the war between the states” or “the war of Northern aggression.” My interracial family experienced harassment and abuse during the two decades we made our home in the Commonwealth. But Virginia is also the place where I made lifelong friends, found spiritual communities and was educated by many tough and loving teachers. I came to political consciousness in Virginia and distinctly remember listening to every word of Douglass Wilder’s inauguration address as the first black governor. I cheered on election night 2008 when Virginia turned blue just moments before Barack Obama’s presidential win was announced.
I share this personal history because it is not exceptional. Black Americans are, by and large, Southerners. Our roots, our stories, our lives, our struggles, our joys have a distinctly Southern flavor. Slavery and Jim Crow are part of our experience, but so are church picnics, HBCU football games and jazz music. There is no Black American history that is not deeply intertwined with Southern history. It is extraordinarily painful to watch an elected official in the 21st century engage in an act of willful and racist historical erasure of our very selves.
Virginia history is my history. Yet the story of the Confederacy that McDonnell seeks to propagate and profit from is unrecognizably alien.
There are two different ways that we can tell the Southern history of Virginia. One narrative is rooted in Virginia’s colonial past and centers on the contributions of Thomas Jefferson and other patriots who gave their talents and their lives to resist tyranny and craft the Union. Jeffersonian Virginia history is not free from the ugly stain of slavery. Jefferson was an enslaver. His great architectural contributions were made possible by the slave labor that built the majestic Monticello and the breathtaking University of Virginia. His intellectual and political contributions were undergirded by wealth generated by the forced labor of dozens of black men and women.
Yet Jeffersonian history is surprisingly transcendent. When Jefferson was faced with the task of declaring an independent nation he chose to write a document motivated by a nearly unimaginable claim of human equality.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
When Jefferson asserted the self-evident nature of human equality there were few things in the world less self-evident. Monarchy, feudalism, imperialism, slavery, rigid caste systems and profound inequality were the realities of the 18th century. But Jefferson wrote for our new nation a broad and sweeping document that was bigger than himself, greater than his own historical moment, and unconstrained by the realities of inequality. It audaciously asserted that the natural order rested in equality and self government. This document became a promissory note.
Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence did not bring a free and fair American into being. But it created a vision for a free and fair America that generations of social movements could point to as the nation’s promise. The Declaration of Independence required the nation to respond with social change when its citizens fought for greater equality.
As I child I lived in the shadow of Monticello. As a teen I lived on Jefferson Davis Highway, and there I discovered the other Virginia history. This is the Virginia history that is etched in the stony faces of confederate traitors who line Monument Avenue in Richmond. This narrative of Virginia laments the end of slavery, romanticizes traitorous action against the state and memorializes sedition. This history is built on a false and romantic notion of an imagined Confederate past that refuses to acknowledged the ways that slavery degraded not only black labor, but white labor; how it destroyed the land; and how it starved the region of innovation.
This is the history that Governor McDonnell is attempting to resurrect.
Without a hint of irony McDonnell suggested that he hopes to profit from Confederate inspired tourism. Clearly he hopes that the racial anxieties brewing in America will serve as a tourist boon for the former Confederate capital. Having profited for centuries from the forced labor of enslaved black Americans, Virginia seeks to further commodify black suffering in the 21st century. McDonnell is welcoming Rebel flag waving whites from rural Pennsylvania, downstate Illinois, and Southern California to come spend their money and steep themselves in Virginia past when white citizens, determined to keep black people as non-humans, fought back against the federal government.
Virginia has other histories that we can use to resist this false and frightening narrative. We must insist on remembering Jefferson’s Virginia that called us to be better than ourselves, to defend freedom, and to hold together our union. We must remember the histories of all the black families like my own whose struggle and strength cannot be erased from Southern history.