In 2013, I moved from Portland, OR to Richmond, VA for a visiting faculty gig at the Virginia Commonwealth University. It was a pretty stellar opportunity for a younger artist; VCU's art programs are considered some of the best in the country. It's a public university, and that was attractive to me because it meant that students weren't necessarily going into crippling debt to pursue a BFA or even an MFA. The invitation came unexpectedly at the beginning of the summer. I'd already been planning to move to New York but thought it would be foolish to pass up a full-time position--even if it was just for a year--at such a great school. In August, I got rid of nearly everything that I owned and bought a one-way plane ticket. Prior to landing at the airport in Richmond, I'd never set foot there.
I knew that it would be a big change, and besides having never been to Richmond, I'd spent very little time in the South at all. Now clearly, Portland has plenty of its own problems with racism. The city's reputation as a bastion of liberalism and tolerance egregiously ignores the simple fact that it is extremely white. The State of Oregon originally effectively mandated that it be this way. It feels like almost everybody already knows this. I knew it while living there. It is not a secret by any stretch of the imagination. That kind of coded, deeply systemic racism is easy--for white people like me--to ignore if we choose to do so. It's privilege, plain and simple, and lots of people seem to be fine with that. Preparing to relocate to Richmond, I assumed that I'd encounter a more visceral kind of climate, and lots of Confederate flags. The place in Richmond that I was moving into was located in Oregon Hill, a "white working-class enclave." From one white "Oregon" to the next, I suppose.
Out of my new bedroom window on the southeast corner of Albemarle and South Cherry Street, I could see much of Hollywood Cemetery, a sprawling plot of rolling grass hills that boasts the most interred Confederate generals in the entire United States. It's also the burial site of the only Confederate States President, Jefferson Davis. It was not uncommon for there to be hundreds of Confederate flags laid upon graves, making the view from my window disturbing. Were people seriously into this "heritage" bullshit? Leave some flowers or something, not a flag that is literally the logo of the effort to continue slavery in a city that is in the present day at least 50% Black.
Hollywood Cemetery is a popular tourist destination, but the few times that I walked through it, it felt horrific, haunted. A few people told me that I'd just get used to it, but every time that I saw it, which was multiple times a day, I was ill at ease. How the fuck is a Black person supposed to walk through this neighborhood and not feel directly antagonized, corporeally threatened, by the presence of these ludicrous flags all over the god damn place? It wasn't just the cemetery though, the flags hung in the windows of homes in displays that felt less like celebrations of Southern heritage, and more like staunch warnings. There were plenty of Redksins flags around, too.
Oregon Hill and Hollywood Cemetery are just one element of Richmond. Within my first few days, I saw a small group of white supremacists protesting outside of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. Sitting in lawn chairs, looking practically bored, they flew Confederate flags to protest the fact that the museum had recently decided to no longer display the flag. The few friends that I'd made during staff orientations at the college expressed annoyance at their presence, but didn't at any point try to stifle their "free speech" rights. Again, I felt jarred by the sight, regardless of how pitiful their numbers were. I couldn't help but think that while their cartoonish racism might seem funnily stupid to any white person passing by, they represented real, horrific danger to Black students walking home from campus.
On my third or fourth day in Richmond, I decided to take a bike ride and explore the city outside of the Oregon Hill neighborhood and VCU's campus. Previously, I'd heard about Monument Ave, a long stretch of road lined with mansion-like houses. Dividing the east- and westbound traffic is a grassy area with preposterously large monuments to "Confederate participants of the Civil War" including the aforementioned Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and Matthew Fontaine Maury. Besides the fact that they are each aesthetically atrocious in their own ways, they're city-sanctioned symbols of hate and bigotry. They are spectacularly stupid and are violent, desperate attempts to push the fictional glory of the South upon anyone who is unfortunate enough to lay eyes upon them. The South lost and the Confederacy is stupid. Clinging to hideous relics of racism has nothing to do with education or remembering. It has to do, singularly, with normalizing racism for paranoid white people.
An acquaintance of mine, Richmond-based comedian James Isaiah Muñoz, posted one of my favorite takes on the matter to Facebook in November 2016:
I'm 100% against giving trophies to kids who lose. That'd be like building monuments in Richmond, Virginia for guys who lost the Civil War.
I suppose that I should mention, to Richmond's credit, that in 1996 they did try to make Monument Ave feel slightly less... racist. Tennis star, and Richmond native, Arthur Ashe received his own monument -- at the furthest end from the beginning of the mall, the only statue facing away from Richmond's city center, staring towards the I-95 Beltline Expressway. And while all of the monuments are ugly, it's almost as if they went out of their way to make Ashe look like he was about to pummel a group of children with his tennis racket.
During my time in Richmond, I thought frequently about a part on regional racism in Dave Chapelle's 2000 comedy special, Killin Them Softly.
"I travel," Chapelle begins. "Traveling has made me a racism connoisseur, if you will. You know, it's different from region to region. Anyone ever been down South?"
The crowd reluctantly claps, seemingly uncomfortably aware of where the bit is going.
"So, you guys know what I'm talking about! Now the racism down there... it's just fucking..." He then does the exaggerated chef-kissing-fingers smooch loudly, and the audience explodes in laughter. "It's perfect! It's stewed to a perfection. It's comfortable, it's out in the open. There are no secrets in Mississippi. Everybody knows the deal."
Perhaps I was shocked at how casual the displays of racism were in Virginia. I'm not naive enough to think that Oregon, Arizona, Michigan, or anywhere else that I've lived is somehow less racist simply because there aren't Confederate flags every two blocks. Those places are hell of racist. What I do know is that the presence of these statues is intentionally intimidating to a large number of people, and intentionally gives a visceral kind of permission to another large number of people. Many articles have come out recently outlining the very specific periods of time during which Confederate monuments were erected, and it sure as shit wasn't immediately following the Civil War.
As anybody paying remote attention knows, white supremacists--many in powerful positions of culture and politics--threw up these garbage public "artworks" to remind Black people in the United States that Reconstruction was a put-on, to let them know that Jim Crow laws were to be respected, to communicate to them that the Civil Rights Movement wasn't going to change things. Unfortunately for those assholes, there's a generation of people who don't give a fuck about honoring the valor and sacrifice of Confederate soldiers and generals. It's been encouraging to see the number of monuments and statues that have already been taken down, either by city officials or on-the-ground activists. I'd like to imagine that we'll continue to see these idiotic loser trophies get beheaded, torn to the ground, or melted like scrap. I don't think that I have some unique perspective simply because I spent a small amount of time in Virginia, but I have a significant amount of friends who have never spent any time at all in places where these things lord over communities. It can feel like an abstracted thing, a Confederate monument in some town one just assumes is already racist that they'd never want to visit anyways. But these things are everywhere, and were put in place for a direct propagandistic purpose. This isn't rewriting history; the assholes already tried to do that. This is about saying that there's no honor in being willing to die for the right to fucking enslave people. And it's about making sure that white supremacists are publicly reminded that they are, indeed, losers.