Friday, September 28, 2007

JOHNNY REB ONLY SINGS DIXIE FROM THE GRAVE:
The Confederate Dead Still Haunt Virginia's Capital, But Nobody in Richmond Seems to Notice

NOTE: This is the first of several posts intended for last week, but, well, rural Southside Virginia ain't exactly a Public Wi-Fi kinda place. - Jason


RICHMOND, Va. (ZP) -- Two women turned the corner of 12th Street, began heading east down Clay Street, towards the Medical College of Virginia Hospital parking garage.

The pair stopped at the front steps of the White House of the Confederacy, dug into their respective purses for cell phones and cigarettes, chatting away a beautiful Downtown afternoon.

One woman was an African immigrant, her outfit placing her country of origin somewhere along the Atlantic coast between Senegal and Ghana. Her accent was thick and pronounced as she spoke, English clearly her second or third language.

The other, a light-skinned black woman, clearly a lifelong U.S. citizen with her thick Piedmont accent, had with her a little girl, a small child who looked exactly like Norman Rockwell's famous portrait of Ruby Bridges, the little girl who U.S. Marshals had to escort to her first day of integrated Kindergarten in 1960s New Orleans.

The two women briskly laughed and bantered and swapped stories. I could hear every high-pitched exclamation of joy and shock, every sigh of the workday grind.

I leaned against an anchor of the C.S.S. Virginia, the famous long-gone ironclad, an outdoor exhibit at the entrance to the Museum of the Confederacy, less than 30 feet away.

I lit another cigarette and listened as the pair's chatter welcomed the afternoon rush hour.

* * * *

I looked back at the museum's entrance, blowing smoke from my nose as the sounds of cityscape filled my brain with all sorts of pleasant memories.

My grandmother and sister were still perched on a park bench near the memorial garden, my father was still inside wandering the exhibits, and my cousin from Louisiana was snapping tourist-perfect pictures of just about everything in sight.

I looked back down Clay Street, back towards the heart of the onetime Capital City of the Confederate States of America.

The rest of the 21st century had already joined the women on the sidewalks and streets, and the rogue government's executive mansion melted into a sea of today's Richmonders.

A group of Mexican men, construction workers, strolled the workingman's stroll back towards the parking garage, lunch boxes swaying at the ends of tired brown arms. A group of Korean and Chinese medical students hurried towards North 10th Street, towards their momentary freedom from residencies and hospital rounds.

And no one seemed to pay any mind to the fact that they walked beneath the long shadow cast by a relic of the Lost Cause.

Only the tourists. And the pigeons.

* * * *

A white man in a suit strolled down the sidewalk, a black woman at his side. The woman put her hand in his back pocket as he gabbed away into his wireless Bluetooth headset. She grinned and tugged him towards a food vendor's cart just outside the Confederate White House, kissed him on the cheek beneath the windows of Jefferson Davis's former study.

And the man wrapped his arm around the woman's waist as he ended his call, returned her kiss, and bought a couple of hot dogs - just outside the room Abraham Lincoln is said to have used immediately after the city rejoined the United States in 1865.

It took more than a century after the Great Emancipator visited that building, a mere week before his assassination, for such a display of public affection to be decriminalized in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

And now, 40 years after the landmark Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court ruling, a black woman and white man can share an intimate moment on a bustling sidewalk, in plain view of immigrants and businessmen and doctors and tourists, people of every ethnicity.

What a strange sensation – to witness two people in love and to feel somehow patriotic, to feel as if the whole of Freedom can be sealed with a kiss.

* * * *

There are people who visit this town only to marvel at its statues of dead rebel soldiers, to visit its monuments to a lost war, to revel in only one part of the history of the American South. But it's surprising how easy it is to forget Richmond's naked now and future, the true legacy of the American Civil War.

The ghosts of the Confederacy don't speak with African or Asian or Mexican accents, don't embrace while buying hot dogs, or even lean against the old scuttled anchors of sunken warships. Johnny Reb died a long time ago, his bastard son Jim Crow put down like a rabid dog in the streets. They rule nothing but the memories on the nostalgic.

But the living sing Richmond and Virginia electric, every day in the naked now, somewhere along the stony banks of the James River.

- # # # -

11 comments:

max said...

That was lovely.

Jessica said...

J,

Yes, I second that - lovely.

As a bi-racial woman who grew up in New England, I have always had a not-so-generous perception of "the South." But this post left a nice visual in my head, and I hope it stays there for a bit.

When my very brown self walks down the street with my very white (and much older) boyfriend, my hand in his back pocket, I wonder what some people think. Then I remember that I don't rightly care.

Hugs to you.

Woeful said...

Yeah, but remember, "The South will rise again!" Or is that what election 2000 was all about, kind of the way we beat the Japanese in WWII, but they got back at us with tape recorders? :-)

coyotemike said...

Very poetic. But you know as well as I do that there are many places, not neccessarily in the South, where the young couple would have been at least harrassed if not attacked for their love; where the Hispanic workers would have been ridiculed and told to "go back home" regardless of citizenship; where one of the women would have been shamed for looking too white and the other for being too African.

But if change can come to Richmond, there may be hope for the rest.

And I think Woeful got it right . . . as long as we remember the Florida is part of the South. Once again, Yankees were annoyed by a man named Jeb.

pia said...

I will take the poetry

Yesterday a man told me about his first conversation with Strom Thurmond. Apparently you could pick up the phone and just call him and if he could help you he would

At first I had to resist the impulse to be sarcastic but found myself saying "amazing," "incredible" "wonderful."

And I thought of his Black daughter and thought maybe just maybe there is good in everybody

I suspect if I move here I'm going to hear many Strom stories and maybe it's good to have senators who get up close and personal with the citizen--not talking about the daughter's mother

The ZenFo Pro said...

Max:
Gracias, chica. Trying to capture modern Richmond, to put it into some sort of historical context, was harder than I thought it'd be.

Jessica:
You know,a lot of folks in other parts of the country - the world, for that matter - grew up with all of these views of modern life in the American South, almost always tied to historical events like the Civil War, Slavery, Jim Crow, etc. I really wanted to try to capture how things have changed from th perspective of an outsider looking in.

And, heh, let's put it this way...

As a biracial woman with a white beau, you're probably going to really appreciate the rest of this tale... one of sex, the One-Drop Rule, and more subtle forms of interpersonal racism...

Woeful:
Lol, actually, the South did rise again, well before 2000 - rose slow and steady, in spite of itself. Hell,most of the rest of the country tends to forget that pretty much every form of pop culture originated in the South, in part due to the struggles between the Old, Segregated culture and the need for greater reconciliation and understanding.

Lord, I really could write a novel of a post about why the GOP was able to gain control of the South over the last 30 years, why the vast majority of black Republicans, according to some polls, live in the South, etc...

Not going there. The carpal tunnel would be excruciating :P

Mike:
Oh sure. Prejudice still exists, remains codified in some parts of the country. Hell, I got into a very real fight recently over my UNWAVERING support of gay rights. (I will drop a motherfucker for making a comment about why itshould be legal to euthanize "butt-fucking faggots").

But, well, I think we tend to forget that real change takes time, patience. Holistically, the South, compared to other parts of the U.S., has made greater strides in terms of race relations in the relatively short period of time since the end of Jim Crow.

Slavery and the Separate But Equal Doctrine existed as a legally sanctioned way of life for more than four centuries - and it took less than 50 years afterward for a place like Virginia to elect the country's first black governor in 1990.

We've still got a long way to go, but, wow...

The ZenFo Pro said...

Pia:
You know, Jesse Helms had the same reputation. In fact, when I was a teenager, I met Helms - even though I was on the other end of the political spectrum, the guy was just so charming, approachable.

The Thurmond/ daughter thing, too, I think really attests to how that part of the country is changing. It's as if the years of bullshit hypocrisy are crumbling away, revealing a marvelous truth, complete with a sigh of relief.

Miz BoheMia said...

Oh what a beautiful and poetic history lesson my friend... funny how I read this just today. We just-right-now-right-this-very-minute got back from hanging out in the Castro, the official gay part of town. I actually walk around, teary eyed, at the displays of affection between same sex couples.

Today the view was a bit more hardcore, as the Folsom Street Fair is happening, and many leather clad people, leather clad á la kinky-S&M-ish, walked around the streets, mixing into a varied crowd of people, comprised of different ethinicities, age groups, children aplenty, including mine, running around...

We are still not there legally, not quite enjoying full legal rights for all but as is, it is a beautiful little utopia this city of ours and it did my heart good to walk the streets of the Castro with my children, who didn't even think twice about all the same sex couples around them holding hands or kissing, so common a sight, and normal at that, it is to them now... not that it ever really stood out to begin with which simply speaks volumes about the beauty of children...

We overcame a hurdle of discrimination way back when, things still need to be ironed out and oh so many more hurdles for countless groups overcome but the little successes along the way make for much beauty and hope...

And your post simply tied in pretty fabulously to my day and Castro Street musings...

Gracias my dear and here's hoping you are enjoying a great weekend in Oxford fucking Ohio! :-)

Carla said...

That was beautiful. The white man and the black woman remind me of me and one of the guys I dated this year. And I was still living in Tegal where the world was still a thousand years behind. And we surely made a scandal by having a light kiss at the mall.

Dark age, dark age. I'm glad now I've moved in Bali. :D

The ZenFo Pro said...

MizzyB:
Lol, I'd rather be at the Folsom Street Fair. Sigh. Coming back to Oxford, even from rural Virginia, is almost painful.

How is it my hometown, complete with a 40% Toby Keith worshiping, Confederate Flag waving population, is more tolerant of diversity than a town with a Public Ivy university????


Carla:
Hey, scandals are sometimes a lot of fun ;)

Sweet! Congrats on the move :)

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