Monumental Decisions

 

Some Timely Thoughts for August 18, 2017

In 1996, I was asked to participate in a panel of scholars and prominent citizens in an open forum as the Commonwealth of Virginia struggled to decide whether the time had come to ditch its official state song, a slightly modernized version of Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, composed by African American songsmith, James Bland in 1878. Many found the song to be offensive due to its romanticization of slavery and its lyrics that used minstrel-like parodies of of African American speech. On the other hand, it was at that time the only state song in the country that had been written by an African American. My advice at the time was that a work of art that offends a substantial portion of the population should be somehow honored for what it is, but demoted from its public pedestal. It could not properly represent all the people of Virginia. Virginia decided to designate the song as “state song emeritus,” retired it, and went on to seek a new state song more suitable to Virginia at the turn of a new millennium.

One and a half centuries after the end of the Civil War, much of the South—the former Confederacy—struggles to decide what to do with symbols that trouble many citizens. One of these is the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. This so-called “Confederate Flag” was never used as an official flag of the Confederacy, but it has nonetheless come to be viewed as symbolic of the South as a distinct “nation” within the larger United States rather than as a bottle flag of an Army that raised arms against the United States.

Similar symbols of the South are the numerous statues of leading generals and statesmen of the Confederate States of America that are found throughout the South. Like the old battle flag, they too have become bones of contention between folks who find them to be offensive reminders of a not-so-grand historic era of White supremacy, slavery and racism versus those for whom they are romantic and honorable memorabilia of a time and culture that formed the South into a distinctive cultural region of the nation.

Today the South deals with this question: Is it time to “retire” the monuments and symbols of the Confederacy? Nowhere is this question more important than here in Richmond, Virginia, the former Confederate capital, and no other display of public art and artifact in Richmond can begin to compete with the grandeur, beauty and intensity of feelings generated by Monument Avenue. Depending on who you are and what you know about the grand avenue and its monuments, you may view them as commemoratives to honor Confederate leaders, especially military leaders, or you may view them as disgusting and reprehensible reminders of the evils of racism. Perhaps you have never really thought about them in depth and they are simply the decorative artifacts of Richmond’s grandest public avenue.

It helps to understand what they were built for, and at this point I believe most knowledgable scholars would argue that they are clearly the product of the so-called “Lost Cause,” a massive cultural mythos evolved in the hope to have the South “rise again” after the period of Union occupation and Reconstruction. Southerners had it found humiliating and degrading to be forced to permit African Americans to vote, to own property, to get education, and to hold public office. No sooner had the occupation ended than the South immediately launched the oppressive Jim Crow era which aimed to undo the progressive actions of Reconstruction and to institute laws and extra-legal sanctions against African American (and other non-White) citizens. Thus began the long ugly rein of lynch mobs, the Klan, and segregation.

Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney has created a commission of scholars and prominent citizens of the city to address the possibility of finding acceptable ways to “contextualize” the monuments on Monument Avenue and, perhaps, elsewhere in the city as well. The mayor’s vision was to seek a solution that would teach the actual history of the monuments, warts and all, without having to take the extraordinary move of decimating an enormously important historic district and its unparalleled artifacts of both the beauty and the beastliness of Gilded-Age Richmond.

I was personally glad to hear about Mayor Stoney’s commission, because as an archaeologist-historian I am a firm believer in preserving our cultural artifacts precisely so that different communities and different eras have their opportunities to appreciate, interpret, loath, and/or love the manifold meanings such artifacts can elicit. I was equally glad to hear that the mayor extended the mission to include gathering public comment and input on the possibility of removing the monuments, especially because he added that he finds them personally offensive. He is African American and does understand what they meant to those who erected them and what they mean to many Richmonders and other Virginians today. Like that old state song, how can a landscape that is so public be permitted to stand when it is offensive to so many citizens.

So to return to my original question: who owns these artifacts of history and culture? Legally they belong to the City of Richmond, I suppose, but I question whether or not the Mayor or City Counsel have the ethical right to remove these monuments without some sort of city-wide, and perhaps even state-wide or nation-wide referendum. At the very least we need a long, ongoing, serious public discussion. As the Mayor’s commission discovered in its first public meeting, this will be a loud, emotional, not always rational discussion. There will be lots of heat before there is any clear light to light the way to a decision that can be broadly supported.

I find the so-called Confederate Flag offensive because it represents institutionalized racism. It always has done and it always will do, ever since it was taken up by the KKK and then again by post-1964 redneck racists opposing integration and civil rights enforcement. My thought about the flag is that if you view it primarily as a romantic icon of the South and Southern culture, then hang it on your living room wall and enjoy it. But keep it out of my face in public places.

I find the question of monuments to be a much thornier thicket, especially the monuments of the Confederacy on Monument Avenue. There is no question that these are major elements of the city’s architecture, landscape and history. They define a major central neighborhood—a neighborhood designated as historic and significant by the national, state and city governments. The monuments have stood for nearly a century and have, therefore, played a very significant role in the spirit and culture of Virginia’s capital. Most Richmonders, I suspect, can barely imagine what a loss they would feel if the city were to have them removed.

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied, that they, like that battle flag, came into being through the post-Reconstruction institutionalization of White supremacy in Virginia. It should not surprise anyone that some of our city’s citizens and visitors who understand that truth find them as offensive as I find the “Confederate” flag to be. Nothing could be more “in your face” than these huge bronzes of generals, an admiral and a president of the rogue nation Confederate States of America parading endlessly down the grandest boulevard in town.

My recommendation to the Mayor and his commission is this. Recent history reminds us pointedly that we have not outgrown the hunger by some to keep alive a state of White supremacy in Virginia and elsewhere in this country. Richmond has been making some very fine progress in conquering that evil in recent years. I am proud of my city, my home and its people for that reason. Let’s not make any rash decisions in the current environment of political rancor, the rise of the “alt-right” and the beyond-the-fringe element of White supremacists currently stirring their long-simmering pot in the Federal government. If the City feels a need to take some action sooner rather than later, then please don’t make it an irreversible one.

Let’s try something like this first. The City could seek help—financial help and planning help—from both the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the National Park Service which has designated the district as a National Historic Landmark. The effort would be to continue considerably extend the mayor’s original plan of seeking the best practices for contextualizing the monuments. I would personally love to see fairly prominent signage at the major entries to the district on and adjacent to the Avenue. Such signage would state unequivocally that the district began shortly after the Civil War as a search to erect a monument to General Lee upon his death. That initial idea lay mostly dormant until after Reconstruction when it became perhaps the most prominent urban-art expression of The Lost Cause. Further signage at each statue could address both appropriate histories of the persons represented there, but they should also detail the complex meanings of the Lost Cause, the rise of the myth of Southern honor and chivalry as well as the unambiguous effort to subjugate African Americans and codify White supremacy in the South.

Perhaps the messages of such signage could be more extensively interpreted through a Monument Avenue museum: a small but purpose-driven institution perhaps run or advised by the Virginia Historical Society, the Valentine or the City, funded, one would hope by both private benefactors and public governments up to and including the National Park Service or other appropriate Interior Department entity. The mayor’s current commission might best give way to a permanent entity responsible to the city’s public for the ongoing interpretation of Monument Avenue.

This is just one citizen’s ideas, not even fully formed. That said, they are the ideas of someone who devoted most of his adult professional life to discovering, conserving and interpreting the history and culture of Richmond and its surrounding region of Central Virginia. I have probably given as much thought as anybody to the meaning of our material artifacts and how they can be used to help our communities progress towards an ever more enlightened understanding of our shared histories and destinies.

The War is Never Over. The Revolution is Never Won

I am an unreconstructed Flower Child, matured and mellowed a bit, but I have never surrendered to what seems to be any version of “normal” USA culture. Back in the 60s and 70s we “freaks” felt that we were instigating tremendous change, and we were, but these battles have to be fought again and again, generation after generation. Of course, there is such a thing as progress, and nobody can deny that there has been much positive change in our culture’s way of treating women, minorities, the poor, LGBT folks, immigrants, and other “others.” Nonetheless, the battles rage on, sometimes hotter and sometimes cooler, but they never are over and done with.
Mass murders in a Southern church are a reminder. The never-ending flood of black-on-black violence and police-on-black violence is a reminder. The rude, disgusting misogynistic comments in mass media and social media about Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are a reminder, as are the equally ugly and hateful blathering of Donald Trump and the Brown Shirt/Hitler Youth-type behavior of many of his supporters. North Carolina’s HB2 and similar legislative actions in other states, whether passed, proposed, or pending, are a harsh reminder.
I was a witness to the so-called Stonewall Riots and the birth of the Gay Liberation movement in New York in 1969 (see my Facebook Note from 2010 titled “The Queens are Bashing the Cops”). While I am thrilled that our country has finally granted the fundamental human right of marriage to same-sex couples, it is clear that there is still an abundance of potentially violent hatred against anyone queer, and this current rash of anti-queer legislation and litigation are simply the more civil expressions of that hatred. Beneath the veneer, violence is on the prowl, and whether it is fully expressed or not, it is hurtful.
No sooner had North Carolina’s HB2 been announced I found myself awakened by my transgender spouse one morning, as he told me of a terrible nightmare he had just experienced. In the dream he was traveling to see friends in North Carolina and, as a result, a woman was murdered in a woman’s room simply for being Rob’s friend. This past weekend we were, in fact, traveling in North Carolina to visit friends. On three occasions we were out in public places when Robin experienced nature’s call. Two of these occasions occurred in fairly hip restaurants in a college-town urban setting. In one of these cases, there was an available gender-neutral loo available for folks with physical disabilities, so he chose that one.
The third occasion was a very different situation. We were on farm in a very rural area. Many farms rely these days on various forms of agri-tourism to supplement income, and that was the case here. A large dairy farm has opened a popular ice cream parlor to promote their rich Jersey milk products. It was a sunny, warm Sunday, and the place was crammed with families bringing children for a treat. There were lines for ice cream, a crowd of kids waiting a chance to pet the cute Jersey calf, and, of course, there was predictable demand and use of the two gendered restrooms. I’ve been married to Rob for over 34 years, so even if he hadn’t felt the need to talk about it today, now that we are back in Virginia, I would have known that this situation had rattled him.
It seems that an awful lot of people still seem to feel it is quite okay to rape women, to roll queers, to beat up folks who support a different politician, and to assault a person whose looks don’t conform to someone’s notion of what is properly gendered appearance or behavior. In just the past week the news has reported on two different women being roughed up in public simply for looking a bit butch. This shit is real. If you are a friend or relative of a GLBT person, please understand that the rabid hatred being floated in the news, the social media, and in the state capitols of this country has real-life effects on people you love. Be sensitive to this and be ready to be supportive if you can. Offer to go into public places with a gender-non-conforming person. Speak up loudly when you hear bigotry spoken. Offer hugs, even if they don’t seem immediately necessary.
There is a strong effort in the land by millions of people to revitalize a romanticized golden-age vision of the 1950s. There was nothing golden about it that dark era of coat-hanger abortions, repressed sexuality, racist lynchings, patriarchal dictatorships in the home and the office, and queer-baiting gang-rapes. I was there, and there was nothing there that I would ever want to return to (except, perhaps, for a Republican Party led by the wisdom of Dwight D. Eisenhower). I hope that we are simply witnessing the death-throes of a tired old order, but we must be vigilant. Revitalization movements often die away quietly, but they can–as in the case of the Third Reich–light a spark that turns into a conflagration. It’s not just about politics–not by a long shot. No matter who you vote for, the cultural wars must be fought every day, again and again and again.

Pink or Blue? A War Veteran Learns to Knit

This essay was first published, in an earlier form, in “Genderwonky” on Blogger.

My mother taught me to knit. Mind you, I didn’t learn how to knit from my mother, but she taught me nonetheless. She also taught me to sew. I don’t know why. My brothers weren’t taught these things, as far as I know. I don’t even think my sisters were. Maybe I was the only one who seemed interested. Maybe I just tended to hang around Mother too much.
I think I was probably 9 or 10 when she taught me to knit, but I didn’t actually begin learning how to knit until I was 58. I enrolled in knitting classes at a local knitting shop. Richmond, my hometown, has at least five knitting shops. For reasons I can’t fathom, I chose to take lessons at the oldest, best established store in town: the “West End” shop, whose habitués are mothers of children enrolled in the city’s exclusive local private academies. They are the wives of lawyers and doctors and politicians—no that’s not quite right. They are the wives of judges, chief surgeons, and governors of the Commonwealth. I drive to my lessons in my ratty little ‘72 Beetle. They drive in humongous Lincoln Town Cars, 700-series Beamers, and Range Rovers.
There are other places to learn knitting and to buy yarn. There’s the store with all the high-fashioned glitzy yarns and the workshops taught by international knitting stars. There’s the newer shop full of hip, high-end luxury fibers, all natural of course, down in what passes for Richmond’s version of Greenwich Village. Then there’s that newer shop with the laid-back, crazy, funny women who smoke too much and, I wager, keep bottles of whiskey or brandy tucked away with their stashes. They are fun-loving yarn-addicts, pure and simple. But, for reasons still unclear to me, I wound up in the high-brow shop with the tennis-club and equestrienne set. Go figure.
Let’s make one thing very clear. I am the only man taking these lessons. I continually hear rumors of other men who knit, but, so far, they are just rumors. “Lots of men knit these days,” says one of the shop’s owners. “But Dan’s the only straight guy, isn’t he?” Straight guy? But I knit! Some would say I can’t be straight by definition.
I point out to all who will listen that men do the knitting in Peru, that men were traditionally knitters at various times in “The Old World,” and that male soldiers in World War I routinely knitted their own socks! I get quiet, knowing smiles. No sense trying to tell anybody anywhere anything about gender. It is, after all, completely “natural,” and everyone knows all about it practically from the day they’re born.
I am working a cable row in the front on my alpaca sweater. I hope to complete it by the time it’s cold enough to wear an alpaca sweater. The ladies of the shop love to talk about the multi-colored socks I knit myself last year. “He even wears them,” one hastens to add. While I quietly knit away, my teacher, the shop ladies, and the other students all talk about babies. Always. Someone at the table is always knitting a baby sweater, or baby booties, or baby blanket, or a baby hat. Sometimes these items are being knit from a pure-white soft cotton or washable wool. More often, they are either pink or blue.
The talk invariably turns to when “the baby” is due, and whether the mother or grandmother in question yet knows “what it is.” That means, in case you didn’t get it, whether the fetus in question is on its way to becoming male or female. Even in this day of sonograms, lots of people don’t know. The parents-to-be all know, but they’re not saying. So even the expectant mothers are not revealing the big secret: they knit in white, or they make one item blue and one pink… “just in case.”
“Why don’t you make something green? Or purple?” I ask, playing the devil’s role, of course. Nobody bothers to answer. It can’t possibly be a serious question. I don’t follow up, because I’ve tried dozens of times. That conversation just doesn’t go anywhere, and, anyway, I’ve just dropped two stitches in the middle of a “cable back,” and that demands all my attention.
When the conversation isn’t about babies, which is rare, it’s about the older children: the boys in St. Benedict’s and the girls in St. Catherine’s. They don’t talk about the students’ grades or their sports accomplishments. Instead they discuss their summer art programs in Florence, and their intensive language programs in Moscow, and their pending appointments as congressional pages. But the real concern is not for this ascending generation, but for the babies, for what is being knit for them, and “what they are.”
Doing It In Public
My cousin recently needed someone to accompany her to the hospital for a surgical procedure. I knew I’d be stuck in the waiting room for three or four hours, so, naturally, I took my knitting. As time passed, other patients and their drivers/helpers/loved ones arrived. And every so often one would have a bag of knitting. Each of these knitters gravitated to my side of the room, made friendly inquiries about what I was making, gave their compliments, then took up an adjacent seat. After a couple hours, we had a phalanx of knitters, all sitting along one wall of the waiting room, chatting away merrily.
Knitters don’t just knit when they get together. We shared knitting stories. We shared knitting tools. We commented on color combinations and yarn choices. All the other knitters were women, of course. One of them noted my wedding ring and asked me if my wife were also a knitter. Of course I (and all the other women) took her question to really mean, “So, are you married or available?”
And so I comfortably lounged away a few hours, surrounded by women of all ages, knitting, knitting, knitting. Were I to suddenly find myself single, it would never dawn on me to go seeking company in a bar, when I could find myself a corner in any public space—say, a Starbucks Café—open my knitting bag, and soon have plenty of company.
Of course, not everyone is happy to see a man knitting in public. There is clearly something odd, suspicious, maybe even frightening about such a scene. I remember one time taking my knitting to the clinic at the VA hospital. It always takes my doctor way more time than seems reasonable to see me on appointment day. No sense complaining, though. I might as well just plan on getting some knitting done. And so I do.
On the day in question, I noted that my knitting had just the opposite effect as what I had experienced the day of my cousin’s surgery. I soon found I was sitting surrounded by empty chairs. Other patients were giving me a rather wide berth. But then, none of the other patients was also knitting. You see, most of the other patients were men: men my age or older. Men wearing their veteran’s hats, their combat colors, their manly accomplishments on their proverbial sleeves. These guys don’t knit. Or, if they do, they damn sure don’t do it in public! I’m the odd man out. I’m also a war veteran, and I’m wearing my colors, too. My combat engineer’s hat is set off nicely by the colorful stripes in my latest silky-soft scarf.
Finally, into the waiting room came a couple. They were much younger than I. Both were wearing some indications that they were in or had served in the military. I later learned they had both served in Iraq. She carried a knitting bag. After registering at the desk, she walked directly over to me, asked about my project, asked if she could join me, plopped down beside me and pulled out her work. Her partner—her husband, I soon learned—stood across the room glaring at me. He stood! He couldn’t even bring himself to sit. My knitting companion kept gesturing to her hubby to come join us, but he insistently stood and glowered.
After a few minutes, a nurse appeared and called the wife’s name, then took her back into the clinic to test her vital signs, etc. The man slowly approached me. I stopped knitting, met his eyes, and held my hands with the #3 needles angled just enough to suggest that they could serve as defensive weapons if need be. (For some reason, I tend to knit a lot of things with sporting weight yarns and small needles. For once I wished I had been working on a bulky Icelandic sweater. I would have been holding # 13s instead of # 3s!)
He stared into my soul and, I suppose, something he found there told him I was not really a threat to his marriage or his masculinity or anything else. Or perhaps he decided I was too dangerous, or too deranged, to tangle with. He grabbed a hot rod magazine off the rack nearby and walked back across the room to sit by himself.
What would happen to our planet if, all of a sudden, infant girls were swaddled in baby blue blankets? And what disastrous consequences could ensue if baby boys came bedecked with little pink pom-pom hats? What in the world can the world possibly find frightening about a 6’2” 200-pound man with a bag full of wool and knitting needles? What in Heaven’s name leads some people to a murderous rage at the very thought of a man in a dress and panty hose?
A former high school friend is a highly accomplished and respected poet. He’s 60 years old and holds a professorship at an major New England university. He has published numerous books and won many awards. Lately he has been writing to some of us, his former classmates, online, pouring out his heart full of hurt and his still-hot fury about how he was treated by the bullies in high school nearly a half-century ago. I, myself, harbored a fantasy of taking a baseball bat to one punk’s head for more than 30 years for beating me up and calling me a sissy. A recent study suggested that the rash of violent school shootings we have experienced in this country over the past few years were almost all perpetrated by boys who had been bullied and hounded and terrorized for not meeting some arbitrary norms of masculinity. In our culture we seem to think that violation of gender codes is an egregious offense upon society, punishable by torture and death.
It starts, innocently enough, by choosing to knit pink or blue. It proceeds from there by making girls who would rather have a Jedi’s light saber play with Barbie dolls. And if the gender variance hasn’t been shamed out of our children by the time they reach high school, we find it acceptable to let society’s goons try to beat it out of them. Besides schoolyard bullies, we have skinheads, good ol’ boys, queer-rollers, tranny-bashers, and many other sorts of “concerned citizens” waiting to finish the job. Call me Pollyanna, but I think we could end this sort of violence by knitting the rainbow for babies without first stopping to inspect their plumbing.