Newly elected Charlottesville City Councilor Nikuyah Walker’s campaign slogan “Unmasking the Illusion,” no matter what you think of it, was a brilliant one, an antidote to “Make America Great Again” if ever there was one. When it has come to discussing race and history in Charlottesville, the tendency has always been to intellectualize it, to try to reason with it. Take, for example, this perfectly reasonable C-Ville Weekly story on our Confederate statues, “Monumental questions: Local statues are a lesson in history and a source of controversy,” published in June 2015. At the time, as the story points out, Charlottesville City Councilor Kristin Szakos’ now very well-known suggestion, during a 2012 Virginia Book Festival luncheon speech by Civil War historian Edward Ayers, that perhaps our Confederate statues should be removed or put in better historical context, was well-known back then.
“The reaction was both immediate and sustained,” says the C-Ville story about Szakos’ suggestion. “People seated nearby gasped. She [Szakos] later became the target of nasty phone threats as well as bigoted comments on numerous news websites.”
Indeed, what perhaps should have been an obvious sign that something was seriously wrong here, and that Szakos had hit on the tender nerve of something that was being collectively repressed in our community, what followed for years was an exercise in smothering the underlying pain and horror with objectivity, thoughtfulness and good intentions.
Of course, in the C-Ville article, knowledgeable Civil War buffs are trotted out to remind us that Lee and Jackson were “honorable men, reluctant secessionists who made the difficult decision to remain loyal to their home state and to defend her against an invading army.” Noted historians suggest adding “contextual signage” that will “help us understand our historical landscape more fully and accurately.” An African-American historian condemning the idea of removing the statues, and saying it would “set a bad precedent,” is also included. Indeed, leading up to the eventual decision to remove the statues in 2017, following a long study on the issue and public discussions, the argument for not removing the statues, and putting it all in better historical context, enjoyed wide support.
Th C-Ville article pointed out that Charlottesville was indeed a town willing to re-visit history, and did just that in 2009 when there was an outcry over the depiction of Sacajawea on the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark sculpture at the intersection of West Main Street. Sacajawea is demurely crouching behind the two men, when in fact she had made significant contributions to the expedition. A commemorative plaque with historical context was added. That the statue stood at the top of Vinegar Hill, an African-American neighborhood completely erased in the 1960s as part of “urban renewal,” or that glorified symbols of the generals who’d fought to preserve slavery gleamed in the sun and were surrounded by beds of tulips just several blocks away while a singular one-foot wide plaque buried in the side-walk at Court Square commemorated the slave block that once stood there…well, that was not necessarily news to anyone, but it was less of a concern at the time than giving Sacajawea the respect she deserved.
Of course, now that the effort was finally made to act on Szakos’ suggestions, we’ve seen what was beneath those gasps at the book festival luncheon, and in the nasty phone calls and bigoted online comments, and in what all the good-intentioned efforts to put our painful past into historical context was trying to mitigate —it blew up in our faces on August 12, 2017. And oddly enough, or appropriately enough some might say, our community reaction has been to cover the statues [ostensibly to honor Heather Heyer and the two state troopers who died on August 12] that we have tolerated for so long in black plastic shrouds, like body bags, perhaps finally realizing that our illusions must die as well.
— David McNair
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