Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Unvarnishing Virginia History


Note: The piece below was originally published by STYLE Weekly in 2007. The recent chatter about a giant Confederate flag waving over a highway into Richmond made me want to post it here. A few years ago, a retired educator gave me the history book mentioned in the piece. I hope he enjoys seeing what his gift inspired.

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Having grown up in Richmond, I've been steeped in its dual sense of bitterness and pride over matters to do with, and stemming from, the Civil War. Perhaps thinned out somewhat by time, it remains in the air we breathe at the fall line of the James River.

Most of my life has been spent in the Fan District, which is home to four statues honoring heroes of the Confederacy. Beyond monuments, to know what it was like in Richmond in the past, we look to history. It comes to us in many ways — stories told, popular culture and schooling among them.

In 1961, my seventh-grade history book, which was the official history of Virginia for use in all public junior high schools — as decreed by the General Assembly — had this to say about slavery at the end of its Chapter 29:
Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to those arguments.
In 1961 I had no reason to question that paragraph's veracity. Baseball was my No. 1 concern in those days. Now those words read quite differently.

Living through the struggles of the Civil Rights era, with its bombings, assassinations, marches, sit-ins, boycotts and school-closings, did much to show me a new light, to do with truth and fairness. However, for me, there was no moment of epiphany, no sudden awareness I was growing up in a part of the world that officially denied aspects of its past. More than anything else, it took time. Life experience taught me to look more deeply into things.

Now I know that dusty old history book was a cog in the machinery that made the Jim Crow era possible.

Nonetheless, that same history book's view of how it was for those enslaved is one that some Virginians still want to believe. It's probably what they were taught as children, too. Some call it "heritage." Many of this persuasion also cling to the bogus factoid that since most Southerners didn't hold slaves, the Civil War itself was not fought over slavery.

Which is preposterous.

Of course poor Southerners, those who weren't plantation owners, had little to do with starting the Civil War. Generally speaking, poor people with no clout don't launch wars anywhere; rich people with too much power do.

So, for the most part, the men who fought in gray uniforms were doing what they felt was expected of them. As with most wars, the bulk of those who fought and died for either side between 1861 and 1865 were just ordinary Joes who had no say-so over declaring war or negotiating peace.

In Virginia, many who chose to wear gray did so to reverse what seemed to them to be an invasion of their home state. That's the reason the heritage clingers like the best.

Yet, if the reader wants to understand more deeply why Virginia eventually left the Union, to follow the secessionist hotheads of South Carolina and Mississippi into war, here's a clue from Chapter 30 of that same history book, which opened with this:
In 1790 there were more than 290,000 slaves in Virginia. This number was larger than that of any other state.
Those 290,000 slaves were worth a lot of money to their owners and such wealthy families had a lot of say-so.

Thus, the largest part of the real blame for the bloodshed of the war, and the subsequent indignities of the Reconstruction era, probably rests with wealthy slaveholders who would not give up their investments in cheap labor without a fight.

Readers interested in how much the official record of the Civil War has changed over the decades since the Civil Rights era should pay a visit to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. Its telling of the story of the Civil War is now based on the unvarnished truth.

Moreover, I am proud to be a Virginian. There's plenty of Virginia history that has nothing to do with picking sides in the Civil War. My ancestors go back to the 1600s in this commonwealth. But I will not stand with anyone who chooses to stay the course with the absurd denials of history — to do with slavery — that were crammed into that old public school textbook.

As for my friends in Richmond who haven't had a fresh thought on matters racial since they were seventh-graders, well, I don't want to pick a fight with them. So mostly we talk about other things — baseball still works.

All that said, Robert E. Lee, whose spectacular monument I see every day, remains a Virginian I admire. I realize his reputation has taken somewhat of a beating in recent years, but the dual sense of tragedy and dignity his statue conveys remains striking. In his time and place, torn between loyalties, it seems to me Lee tried to do what he saw as his duty.

After the war a weary Lee urged his fellow Virginians to let it go — to move on. That was good advice in 1865. It still is.

-- 30 --

Note: The illustration was fashioned after Jean Antoine Mercie's Lee Monument (unveiled in 1890). "Mercie's Lee," by yours truly, was done in ink and pastels.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Nixon's Fall


Note: This is a rewrite of a piece I penned for Richmond.com in 1999. I did the illustration, too, it accompanied the article.

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August is usually a slow month for news, so we are spoon-fed anniversaries to contemplate: Hiroshima’s 68th, Woodstock’s 44th and 39 years ago Pres. Richard M. Nixon took the fall -- he resigned. Nixon quit the job, waved goodbye and left town.

The entire culture shifted gears the day President Nixon threw in the towel. The brilliant strategist, the awkward sleuth, the proud father, and the coldest of warriors had left the building.
August 9, 1974 was a day to hoist one for his enemies, many of whom must have enjoyed his twisting in the wind of Watergate’s storm. It was the saddest of days for his staunch supporters, whose numbers were legion.

Either way, Richard Nixon’s departure from DeeCee left a void that no personality has since filled.

For the first time since his earliest commie-baiting days, in the late-‘40s, Dick Nixon didn’t matter. With Nixon gone being anti-establishment promptly went out of style, too. With the war in Vietnam no longer a front burner issue, "streaking" -- running around outside naked -- replaced the anti-war rally as the most popular gesture of defiance on college campuses.
Soon what remained of the causes and accouterments of the ‘60s was packed into cardboard boxes to be tossed out, or stored in basements. Watergate revelations killed off the Nixon administration’s chance of instituting national health insurance. Many people have forgotten that his regime was also easily more liberal on racial and environmental matters than any before it.

Although he was a hawk, Nixon was moderate on some of the social issues. His opening to China and efforts toward d├ętente with the Soviets are often cited as evidence of Nixon's ability to maneuver deftly in the realm of foreign affairs. No doubt, that was his main focus. But at the bottom line, Nixon is remembered chiefly as the President who was driven from office. And for good reason.

Nixon’s nefarious strategy for securing power divided this country like nothing since the Civil War. Due to his fear of hippies and left-wing campus movements, Nixon came between fathers and sons. To rally support for his prosecution of the Vietnam War he demagogued and exploited the bitter division between World War II era parents and their baby boomer offspring in such a way that many families have never recovered.

However, Nixon’s true legacy is that since his paranoia-driven scandal, the best young people have no longer felt drawn into public service. Since Nixon's resignation -- taken as a whole -- the citizens who’ve gravitated toward politics for a career have not had the intellect, the sense of purpose, or the strength of character of their predecessors. I can't prove that but it is my sense of the truth.

Some trace the cycle of endless paybacks across the aisle to that era, as well. We can thank Tricky Dick for all that and more.

So weep not for the sad, crazy Nixon of August, 1974. He did far more harm to America than whatever good he intended. On top of that, he had twenty years to come clean and clear the air. But he didn’t do it. He didn't even come close. In the two decades of his so-called “rehabilitation,” before his death in 1994, Nixon just kept on being Nixon.

Some commentators have suggested that he changed over that period, even mellowed. Don't buy it. The rest of us changed a lot more than he did. While I acknowledge his guile and I'm still astounded at his monumental gall, President Nixon was a man who choked on his own bile.

So, spare me the soft-focus view of the Nixon years.

Yes, dear reader, I’m here to remind you that Tricky Dick Nixon's fall from grace should be a lesson to us all -- he got what he deserved.

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