Today the Dallas City Council, after a year of crass weaseling, will try once more to decide what to do with the huge, lugubrious Confederate War Memorial that stands 400 feet from Dallas City Hall like a very bad billboard for the city. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to decide how to feel about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. It’s all the same thing.
I want to see the memorial gone, of course. I’m tired of having to put the pedal to the metal driving past it with a car full of out-of-town visitors, telling them, “Oh, keep looking straight ahead to the colorful flying red horse in a hotel parking lot please and do not turn your gaze to the left to the giant scary rebel statues right next to City Hall that are still there for unfathomable reasons.”
But also on this day I am up to here with old white people like myself standing around trying to perfect our shocked-shocked expressions because the governor of Virginia was a racist idiot when he was young. Would all older white people who were not at least a little bit racist idiot when they were young please raise their hands? I’m just turned off by the ridiculous sanctimony and the scarlet letter Hester Prynne syndrome.
If we’re going to cleanse the nation of every old white person who was a racist idiot at some point in the past, then we’re going to have to … we’re going to have to … please forget that I started this sentence.
Look, I am not trying to give Ralph Northam a pass by relativism. There are always limits. I was still with him on the blackface photo in his med school yearbook, because I believe in redemption, and I know that white people are capable of getting over our racial crap. Most of it.
I was thinking about jumping ship by the time we got to “Coonman,” Northam’s nickname over the yearbook photo of a young man in blackface and another young man in Klan robes. When a political ally tried to argue that coonman is really a compliment because it’s a Virginia epithet for liberals, I was already pulling on my life jacket and heaving one leg over the rail. When we got to the shoe-polish Michael Jackson moonwalk, I took a deep breath and prepared for my swan dive into the briny blue.
I still haven’t bailed on him entirely. I’m older than he is. Unlike him, I’m a Yankee. My parents were Roosevelt liberals who taught us to despise racism, intellectually. Everything is so much easier when you do it intellectually.
But in my 20s a black colleague proved to me, over and against my own angry resistance and protestations, that my optic nerves worked differently when I confronted black strangers and white strangers. It was an argument about my reporting skills and reading people on the street.
She showed me convincingly that I looked into white faces but looked only at black faces. At least where strangers were concerned, I could read emotion and intent in a white face, but my eyes stopped at black. I filled in the blanks with stereotypes.
It was a deeply shocking discovery, especially because I thought I was so damn high and mighty on the race issue. I realized that my racial whiteness had very little to do with philosophy, almost everything to do with simple experience. The more I was in close proximity with people of other races, sharing experiences, shoulders to the same wheel, the more that stupid glaze fell off my eyes. What kept it alive was separation.
The memorial the council will be talking about today is a monument to racial separation. It was conceived in 1896, part of a wave of public statuary that flourished across the former Confederacy in celebration of the end of Reconstruction. In that same year the Supreme Court rendered its Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, codifying, protecting and enshrining racial separation in American law
The memorial today is a form of powerful semiotics celebrating the good old days of separation. A statue of a Confederate soldier stands atop a 60-foot-tall obelisk, surrounded by three statues of Confederate generals and one of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
We pretend the thing is ancient, a legacy and artifact of an almost forgotten strange history, but in some ways the memorial is almost brand new. The whole thing was only declared a Dallas landmark in 2002. I have shirts older than that.
Shunted around town from location to location, it nevertheless has survived longer than almost any other public structure in the city. It was only set down next to City Hall in 1961, the year John Fitzgerald Kennedy became president of the United States.
The whole business of then and now is deeply strange where racism is concerned. Northam’s defenders have talked about how different things were way back in 1984 when his medical school, Quillen College of Medicine, thought nothing of publishing a yearbook with a photo of students in blackface and Klan robes. But how different was 1984 from today?
That was the year Civil Rights icon Jesse Jackson won a fourth of the votes in the Democratic primaries for president — also the year he called New York “Hymietown.” The Cosby Show premiered on NBC, introducing many white people for the first time to the concept of black people more successful than themselves. I‘m not sure we’ve gotten over that one yet.
Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America. In that same year she became the first Miss America to have to give up her title for having been naked. Obviously we’re all still petrified and shocked by that. I don’t know. The year 1984, when Gov. Northam was possibly either the blackface guy or the Klan guy in the photo, sounds a lot like 2019 to me.
Look, no one will ever produce a photo of me in either of those guises, nor will anyone produce photos of most older white people in those postures. I am not proposing an equivalence of that kind of behavior with simply being a kind of narrowly white dope who hadn’t been out in the big, wide world enough yet.
But I do want to say this. The kind of sin and brutality expressed by the Dallas Confederate Memorial is not to be assigned to some alien tribe of Hester Prynnes who came here from Mars. Probably no white person above a certain age has much business wagging fingers of stern disapprobation at Northam and trying to look all shocked-shocked about his yearbook photos. We’d all be better off just looking in the mirror and reminding ourselves to shut the hell up.
Does that mean younger people should forgive us? Oh, sure, lots of luck on that. Everything going on in the nation today, especially Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, should signal that the tectonic plates beneath our feet are shifting and that from here on out, racial and gender caste will be considered active engines of evil. I’m just saying that on our way to this better world, a lot of us older white people might do better morally to stop trying to rat each other out as former collaborators. Talk about a bottomless pit.
In the meantime, we can all do what’s truly and immediately possible. All of this temporizing about that hideous memorial — the efforts to rouge it up with new signage as a way to keep it alive — is just ludicrous and grotesque. It needs to be reduced to rubble and carted off to the landfill. They’re talking about half a million bucks to get rid of it. Give me 30 Home Depot sledgehammers and a four-wheel-drive pickup, I can find people who would erase that thing in an afternoon for free.
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No, we can’t do much about our personal histories except hope we have escaped them to some significant degree. But we can damn well do something about today, and that will be the test. We need to stop pretending that some magical wall of history insulates that memorial and its meaning from the present. It’s all the same stuff, and it’s all right in front of us, right here and right now.
The finger-pointing and the holier-than-thou needs to stop, at least among a certain demographic. I don’t think it’s fooling the other demographics anyway. A good many of us could afford to look at that macabre yearbook photo, shake our heads and think, “There but for the grace of God …”
The real grace, the only way to make it right, is in utterly expunging a symbol that exhorts us to worship separation. We need to make that go away. It shouldn’t be entombed in a vault like some deadly virus preserved in the hope it will escape again someday.
As for me and my decision about jumping ship on Northam, I do think I’ll probably go for the swan dive. But I may want to make sure first he knows where the rest of the life jackets are stored. I don’t know why I should make it to shore and him not.