Confederate Monuments and the Long Shadows They Cast
Growing up with statues of the people who owned my family
Excerpts from The Secret Life of a Black Aspie: A Memoir
It was March 12, 1954, in Virginia, the “Gateway to the South,” when I was born, this time in a black body, on the outskirts of Wickham plantation.
I was born on Canaan’s Hill in a trailer beneath trees with pea pods and leaves that rustled the wind like feathers, an autistic child. Beneath a totem tree, a tree touched by all of our ancestors. I don’t know if Mama and Daddy were smiling the day I was born. We didn’t have cameras yet, so, there are no photographs. Our memories were left to our remembering, and I could never remember anything. So most of my childhood is just gone.
In the soil around our houses were broken bodies of great-great-great-great, great-great-great, great-great, and great relatives. Were bones and ashes of my family who had been slaves. Small fires smoldered on green mounds in the yard, at the edges of the woods, in clearings, among the fruit trees in the orchard and the young green rows of corn and in the many yards of houses hidden back through the woods. Lost spirits walked back and forth, floating among the leaves of maples and dogwoods and oaks. Some of them were lost, and others were just watching over things. I could see them pass through the sunlight. Under elms. Under the clothes hanging on the line. Under the tall trees with leaves that were always in glory. Every path we walked was a path worn smooth, like the smoothly carved wood of a walking cane, worn smooth by slaves’ bare feet. All the trees were rubbed smooth in places, where the slaves touched against them rounding curves in the paths.
In the air were echoes of their calls and cries. There was a forlornness, a shadow we breathed. A numbness. Always something in the air like the left-over smoke of a house fire. Like charred wood. Like warm cinders. Like the left-over smoke of a lynching. The lingering scent the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year, and the next. Something like burnt nothing else. Not wood. Not grass. Not old rubber, or clothing, or tar, or plastic. Something bitter mixed with the sweet scents of honeysuckle, forsythia, and moist earth.
It takes so much longer than anyone wants to admit to get over being a slave, to get over being the grand-children of people who were in bondage. Because everything still remembers. The earth remembers things. DNA remembers. Objects and things remember. So we walked in a not belonging. A not being known by anything else other than the plantation. There was a sea of time without waves. But the waves would slowly ripple in, as the outside world did. Going to school was a ripple. Television and radio were ripples. Daddy going off to work as far away as Richmond was a ripple. But meanwhile, the old folks washed clothes, canned fruits and vegetables, walked with walking sticks, spat tobacco, laughed and cried, raised gardens, raised hogs and cows and chickens. Meanwhile, all of this was water whose surface never undulated, never broke, until later, when I was older.
In the park at Virginia Commonwealth University, there’s a statue of a Captain Wickham, the man who “owned” my great-great-great-great and great-great-great grandparents, along with those of everyone else in my community.
People walked in shell shock. The shell shock we walked in would grow inside us and deepen, like oak and maple and sweet gum, elm, locust, and crepe myrtle seeds until one day we would be a forest of trees, trapped between time and no time. Aging and having children. And having the grandchildren. And the great-grandchildren. And the great-great grandchildren. And the cousins. And the aunts. And the uncles. And the nieces. And the nephews. And the shell shock would keep washing over us like waves, as we struggled to manage the modern world. It would wash over us like the sea over sea shells, while outside, the world would move on, imagining we did not exist, pretending we never existed, shoving us as deeply into the corners of its closets as possible. Now and then someone would pick us up, like a seashell, and put us to their ear, and they would hear the waves of ironic laughter that helped us to survive.
My community was located on the outskirts of Wickham Plantation, in Hanover County, Virginia, right in the middle of the state. Perhaps you’ve heard of Hanover. It’s famous for the deep-red, fat tomatoes that grow there in the summer. And of course you’ve heard of Virginia. It’s famous for its salt-smoked ham. It’s where the first British colonies were formed and the first African slaves touched American soil. In Virginia, the air is always ripe and foggy with history. Each year, our school classes would take field trips to places like Monticello, Ash Lawn, the Washington Monument and Jamestown. In school we learned the speeches of Patrick Henry — “Give me liberty or give me death” — the preamble to the constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and so on. Statues of the Confederacy litter the landscape of cities and towns like Petersburg and Norfolk and cities like Richmond.
In Richmond, “the capital of the confederacy,” there’s a long, cobblestone street called Monument Avenue that is lined with statues of confederates. In the park at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I would eventually enroll, there’s a statue of a Captain Wickham, the man who “owned” my great-great-great-great and great-great-great grandparents, along with those of everyone else in my community.
Wickham was a descendant of Robert “King” Carter, one of the richest slave-holders and landowners in the 17th and 18th centuries. His mother was Robert E. Lee’s first cousin. In fact, Lee’s mother was born on Shirley Plantation, of which Hickory Hill –Wickham’s 3,200 acres — was only a small part. Wickham’s family on both sides were among the “First Families of Virginia” going back to the first colony. They sat in all the seats of power. They were founders of settlements, like Yorktown. They sat in governor chairs. Lawyer desks. House-of-Delegate rockers. In drafting and signing rooms for the Declaration of Independence. To us, though, they were slave owners, one step above the lowest form of life, slave drivers.
I have heard some of the old folks say that the Wickhams didn’t whip their slaves as badly as some of the owners and overseers on surrounding plantations did theirs. But I’ve heard others say they were just as mean, that it was always six on one hand and half a dozen on the other. I remember my granny telling stories about Wickham and the other white bosses chasing and molesting or raping the black women and girls. And how her mother stood up to them. And how my great-great-great, great-great, and great grandmothers stood up to them, and tricked them to avoid being raped.
When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the Wickhams kept most of the slaves on as domestics or field hands. They kept the kingdom we had built, and gave us nothing. They were never sorry. They never believed they had done anything wrong. To us, that was the essence of whiteness. The freed slaves moved across the border of the plantation, out of bondage, to “Canaan’s Hill,” and bought small acres of land and settled. My great great-great granddaddy gave it that name. You’ve heard this story. Some fled North and some stayed on. As far as freedom went, they had the freedom to leave, penniless, broken, uneducated, and alone. Or to stay, and keep working on the plantation.
I grew up watching the descendants of the slave owners pass by daily on the road that led out of the plantation, going to and from town. Sometimes they would wave at us. We’d wave back. Hi slave owners. The road was hard dirt and bald in spots that glistened in the sun like foreheads. There were dips and potholes in spots. When it was dry the dust from car tires followed cars like trains of smoke. The dust got on everything. The shrubs along the road. On our skin. On hard surfaces of wood and glass in the house. Down our throats. The road was like a tunnel below archways of tall trees. Fields of soybeans, or corn ran along one side, most of the way from Route 54 to our house. Woods ran along the other side, and then a neighbor’s house, woods, and fields.
I walked by run-down slave quarters. I heard stories all the time about slavery. It was just yesterday. My daddy’s daddy worked in Wickham’s dairy. My daddy’s mama worked in the big house. She gathered eggs. Churned butter. Made biscuits. Cleaned floors. Did laundry. She cooked in a big, iron skillet. My granny’s mama worked in the big house. Her husband worked in the fields. I heard stories about my cousins and uncles and aunts and grandmothers and grandfathers and things that happened on the plantation. I saw their spirits all the time. Walking in the yard. Sitting under the elm tree. Sometimes I would go and sit with them, to feel their quietness. It was like falling into a soft blanket. Into the space where no one blinked, no one breathed.
When I was five, I would fall sometimes when I felt lashes sting my back. I’d be chasing a ball my brother threw or running in high grass, for a moment starting to feel happy, to believe in happiness. But suddenly a lash would cut me across my back. I would lie face down in grass or in dirt, in a yard I didn’t recognize, screaming. Daddy or someone else would take me into the house and lay me in the bed. I felt safe in Daddy’s arms at times like that. I could feel his love in the way his palm curved under me and almost levitated me. People sometimes carry love in their palms. Sometimes they carry anger. Mama and Granny would boil water in an old, blackened iron kettle, pour it into a basin, and dip a wash cloth in, wring it out, and gently wash over the welts that had mysteriously appeared on my back. Still, today, I am comforted by the sound of water dripping from a washcloth as someone wrings it out. I often stand at the sink, wringing.
I was in blue watching television and seeing bad white people shooting the good people who stood up for our rights. They were battering peaceful black people with sticks and throwing rocks at them. They were beating them with fists and pinning them against walls and sidewalks with water hoses. They were spitting on them and yelling at them and turning dogs loose on them. I was in blue and getting bruises and aches from watching black people with bloody faces and their heads cracked open.
I was in blue as we sat almost motionless, huddled on the couch as a black hearse passed slowly with President Kennedy’s casket inside. We saw a lot of caskets on television. We saw Malcolm X’s casket. And Robert Kennedy’s. We saw hundreds of caskets of boys coming home from Vietnam, and caskets of student protesters shot by soldiers, and caskets of murdered Civil Rights workers. I wondered what it felt like to be in a casket.
I was watching Mama and Daddy’s faces on the verge of tears. Black people were rioting in a lot of cities. Civil Rights workers were marching all over. I heard the word “freedom” a lot, and I fell in love with it. But black people weren’t the only ones who wanted freedom. Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom, Richie Havens sang on a stage at Woodstock. There was free love in San Francisco. White women were taking their bras off and burning them in barn fires. White students were getting shot protesting the Vietnam War. Monks in orange robes wanted freedom, as planes were dropping napalm on women and children and they were burning like torches in the fields. They set their beautiful robes on fire in protest and burned like lynched slaves. I was crying as we watched, as if we were on a boat, watching a city burn, and our boat was about to pull into that city’s harbor.
I had been in blue all of my life, listening to people on Canaan’s Hill talk about white people. For me and my siblings, white people had been a presence without faces. We knew them as the slave owners and their descendants. We knew them as the rulers and definers whose world our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents entered to work in but fled as quickly as possible at the close of day. We had heard that they could be so nice when it was daytime, when it was just them, alone, talking to a black person. But they could turn mean after 5:00, when their families came home. After dark, they could be predatory. We only saw them from a distance, the women who paid our mamas and grandmamas for housecleaning, ironing, laundry, and taking care of children. The storeowners and people who worked in stores. The policemen. The farmers. The mechanics. The insurance men. The families sitting in their nicely shaved yards.
Not all white people hated us, but who did and who didn’t? Some of them seemed to pity us instead of pitying themselves. Some of them were full of small courtesies. Some of them gave Mama and Granny old clothes, or books. Sometimes when an older white woman was giving Mama something, she would keep holding the thing she was giving, even after it was in Mama’s hands. As if she didn’t really want to let go of it. And even though they gave us stuff, they never gave us anything they would really miss.
We had heard about white people who were different, who were decent. Who were ashamed of what white people had done to black people and tried to change things. Some of them were marching on television. But only a few of the different kind of white people seemed to be around where we lived. Mama sometimes worked for people like that. But they weren’t brave. They wouldn’t let other people know how they felt.
I was walking up Monument Avenue, in the shadows of all the giant metal statues of confederate generals on their horses when a pick-up truck passed and a shower of beer bottles crashed around me, one of them shattering against the side of my head. The shouts of “nigger” and loud laughter crashed into me like stones.
When I got to college, I was like a black boat floating in a white ocean, like a black bird flying in a white sky with nowhere to land.
So, I was walking to my girlfriend’s house one night. Walking up Monument Avenue, in the shadows of all the giant metal statues of confederate generals on their horses. I was holding the moon in my left hand and the North Star in my right hand when a pick-up truck passed and a shower of beer bottles crashed around me, one of them shattering against the side of my head. The shouts of “nigger” and loud laughter crashed into me like stones and continued to echo, mixing with the roars of the truck’s engine as it careened off down the street. I froze. And then I shook. I shook like I was coming apart. I tried to cover myself with darkness, the way Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with leaves.
When I could finally move, I tried to pick my humiliation out of the pieces of broken glass on the sidewalk. I got down on my knees, cutting them, cutting my fingers, trying to clean the glass up, to undo it all. I heaved. I tried to tear the rage out of the streetlights. I wanted to kill the men in the truck. I wanted to annihilate any memory of them ever having existed. I went home to my room and tore my clothes off. I cried. I showered. I sobbed until my body didn’t belong to me. I lay awake into the next morning.
When I came to Missouri, the university was recruiting black professors and pushing for diversity. But most of the black professors who came during those years soon left. There was no support for us. When students wrote “niggers” or other things like that in their papers, or expressed those same thoughts in class, we couldn’t do anything. To support us, the university would have had to admit the problems. But it wasn’t going to do that. When I talked to the department chair about these things, he would just pause, and reflect, and say, well, I’m sure they’re really good kids. Just the mention of the word “diversity” could set people off. It was like they had been slapped in the face, and they started defending their innocence. They started making the person who said the “D” word the bad one, like the body wanting to rid itself of a splinter.
in Missouri, everything that blew across the flat lands of Kansas and Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, banged into my brain. There were no hills. No ocean. No fog, or mist. There were so many noises peeling away my skin. Horns and sirens. Diesel engines, grinding bulldozers and high screeching cranes. White men in loud trucks and cars threw bombs at people they didn’t like, as they were crossing the street or standing on the corner. There were bombs in the revving of their engines and in the screeching of tires and burning of rubber. They were angry because the end to stretching confederate flags across their truck windows was coming, or at least, it seemed that way in 1990. They were angry because people who weren’t like them dared to be walking on the streets. Dared to be alive.
And there were so many eyes on me, as if just walking on a sidewalk made you a sideshow. It was a little like being back in the South in 1950, except there were hardly any black people. There were so many gazes lighting people on fire. I hated standing on the street corner, watching people burn. During the Vietnam War, I saw pictures of monks in orange robes who lit themselves on fire. I also saw men, women, and children being lit on fire with napalm. When I stood on the corner, in Columbia, Missouri, waiting for the light to turn, and saw people ablaze, I wondered, is this a war?
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University of Alaska Press, 2017
ANAND PRAHLAD’S distinctly American journey takes readers from school desegregation in the South, to New Age enclaves in the West to higher education in the Midwest, deepening our understanding of autism, race and gender along the way. This imagistic narrative reveals the mind of a deeply sensitive being whose perspective defies convention and whose experiences of autism, race and gender defy definition.
Rooted in black folklore and cultural ambience, The Secret Life of a Black Aspie can at moments inspire and delight, evoke empathy, and deepen our understanding of the liminal realms and marginal spaces of human existence.
ANAND PRAHLAD is a professor and director of creative writing at the University of Missouri. He is the author of two books of poems, Hear My Story and Other Poems and As Good As Mango. His books on black folklore and the proverb include Reggae Wisdom: Proverbs in Jamaican Music, African American Proverbs in Context, and the one-volume and three-volume editions of The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore.