The Truth Commissioner… Virginia at a Crossroads
Early in my time working in Virginia we recruited a young teacher from Michigan State University. A week into her first year here she emailed me. “There are kids here wearing Confederate flags,” she wrote, “that can’t possibly be ok, what should I do?”
I regret that I responded: “I know it makes no sense, but the law seems to be that you can only ban student dress if it is disruptive, and down here that’s not disruptive. We discourage but we can’t stop it.” I was quoting the company line, while fantasizing that I could, with just a bit of effort with kids I knew, create a disruption. But encouraging a middle school fight was way beyond anything I’d ever do.
But doing nothing wasn’t right either.
“The South" — even the “Blue State" Virginia version of The South had baffled me on this. I was in a very liberal enclave, a University town, but kids colored pictures of Confederate generals, highly offensive statues — heroic presentations of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson — dominated city parks, something called “Lee-Jackson Day" was a state holiday, and everywhere, the slave-owning rapist Thomas Jefferson and the vicious racist Woodrow Wilson were deified.
How could kids grow up in this environment without suffering serious damage to their moral viewpoints?
Listen, I’m not being righteous here. I grew up in a city just outside The Bronx that was once called “The Little Rock of the North" on the cover of a national magazine.
Time Magazine would later write, “In 1960 most of the 77,000 citizens of New Rochelle, N.Y., viewed school segregation as a disease confined to the distant likes of Little Rock, Ark. The town’s ethnic mix—14% Negro, 30% Jewish, 45% Irish and Italian Catholic —was so faithfully reflected in the high school that the Voice of America once touted it as a shining example of integrated education. Only a year later, New Rochelle became the "Little Rock of the North," convicted in a federal court of gerrymandering to promote segregation. Case in point: Lincoln Elementary School, 94% Negro.”
I began my life in K-12 education in a massive public elementary school — over 1,000 kids — with, I think, three African-American kids. De facto segregation is not very far from de jure segregation. Nor are the cultures that generate each very different.
Yet, I went to a high school with a library named after Michael Schwerner — one of the ‘Mississippi Burning’ three murdered Freedom Riders — and an auditorium named after Whitney M. Young, Jr. — a leader of the anti-racism Urban League. That is different. As were our streets named after Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln —elementary schools also carried those names (yes, along with Jefferson), because, it isn’t just a geographical difference when choosing whether to name a school “Abraham Lincoln” vs “Jefferson Davis,” or “Grant” vs “Lee,’ or “Daniel Webster" vs “Stonewall Jackson,” or even “Theodore Roosevelt” vs “Woodrow Wilson" — those are moral differences, real moral differences, at least when it comes to race and civil rights — no matter how deeply flawed Lincoln, Grant, Webster, and Roosevelt were.
“…in an 1837 speech he [Daniel Webster]called slavery a "great moral, social, and political evil," and added that he would vote against "any thing that shall extend the slavery of the African race on this continent, or add other slaveholding states to the Union." But, unlike his more strongly anti-slavery constituents, he did not believe that Congress should interfere with slavery in the states, and he placed less emphasis on preventing the spread of slavery into the territories.”
Everything kids see, hear, touch, feel, smell teaches them something. I’ve often said this as I have encouraged schools to be far more deliberate in creating open and inclusive educational environments. But this is in no way limited to the school and school building. When a child walks past a statue of General Robert E. Lee, in military regalia, astride his horse, it teaches racism. When a child enters a Stonewall Jackson Middle School, it teaches racism. When a child travels on Woodrow Wilson Parkway, it teaches white supremacy. Frankly, when a child sees a $20 bill with Andrew Jackson on it, that teaches murderous white supremacy as well.
I write all this to get to the questions surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, and Virginia State Senate President Tommy Norment, and who knows how many others across the Commonwealth.
“‘Black people in general have had to deal with a lot of these things that have happened,” said Dr. David Randolph Sr., an oncologist in Richmond, Va., who graduated from Mr. Northam’s medical school in 1983 and recalled going to a party in the early 2000s and seeing a white couple dressed in full blackface as Venus and Serena Williams. “Everybody except me and my wife kind of looked at them as a matter of course.” The frantic apology that Dr. Randolph received from the couple underscores what seems obvious: Blackface now and from its beginnings has been known to be offensive, “the filthy scum of white society,” as Frederick Douglass called it in 1848. That did not hamper its popularity. For more than a century it was in the mainstream of American pop culture, in Broadway plays and in Bing Crosby movies, before receding as the civil rights movement ascended.” — The New York Times
At first I truly believed that Northam — who I view as a good man and a good governor — must resign, but as the Blackface Scandals have spread, I’ve become less certain if that is our best path. And I am struggling with how to understand all this.
Chris Emdin of #HipHopEd, who I see as one of my guides through the nightmare of racist American education, wrote — for me — the most powerful post on the Virginia scandals:
“Today, as everyone indicts the governor for his racism and everyone professes to stew in anger at how he has let down his constituents, I am most disturbed by the ways that we allow folks to construct progressive public personas that are allowed to mask a problematic past even as the country endorses the past and the masking. WE have allowed people to use buzzwords like equity and social justice to mask their racism. WE have allowed sitting next to the right people or hanging the right painting to erase things they have done that cause pain. WE have failed to allow folks to face their history and the part they play in what they profess to fight against. It is easy to advocate for something without acknowledging that you are part of what caused it. It is easy for the governor to denounce the hatred in Charlottesville without acknowledging that he is a branch of the tree that the hate there grew from.” — Chris Emdin
Branches of the Tree
A few years ago (more or less) I read a great novel The Truth Commissioner — about a fictional South African-style Truth and Reconciliation commission in the north of Ireland. It is a powerful story about people’s willingness to protect themselves and their own self-image from the truth, and how that blocks everyone from moving forward.
Because, you see, there are branches of the tree, and then there are millions of leaves of that tree, leaves that shade us from the harsh truth of the sunlight, leaves that fall and poison every next generation.
A couple of months ago I was talking to a mediator who currently works to rebuild community relationships in the north of Ireland — or “Northern Ireland” if your politics see it that way. I was at a conference with Pam Moran about “reimagining education” and we were talking at lunch, and Pam finally said to me, “Gerry Adams really gets under your skin,” and I said, “yeah, I know I agree with all his goals, but I just wish he would admit to what everyone knows, that he is responsible for killing a lot of people. If he won’t say it, why should anyone else?” This isn’t about prosecution… there literally isn’t enough time left in this century to hold trials for everyone in that place who is guilty of something around The Troubles. It is instead about acknowledgement, about confession as the requisite first step to redemption.
Can we admit to the truths about ourselves?
At that small conference we began with a round of introductions, and during that round, one young [white] woman identified herself as “attending college in New Haven.” My emotions cracked as she said that. As most along the Atlantic coast know, “attending college in New Haven” is code for “going to Yale,” a code designed to publicly deny Ivy League membership. She was — I assumed — denying Ivy League membership because other students attending were far from elite institutions and elite education. I later told the organizers that, “maybe you need to begin next time with people listing their privileges.”
Here are some of mine: I’m a white male — the two most powerful privileges in the world. My parents were — eventually — both university graduates (NYU and CUNY). I grew up close enough to New York City to be able to access it all simply by riding a train or vaulting a subway turnstile. That meant I grew up knowing the Metropolitan Museum of Art (essentially free back then — and till very recently), Wall Street, the New York Public Library Research Branch, the New York World’s Fair, Macy’s, Rockefeller Center, the Museum of the City of New York, the Brooklyn Museum, Coney Island, the Brooklyn Bridge…et al, the world’s best education lay at my feet. I also grew up blocks from Long Island Sound, and so I learned of tides and tidepools, of salt marshes and enormous rocks tumbled by the glaciers of the Ice Age. I was surrounded by ethnicities and languages and — eventually — religions. All this makes me highly privileged, a fact that despite my challenges in life, cannot be denied.
Perhaps admitting our privileges is a first step toward admitting our ‘crimes’ — our crimes against each other — whether intentional or not, whether perceived as a joke or not, whether it was what we did or what we did not do.
I once sat in a meeting of school administrators who had been out observing the first day of school around the district. One told the story of riding a first day school bus from one deeply impoverished Latino neighborhood. As the bus passed luxury apartments one little girl said, “I wish I could live there someday.” There was a moment of silence after the story finished that was then broken by the district’s leader of culturally responsive education, who said, “better teach her to marry up.” Many cringed, a few of us said something, but then everyone let it go.
So here’s my deal on Virginia leadership. There are people who have no right to say anything — these include all the Republicans in the General Assembly (Virginia’s State Legislature) who have voted against allowing cities to remove Confederate monuments. Anyone who ran alongside Neo-Confederate Corey Stewart or who voted for him. Anyone who isn’t actively supporting efforts to rename schools currently named after racists. Anyone who insisted that perjurer and probable attempted rapist Brett Kavanaugh belongs on the US Supreme Court. And perhaps anyone who voted for Donald Trump. But there are people who have a right to speak — Virginia African-Americans first and foremost.
But, before anyone resigns, I think Virginia needs Truth and Reconciliation. Like America as a whole it needs — across the population — to admit privileges and crimes. Particular to the American South, Virginia needs to rid itself of Confederate leadership monuments (I guess I’m least offended by the statues, usually cast in Connecticut or Brooklyn, of ordinary Confederate soldiers — it might be important to recall how many young people died, 1861–1865, for a morally repugnant cause of their elders), rid itself of Confederate and racist street names and school names, rid itself of holidays like “Lee-Jackson Day,” and rid itself of nostalgia for “the lost cause” and antebellum days.
“News that the governor and attorney general wore blackface is not a violation of Virginia’s mores. It is proof of the state’s subtle and overt white supremacist values, enabled by white racial illiteracy.” — Lisa Woolfork on cnn.com
All of those things created the atmosphere, whether at colleges like EVMS, VMI, or the University of Virginia, or in the US Army, or anywhere else, where Blackface could be conceived as either funny, or innocent, or both. And it is that atmosphere — that we have all let be built — through actions or inaction — that is the true criminal in this.
Simply put, we owe our children much better, and we cannot get to much better if we argue for resignations and allow all else to remain in place.
- Ira Socol