The real impact of ignorant politicians

Walking the Richmond Slave Trail with Free Egunfemi — who gave me a powerful reminder of how our past can inform our future.

What image do you see when you hear “Southern culture” or “Southern voters”?

Too often, these terms are used as shorthand for white, conservative Southerners who live below the Mason-Dixon Line. This pattern completely obscures the real and valuable experiences of Black Virginians.

Desperate politicians continue to stoke neo-confederate sentiments — and the implications are real and harmful.

When the Civil War raged, a majority of the people living in my hometown of Charlottesville and in Albemarle County were Black slaves. Those who liberated Richmond from the Confederacy were mostly southerners — and a great many of them were recently freed Black people, fighting for both their own dignity and the future of our Union. Growing up in Virginia, I often wondered why I was supposed to identify with those who fought for the Confederacy instead of those Virginians who fought with great courage to save the Union and end our greatest sin.

Unfortunately, years later, we still see people like Corey Stewart touting an ignorant, backward-looking view of Virginia. Too often, even among white liberals, we play into this false narrative. We do so every time we talk about Lincoln freeing the slaves, discounting the efforts that free Black people played in saving the Union.

Viewing history from this vantage, I’m reminded of the story of a young Black man working in Richmond at the Virginia legislature in the final days of the Civil War. When his state of Virginia seceded from the Union and the American flag was brought down, he was the one who stored that flag for safekeeping. Eventually Richmond was liberated by brave soldiers, then this proud Black Virginian hoisted that flag back up for all to see, saying it was the only flag he’d ever known.

I witnessed a similar dynamic when I was helping to organize an interfaith coalition on poverty and climate issues. The news media regularly commented on how evangelical Christians overwhelmingly supported the Republican Party. What they meant was white evangelicals. What they missed or ignored was the fact that the most consistent religious voting bloc in America is one that consistently votes overwhelmingly for Democrats: the African-American community of evangelicals.

These are not merely slips of the tongue; they’re a reflection of our culture, real or imagined. When politicians or media perpetuate ignorant statements, they are participating, wittingly or not, in the systemic erasure of our real and shared heritage. I am compelled to call them out and make the effort to set the historical record straight. The role of African Americans deserves accurate and equal footing as we tell the American and Southern story and reclaim our heritage, free from the ignorance of people like Corey Stewart.

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