April 11, 2010
In the spirit of Frederick Douglass, a man who rose from bondage in Maryland to father a genre that would expose the horrors of slavery firsthand: What to the Black American is Confederate History Month?
Governor Bob McDonnell, forgive me for broaching such a momentous occasion, for I assure you that I am not the most worthy speaker on these matters. I am a modest black man from New Orleans whose family’s roots are deep-seeded in antebellum Mississippi and Louisiana. I have mastered the rudimentary skill of reading and writing, which is more than my grandfathers could say. Because their fathers were born slaves, I am sure they suffered from the same shortcomings. So in no way am I qualified to question the grand legacy of the Confederacy. I simply ask that you accept my apology and grant me the space to lay my words before you.
I have learned that your state is home to one of the most important thinkers of American history, Thomas Jefferson, no doubt one of your heroes, and I will not enumerate all of his unparalleled achievements for I am sure that you are well-aware of them. A few, however, are worthy of mention—author of the Declaration of Independence, orchestrator of the Louisiana Purchase, founder of the University of Virginia, epitome of the benevolent slaveholder. As a boy, I was first made aware of the honorable Mr. Jefferson when I traveled by bus from New Orleans to Washington D.C. to visit the nation’s most hallowed historical sites. One of these places was his home, Monticello, a Georgian styled plantation that he determined would be excellent for gardening and raising slaves. When I saw the dungeons and slave quarters, I remembered feeling the pain of unknown ancestors and wondered why anyone would want to see this.
Those feelings resurfaced after hearing your recent proclamation that the month of April will be commemorated as Confederate History Month. In the words of Douglass, when he was asked to share his thoughts on the significance of the Fourth of July, I ask you Gov. McDonnell: “Do you mean to mock me?” Do you intend to disregard my existence so callously? Do you intend to negate the lives of over 1.5 million black residents of your state, over 37 million black residents of the United States, and the tens of millions of Africans who died and were affected by the Transatlantic Slave Trade? In the entire Western world never has there been an attempt to glorify the mass murder of so many of its residents’ ancestors. Imagine if Germany decided to commemorate the life and times of the Nazis with festive celebrations. Remember, a war was fought for control of the world because of their inhumanity. The same response was elicited years earlier when a war erupted here in America, defeating your heroes’ design to expand the source of my trauma. But imagine even further if Black Americans descended upon your state to Southampton County to celebrate the anniversary of Nat Turner’s rebellion for fifty-five days, each symbolic of a white life that was lost during the insurrection. Doesn’t the feeling seem familiar, doesn’t it produce an incredulous sensation of disgust?
What then to the Black American is Confederate History Month? In the words of Douglass, I answer: a month that reveals to him
“more than all others…the gross injustice and cruelty to which he [was] the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham…to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is no nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States.”
Now contrast Douglass’ to your own proclamation.
“This defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live.”
While I appreciate your revision to this statement after the subsequent backlash, the sentiments expressed cannot be mitigated by an apology for neglecting to mention slavery. The “peculiar institution” is there, implied, underscored. It’s simply what the Confederates were willing to die for. But allow me to offer a different approach to redress your image. Reread the apology for slavery that your state issued in 2007, making it the first to do so, which I hope you haven’t forgotten, and instead of resting on these laurels, try translating these words into action. I am far more interested in how you can reconcile the plight of many African Americans, especially those who populate your state, than with apologies. The incarceration rates and persistent poverty are already enough to impale a race. So unless you decide to declare a week, month, or lifetime towards discussing those issues, don’t be alarmed if many Black Americans continue to reject your ridiculous clamoring for celebration.
This was written days after Gov. McDonnell issued his proclamation in April of 2010. The original language of the proclamation was later revised to include a direct reference to slavery.