Let's not make anyone feel like a stranger in a strange land. 

Lee in the Mirror

The conflict over whether the Robert E. Lee mural should be hung along Richmond's Canal Walk is another opportunity to look at race relations. In Style's "Street Talk," (June 8) the riverfront debate was presented as a conflict between City Councilmen Sa'ad El-Amin and Bill Johnson, the former seeing the mural as offensive, and the latter saying that "Lee made a tremendous contribution, and he is a native son and he deserves his place in history." Our history, he said, is "one of the most precious resources the state of Virginia has."

In my opinion, both men are right. Lee was a significant part of history and at the same time represents to many the acceptance of slavery. We have seen in the past the dangers of erasing history, so I'm not in favor of removing Lee from the books. The question is whether the riverfront murals are a representation of Richmond's history, or a celebration of certain elements of that history. If the intention of the planners was to represent Richmond's history, both positive and negative, then it seems Lee has a right to be on the wall, as Johnson asserts. If, on the other hand, the murals represent a celebration of Richmond's greatest accomplishments, I think we need to honor those who feel the Lee mural is offensive and keep it off the floodwall, even if there are some blacks in support of it.

The murals may be celebrating our past, but their real intent and the effect on those who witness them, is to celebrate Richmonders' current lives. It should be a celebration for all those who presently live here in the city. And how can that be done if a good portion of the population feels the celebration is offensive?

I'm sure there are people (mostly white) who would argue that Lee did many positive things for the state, for the country, perhaps even for resolving the conflicts between the North and South after the war. However, it is still necessary for the majority of whites sometimes to surrender their perspective of history and acknowledge that many of their African-American neighbors — whose families have so painfully (and slowly) risen out of the status of mere property in this country — see this history differently.

In his 1955 essay, "Stranger in the Village," James Baldwin talked about the white person's "jewel of ...naiveté, the incredible value of never having to seriously contemplate inequality of power." As Baldwin reflected on being the first and only black man in a remote Swiss village he commented on how the white villagers "move with an authority which I shall never have," because he is always faced with a perspective of history and with daily interactions which are not the dominant experience. As he stated, unlike him, "these people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world."

Perhaps Baldwin's words seem too strong for many whites to accept. Because we are not in some ways strangers in our own country, it's difficult for us to see what is wrong with the Lee mural. What is less difficult to see, though, is that there are those upset by it: Style described the opposition as "angry protests." If we step back from the specific issue and consider the conflict as members of a community, it seems the question at hand is: How do we respond when a good number of our fellow citizens feel upset by a public display, when they claim it is an affront to them?

The answer appears to be: We either dismiss their claim as unfounded, or we hear them and respect their perspective.

For those who feel the claim (that the Lee mural is offensive) unfounded, I ask this: Why would anyone fill themselves with anger and fight so hard for something if they truly already felt equal to others in their culture and in their city? If you felt fairly represented by the art and monuments around you, would you be able to even find such anger? Whites' incredible self-confidence and the lack of awareness of it angered Baldwin, (just as it seems to anger El-Amin), "despite everything [Baldwin did] to feel differently." Baldwin stated that he would rather not have those feelings, but the constant reminders that he was a stranger (both in the Swiss village and at home in America) refused to let him have that peace, to have that jewel. The Lee mural for many Richmonders is one such reminder.

Isn't it time to unlock the safe and distribute the jewels evenly?

Nathan Alling Long is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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