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Let's play the hand we were dealt and exploit the value of the Civil War. 

Seeing the Elephant

Like the racial divide with which it is so inextricably linked, Richmond's starring role in the Civil War is the flatulent elephant in the parlor everyone prefers to ignore. Not only is modern Richmond as African-Americanized as most large American towns, but this is supposed to be the New South — progressive, if not (God forbid) liberal, and at least politically correct. Occasionally, of course, the flatulence becomes unbearable and we break out in lively fits over pictures of dead generals. The combined effect has Richmond too busy alternately ignoring and re-fighting the Civil War to make a decent buck off it, even as historical tourism becomes an economic boon to areas with far less to offer. On this score, our announced Tredegar National Civil War Center could mark a radical and much-needed departure, but development will be uphill all the way if the recent past is any indicator. Now I'm just a foreigner, having lived in Virginia only 20 years, a mere 12 in Richmond. But as a lad growing up in Detroit, my family spent many summers in Windsor visiting my mother's people. And once I reached sufficient age to have an interest in history, I longed to visit Richmond, especially The Museum of the Confederacy, to see all the neat Civil War stuff. Which I did. But actually living here, I find the city deep in "cultural cringe" over this same stuff. I believe it was the Australians who coined the term, literally cringing from what they felt was an ignoble heritage and culture. Many Richmonders likewise disdain their city's intimate association with the Old South and its struggle to preserve the Peculiar Institution. The Museum of the Confederacy, for example, is merely another academically-oriented institution mandated to preserve and interpret a unique collection of historical papers and artifacts. The staff, some of whom I have known well, are fairly typical scholarly types who have worked hard for degrees and other qualifications to fulfill the mission of looking after Old Stuff. They do this work well, and you will find the Museum credited along with similar institutions (The Smithsonian, et al) by many TV documentaries; in films, books, etc. Many staffers, however, literally cringe when asked, "And where do you work?" The Museum's original endowment and much of the current fund-raising can fairly be associated with what may politely be termed "heritage enthusiasts," but the name alone, rather like "Richmond" itself, insures cultural cringe. Despite the Museum's well-run mission and enlightened exhibits like "Before Freedom Came" or "A Woman's War," many locals expect to see staffers drooling Red Man onto their Palm Pilots and sprouting horns from their foreheads. Again, especially since the shift in racial demographics, our numerous historical museums, monuments, homes and buildings have become more of an ironical burden than a rich resource. In many respects, the descendants of slaves find themselves caretakers for the legacy of slaveholders. Understandably perhaps, New South boosters of all races wonder if there isn't something, anything, they can rally around apart from the Civil War. Richmond would rather trumpet a visiting collection of Egyptian goodies, car races — anything but the flatulent elephant. The new Canal Walk, for example, is lovely. And yet, there's something faintly ludicrous in reaching for the "waterfront development" allure more commonly associated with cities like Baltimore or Norfolk that are most famous for actually being located on the water. Yes, we do have a non-navigable river and the resulting canal. But this is not what Richmond is most famous for. That would be the elephant. In private life and public, one learns to play the hand one is dealt. Modern Richmond was dealt its historic role as Capital of the Confederacy, a central city throughout the most terrible war America ever fought, on American soil — lots of it spread right around here. Why? Yankees trying to get to Richmond. To quote a popular expression of the time, they were eager to "see the elephant." They still are, and the Tredegar project may be instrumental in Richmond's finally getting the beast out of the parlor and into a proper tent where we can charge a proper admission to see him. Respecting African-American interests, it is wildly improbable but true that many people today pretend that the Civil War was not fought over slavery. This was Abe Lincoln's very own pretense right past the Emancipation Proclamation. If for no other reason than correcting this pretense, take your Civil War legacy and promote the dickens out of it. Never mind the bonus in tourism dollars, meetings, conventions, and so on; correcting this fable alone is a noble mission. And for New South types generally, stock up on incense. Or just get used to it. The elephant is here to stay, and persisting in cultural cringe amounts to little more than civic self-abuse. Travis Charbeneau 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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