Where Do You Live?
The Southwest Political Reporter
By: Contributing Writer John S. Blake
I love Richmond, Virginia. From fine cuisine throughout historic Jackson Ward, to basking in literature at Chop Suey Books, to standing in awe in the Virginia Fine Arts Museum: or attending an amazing lecture on social justice at Virginia Commonwealth University. Heading south from New York City—as it has been for countless black people in this nation—saved my life; that is, once I learned to slow down, get some manners, and discover the skill of friendly conversations with strangers. In the state of Virginia, I learned to hold a door for the person behind me, say “Thank you” when someone hands you something, and even learned the ginger phrase “Well, bless your heart” was the sweetest way to say “Fuck you”. I have meditated on the bends of the James River while taking in the sun and the sight of my daughter sailing its waters on a gigantic innertube, and gotten damned-near flatline drunk on the cobblestone streets of Shockoe Bottom. I have sobbed uncontrollably through an exhibit at Richmond’s Holocaust Museum and have busted a gut at its comedy clubs. I’ve lost my voice screaming in joy when Mayor Levar Stoney was elected and in anguish while protesting down Broad Street. I entered Virginia hating seafood and left grieving its crab cakes (best. anywhere.)
VA has some serious history. I remember how proud I felt when I learned the south side of Richmond was home to Nat Turner, true patriot and defender of freedom. I was nearly just as proud to discover VCU’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Department was located in the Crenshaw House, home of one of the US’s well known Suffragists. I spent many a day in that house. My friends and I spent a truly large amount of time there while recovering from our most recent election. I remember one of the few times we laughed that week. It was when we talked about the “great” America this “president” wanted to return us to. For women, the queer community, and all people of color, in the name of everything spiritual, when was this greatness happening, other than for white men?
America was truly “great” in 1890, the year of white man magic. If he has read any history, I’m sure our 45th President reflects on 1890 and, if he has any feelings, sheds a red, white, and blue tear in excruciating patriotism. The white patriarchy was in full effect. Back 1910 aspirations of Rick Ross…BOSS (Huh!)
1890 wasn’t much different from other years when it came to the character defects of toxic masculinity; violence and atrocities, struggles in social justice, and dreams of what we refer to as “equality”. The lone survivor of the Alamo died, simultaneously Dwight Eisenhower, the man who made Richard Nixon his Vice President, was born in Texas, same year as the Wounded Knee Massacre and the Cherry Creek “Campaign”, and the year the National American Woman Suffrage Association was established. Southern states began such brutal and unfathomable practices as “white primaries” in order to exclude black voters from our political system. Two years before Ida B. Wells publishes her famous pamphlet, “Southern Horror: Lynch Laws All its Phases”, the great state of Virginia, on the street now known as Monument Avenue, erected a well sculpted smack across black faces everywhere; a statue of the late Robert E. Lee, “great” General of the dismantled Confederate armed forces.
In 1907, one year after the Atlanta Race Riot and one year before the Springfield, MO Race Riot, both J.E.B. Stuart and Confederate President Jeff Davis are immortalized on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Stonewall Jackson, slave owner and Confederate leader, a man who believed it was “important and useful to put the strong hand of the Gospel under the ignorant African race”, was erected as art for all to see in 1919; same year eighty three African-Americans are lynched many were soldiers home from World War I all the while the Ku Klux Klan operated in 27 states. Then, in 1929, a man whites saw as a jack of all sciences, a statue of Matthew Fontaine Maury is born and dubbed Pathfinder of the Seas. Dedicated the same year the radio program Amos ‘n’ Andy, exploited stereotypes held about blacks, became the most popular in the nation, sucking in 60 percent of the radio-listening public. (Gale: U.S. History in Context). Maury, while exploring the seas, came across the Amazon and saw it as a utopia for slave trading and further oppression of black people.
Then, in 1996, against great resistance from many, a statue of Arthur Ashe was added to the racist strip, in hopes, to some I’m sure, of somehow quelling the fire in our eyes and the cultural void felt by people of color who may have run the popular Monument Ave 10k or maybe marched in the Monument Ave Easter parade. It doesn’t. It doesn’t help in the least. Especially when one considers the war that had to happen in order to get Arthur there in the first place.
I was blessed to see a state, so entrenched in racism, vote (twice) to put a black man behind the President’s podium. I sat in the living room of two great friends—a black woman and white man who were married—and the three of us panicked when Barack stepped out the limo with his wife. I know I don’t need to tell you what scared us to death about that act. That’s the point, isn’t it? We all could acknowledge at that moment that our nation is still a powder keg when it comes to race and race relations. Charlottesville wasn’t a shock as much as it was the alarm clock of humanity once again sounding itself after someone slapped the snooze button.
I remember the experience of walking Monument Avenue as a socially conscious and historically aware black man. I remember needing time off of the VCU campus as I was writing my fingers to the bone towards the end of a semester (VCU is considered one of the toughest grading universities!) I walked out of Cabell Library—exhausted and with a full pack of cigarettes—and headed down to Franklin Avenue, turned left and walked until I forgot about grades for a while. It took hours. When I began coming upon the sculptures, I first noticed how beautiful the artistry, then I admired how long they stood, through all weather and seemingly overlooking all the changed made its state. Then the history slithered through my skull. If you’re black and confront one of these statues (not like that cute one strapped and yanked down in Durham. These are shrines that traffic has to be redirected in order to avoid) it’s like you can hear the snap of leather on dry and already-cracked back. You can feel the greasy slip of blood and sweat between your fingers. You can hear a woman screaming. Your heart will hummingbird at the thought of a runaway slave under a new moon panic. As many times as I’ve heard a white person say “It’s in the past. Can’t we move on?” No! The United States can’t simply move on. I don’t know anyone who can look forward while holding onto the past. How can black Virginians be expected to consider the future of race while white Virginians are leaving claw marks in these structures made of black nightmares?
I live in California now. Imagine how difficult it would be for me to plan for my new experiences if my address was still listed in Virginia. If everyone continued to ignore all of my statements about living on the west coast and relentlessly banged on the door of my old home in search of me. This is what it looks like to me when white people talk about moving on and away while these monstrous reminders advertise the old address. Where does white U.S. live now? What does their house look like? Where would white Virginians like to live? We members of communities of color would like to believe you have in fact moved, but all we see is where we’ve always been. All we know is how tight people of color have to grip our steering wheels in order to swerve around symbols of brutality while whispering after a prayer
“Bless their hearts”.
John S. Blake is a black Cis poet, essayist, and memoirist originally from New York City who transplanted to Virginia and now resides in the California Bay Area. He studied African American Literature, Gender/Sexuality/Women’s Studies (with a focus on toxic masculinity), Sociology, Creative Writing, and African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. A Watering Hole graduate fellow, Jazz fan, and 1300 chess rating, John’s greatest accomplishments to this day are surviving the projects, graduating high school while his mother was in prison, and getting clean.
Photo courtesy of Style Weekly