Thursday, January 26, 2012

Don't Call Me a Leaver

"You are such a Q and A leaver," a fellow history nerd observed abut my departure after today's Banner Lecture at the Virginia Historical Society.

And I'm not, at least not usually. But, in my experience, the VHS crowd's questions don't usually grab me.

The lectures, on the other hand, frequently do.

Like today's topic, "Abolitionist Art and the Slave Trade" by UVA's Maurie McInnis.

Using Englishman Eyre Crow's painting "Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia" as a starting point, the lecture painted a realistic and heartbreaking story of the local slave trade.

I was fascinated to learn about RVA's slave trading area on Wall Street near 15th Street, between Main and Franklin.

Close to churches, retail and government, the buying and selling of human beings took place in close proximity to every other aspect of daily life here.

McInnis showed images of long-gone buildings, newspaper ads for slave sales and sketches done at them.

We saw the blood-red flags that were hung outside buildings to indicate that a slave auction was taking place.

Significant was that Crow's painting depicted blacks not in the stereotypical, caricature way but as individuals.

Instead of the usual theatrical scene of the auctioneer, his painting depicted well-dressed slaves waiting their turn to be sold.

Well dressed because the sellers almost always bought new clothes for their human chattel so as to get the best possible price for them at market.

Needless to say, this insider's look at the abominations going on here were endlessly enlightening to the Brits in the mid-19th century.

To a 21st century audience, it was just a compelling yet disturbing look at an unfortunate chapter in our history.

And while I didn't stay for the Q and A, I did make an unlikely friend beforehand.

An older man sat down next to me and with a few questions, I learned that he used to write for a weekly newspaper.

Presently he's collecting the bon mots put on church signs to speak to passersby.

He told me a few he'd seen and I shared a personal favorite, "If you drink a fifth on the third, you may not see the Fourth."

He liked it so much he wrote it down, laughing and asking where I'd seen it.

It had been on a church I'd driven by last summer on the Northern Neck near where my parents live.

Not only did he know the tiny town where they live, he'd actually been in their house years ago.

I was aware that lots of people had been in the house because of stories we'd heard from locals since my parents bought it in 1985.

"If you go up to the third floor," he said with the familiarity of someone who had," You can see what a well-made house that is. And the view of the river there, well, you can almost see to Urbanna!"

It's been barely over a week since I was on the third floor of my parents' house looking out a window at the Rapphannock River and here sat a man who knew that view from that exact same spot.

So, yes, James, I am guilty of skipping out on the question period.

But what was I going to hear from the audience that was going to top meeting a stranger who'd admired the river view from the exact same place I'd done so many times?

I could say that for me Banner Lectures are all about what happens before and during the talk.

And, yes, next time I promise to stay for the Q and A.

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