Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Stew of Inherited Hypocrisy

Heathen though I may be, I was mighty moved by a preacher today.

The Reverend Benjamin Campbell was speaking at the Virginia Historical Society on the topic of his new book, "Richmond and the American Dream: Revolution and Reality," a topic ripe for dissection (and worth walking two miles for).

I should have expected that a man of the cloth would be a practiced speaker in a way that most lecturers are not. He used notes, but only occasionally seemed to glance at them, but the cadence of his voice and the expressiveness of it ensured that you were always hanging on for the next sentence. At several points, he opened and raised his arms as if embracing the crowd while speaking.

But it wasn't just his manner of speaking, it was his message that while freedom was the purported goal of Virginia after the Revolution, enslavement was the practice, leaving unfinished half of the American Revolution's purpose.

When he said, "Richmond still follows 1780 patterns in 2016!" he was talking about the wall of white privilege established by the Slave Codes in 1705 (and - get this- the point at which the word "white" had been appropriated to refer to a race of people) to ensure that the "Great Men" had similarly colored people to fight for them when necessary.

Best of all, he was saying all this to a full auditorium of what looked like privileged white people. People who'd probably come for a history lecture and not a call to their better selves.

After sharing that of the 500 largest cities in the world (we're #495), Richmond's urban sprawl is in the top 1% (a shameful distinction), he pointed out that we have the resources needed to address the social, educational and economic inequities, but apparently not the social and political will.

Hence the dysfunction of metropolitan Richmond, where city schools crumble while suburban schools flourish. Where public transportation (and public housing) is relegated to the city only, while over 80% of the jobs are in the counties. Where people who go to jail have no chance of finding work once they're out.

And he traced it all back to the principles of freedom and justice created as a result of the Revolution: supposedly they applied to everyone, but in reality, only for half of Virginia's population. You guessed it, the white half. Sadly, he saw these discriminatory practices as having been passed into the public consciousness, making for "a stew of inherited hypocrisy."

That would explain the 1965 Social Studies textbooks that mentioned black Virginians on only three pages, two of them referencing "the benevolence of slavery during the Civil War." Absolutely nothing about slave trade, Jim Crow or white on black violence. Zip, nada.

Nothing about how white men were given a bounty - 300 acres and a healthy, sound Negro - in exchange for fighting in the Revolution. Where's that in our history books?

How is it that the state that birthed so many of our Founding Fathers could behave so badly?

His joke was that since Virginia felt like it had birthed democracy, it didn't have to actually practice it. His point was that Virginia had subverted the intention of the Revolution.

You know, if you closed your eyes, you could almost pretend that you were at a political rally for the smartest, most socially aware, most well-spoken candidate imaginable. Here was a man who was trying be the change he wanted to see.

We owe the Virginia Historical Society a debt of gratitude for bringing this man to a public forum.

The good Reverend kidded the crowd when he said that in 1781, England began exporting convicted felons to Maryland and Virginia. "Y'all thought they all went to Georgia, didn't you?"

When he finished, it took a moment for the audience to realize it before applauding for the learned white man onstage who was calling out every one of our lily-white asses.

It was a momentous thing to see.

Now if we can only marshal our collective social and political will to change things. Yes, Richmond, we can.

1 comment:

  1. very moving - and a full auditorium to hear it!