• Jo Page

"To Be a Virginian..."


When I was in graduate school in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was the only white woman on the bus from my apartment to the University--"Mr. Jefferson's Academical Village" as it was known.


When I was in graduate school in Charlottesville, Virginia, the brass doorknobs and doorplates were kept polished and the coffee bars at the University kept staffed by African American people in uniforms.


When I was in graduate school in Charlottesville, Virginia, I dated--briefly--a white medical student who told me that when his grandmother tried pizza for the first time, her maid and she ate it in separate rooms--grandmama in the dining room, the maid in the kitchen. "It would have made her uncomfortable to sit at table with my grandmother," he explained.


When I was in graduate school in Charlottesville, Virginia, we called all our professors "Mr." Because that was Mr. Jefferson's preferred form of address. So it was the highest form of address.


My professors: Mr. Howard, Mr. Duggan, Mr. Albright, Mr. Korte, Mr. Levenson, Mr. Vandersee, Mr. Hirsch, Mr. Ryan, Mr. Railton and Mr. Casey.


I served as research assistant and teaching assistant for some of these and yes, some of them became first names for me--Alan, Charles, Michael and John--and none of these originally southerners--while others retained the formal separation of a title.


Acculturated respect for tradition was hard to miss in the 1980's in Charlottesville. A famous anonymous quote found on mugs and posters and cocktail napkins in tourist shops says that: “To be a Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s side, is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a Benediction from Above.”


Since between 1790 and 1860, Virginia had the largest slave population in the country--pushing 300,000 and none of these considered citizens--that folksy bit of hubris falls pretty damn flat.


Acculturated racism was hard to miss in Charlottesville, too. General Robert E. Lee was a Mr., too. Mr. Lee.


Lee Park, in downtown Charlottesville, right near my apartment was simply "Lee Park." That's where the statue of Mr. Lee astride his horse Traveller was dedicated in 1924. In 1997 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Just a few blocks away in Court Square Park is a companion statue of Stonewall Jackson, Civil War general, slave holder and Sunday School teacher to the children of slaves whose wife avowed that Jackson thought it "important and useful to put the strong hand of the Gospel under the ignorant African race to lift them up."


You've probably heard about these statues and the controversy surrounding them. It's gone back and forth--take them down, or not? But the statues remain standing. Turns out acculturated tradition and acculturated racism are even harder to get rid of than bronze statues.

Here's the sneaky thing about history: you think you know something. And then you realize that you don't. Not the whole story. Not all the important tidbits.


Scratch hard at what "tradition" means and you get information that you didn't know and maybe didn't want to know. Because history is full, very full, of cruel secrets.


So you've got a choice. There are two ways to respond to the hidden secrets of history. You can say, "Oh, I don't wish to learn anything more. Learning is boring."


You'd be a jerk to say that. But that's your choice.

The other is to say, "Wait! What?" And keep on learning.


Obviously, you can see my bias here. I just happen to think smart is sexy. And responsible.


Those social ills and isms that shatter the myth of social cohesiveness, equal opportunity and liberty and justice for all peel back the lid on the cruel secrets that need to be brought to light and learned from.


A white, patriarchal, heteronormative, cis-gender conforming imagined view of the world was never an accurate one, not in any culture and not in any time.


The only way to learn to see the world as a world and not a picture postcard is to be willing--and maybe even eager--to learn to see the whole world.

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© 2018 Jo Page

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