Once again on the road, this time heading north from Asheville, NC, towards Charlottesville, VA. This is almost my last leg on my two-month solo road trip to see America, and the landscape gets more and more familiar as I creep back towards the Northeast.
But for now, I am still in the South, and I can feel it. There are some subtle and not-so-subtle reminders: from the ubiquitous Waffle Houses to the occasional Confederate flag displayed in the back of a pick up truck, with Trump stickers on the bumper.
It is cold this morning and the air is grey, hinting at the coming winter. I turn up the heat in my car as I exit NC and re-enter a corner of Tennessee on my way towards Virginia. Needing a break, I pull over to another TN rest/”heritage trail” stop. Inside the modern and neatly appointed building, I find not only well-needed and clean bathrooms, but a small museum with eager retirees acting as docents.
I look over the maps and brochures for local historic and tourist traps, and my eye catches on a booklet called, “A Path Divided: Tennessee’s Civil War Heritage Trail.” It is a glossy little publication put out by the Tennessee Wars Commission, which you may ask, “what the hell is that?”, as I did.
Being a student and lover of history, I hoped that the TWC was an innocent historical society, and it might be, but here is a little insight into the organization that I discovered after about 5 minutes of an internet search: it is an off-shoot of the historical society, and seeks to preserve TN battlefields, from the French and Indian Wars, onwards. However, most of these battlefields are Civil War related and the historic society sprung up suspiciously in the 1920’s when a resurgence in southern “heritage” preservation was a not-so-subtle movement to erect monuments that glorified the Confederacy.
Interestingly, I also discovered that the founder of the society, John Trotwood Moore (1858–1929) was a “an apologist for the Old South”, and a proponent of lynching, and when he died in 1929, his pallbearers were African-American men dressed in Confederate uniforms. How’s that for adding insult to vile injury! (I literally gasped out loud when I read this.)
So, here I was looking at this revisionist booklet that is proudly displayed in many, if not all, Tennessee rest stops, and feeling the eyes of the ancient docent on me as I tried not to roll my eyes back in my head. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so clearly dangerous and misguided. I took the free brochure with me as evidence, and rushed out the door and into my trusty Rav4, eager to head north before I was found out.
It has occurred to me many times as I have traveled in the south that while I, a white, middle-aged woman, feels uncomfortable, I always have the re-assurance that I can slip in and out of this culture, my liberal bias undetected so long as I keep my mouth shut. But imagine being African-American and growing up in such a place where there are constant reminders to you that some of the whites in your hometown not only deny certain aspects of their history, but proudly defend it. Monuments, signs to battlefields where “brave southerners” fought off the imposition of the north – or Union, as we call it. I can’t even begin to imagine the discomfort, fear, and pressure to live and work amongst this bigotry, ignorance, and overt racism. This is not to say it doesn’t exist in the north, because it does, but here in the south it is out in the open. At rest stops. In town squares. On the back of your neighbor’s truck. And all defended as revering their “heritage” which we know is absolute bullshit. You can preserve history, but please do not revise it to exclude certain facts (uh, slavery!) in order to justify your “right” to raise a flag that you know will send a message that is frightening and threatening to others. I read this brochure and notice the choice of words such as “heritage”, “slave property”, and later “invasion” when referring to the Union Army’s entrance into Tennessee to subdue the insurgency. This is no accident.
All of this is swimming in my head as I return to Rt. 181, and head towards Charlottesville, home of Thomas Jefferson, famous slave-owner, and more recently, the sight of a horrific White Suprematist rally and murder of peaceful protestor, Heather Heyer, by neo-nazi, James Alex Fields, Junior.
It was a little more than one year ago, Aug. 12, 2017, when Heather Heyer was struck and killed by Fields as he plowed angrily into a peaceful counter protest to the the Unite the Right rally, a gathering of over 200 neo-nazis and white suprematists. As I write this in mid-December 2018, the trial of Fields has just ended with a conviction and sentencing of Fields to life in prison. Some justice for Heather and the other victims, but not enough for the country that is still being led by an overt racist who said that there were some “fine people” on both sides.
After about five hours, I pull into my motel in Charlottesville. I do my usual shuffle of finding some clean clothes buried in the back of my car, and bring them, my computer, and toiletries up to the room. It is a routine all to familiar now. A quick look at the news, reveals that the FBI is still looking for a suspect who mailed 12 bombs to top democrats and liberal media commentators. It is impossible NOT to draw a parallel between what is happening today and what happened a year ago in Charlottesville. The extreme right has become inflamed and encouraged by a President who spews hatred for the media and his political opponents. He blames the Mexicans, the Muslims, the Democrats, the liberal media for everything he deems a threat and revs up his base into a blood-thirsty mob. It is not surprising to see a few unhinged individuals willing to take this line of thought to the next level with violent action.
After a quick rest, I head into downtown. I park my car in a lot, and then walk a short block along brick sidewalks to the pedestrian mall. This area is so charming with its cozy restaurants and ice cream shops that I almost forget the past year’s violence. But for now, I need some dinner, so I try to put it out of my mind for a bit.
I find a small cafe, called Bizou, a former Art Deco diner, now decorated with cineaste theme serving “classic Virginian dishes” with “French culinary techniques” and “multicultural interpretations.” And yes, it is delicious. I have the shrimp and grits, delicata squash salad, and a nice glass of Chardonnay, and for an hour or so my thoughts focus on epicurean delights.
Alas, reality is waiting just outside the steamed door. I re-enter the unseasonably cold, October air, and walk down the street towards the intersection where Field’s muscle car plowed down innocent people. I turn down the side street searching for the newly named “Heather Heyer Way” but instead find Robert E. Lee, proudly sitting on his horse, Traveler, in the middle of the Market Street Park (formerly Emancipation Park, and before that Lee Park). Only recently, the city removed the black tarp that hid the statue for the past year. Now, you can see Lee in all his glory, but surrounded by orange fencing to keep would be trouble makers from either tearing it down or decorating it with more direct messaging.
It is night so there aren’t any other people in the park, but I suspect I am being watched via CCTV. I go up to the statue and read the inscription. This sculpture was commissioned in 1917 and dedicated in 1924, by the Daughters of the Confederacy, like many Civil War monuments in the south. The monument boom took place in conjunction with the popularity of D.W. Griffiths’s Birth of a Nation, originally called The Clansman, (1915) and the establishment of Jim Crow laws throughout the south as a racist answer to the Reconstruction of the south after the end of the Civil War. These laws were blatant methods used to suppress African-American votes, and help white politicians re-establish control. The laws also effectively segregated blacks from white schools, institutions, and public places. They also allowed for increased violent repression and murder of black citizens, as lynching became the weapon of choice in stomping out any possibility of protest. While these laws were later declared illegal, there are still remnants alive and well in the south. Just look at the GOP gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts on full display in Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi in this year’s midterm elections. It is clear, we still have a long way to go.
While I am looking for the newly installed sign for Heather Heyer Way, I look down at the sidewalk in front of me and see some odd graffiti. A storm cloud with a distinct lightening bolt coming down. I then look to my right and find the sign commemorating Heather Heyer’s murder. I realize I have not only found the sad sight of the killing of an innocent young woman, but I have also stumbled upon what looks to be nazi graffiti. The lightening bolt was a symbol for the SS, and this looks suspiciously like that icon.
It was a moment of utter sadness. Here, a young woman’s life was taken. She was standing up to hate and fear. And today, someone has debased the spot with more symbols of hate. I am reminded that this fight is not over, not by a long shot. Heather is the hero. Not Robert E. Lee, who was a traitor to our country. Heather is the hero. She stood up and fought hate. Let us rally in her name to continue in the fight to end racism, fascism, and fear.