Racism Shouldn’t Be Shocking: Toppling American Myths

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One year ago, on August 11, 2017, white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville and invoked the long history of the KKK’s terrorist attacks through the tiki torches they carried; then, in the light of day, they walked down the streets, without hoods. As they chanted bigoted threats, they demystified their myth of white victimhood by exposing the truth: there was nothing cloaking their hatred or romanticizing their commonness.

They had explained themselves and would continue to explain themselves with the facile story that all they sought was to save their heritage and a lost history—this time in the form of the bronze statue of General Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate Army, who fought for slavery and against his country—but in that moment, the lie of that narrative was bare to the nation. They were white people (many young and male) who were bent on being the only recipients of anything good in this nation and on spreading fear and violence to everyone else. They said, “We are determined to take our country back,” and their overall threatening approach showed their desire for possession through the exclusion of others—the people they are forcefully taking the country from. This tactic is not a new path to power. This feeling of self-righteous menace, unfortunately, is the hidden truth of much of our country’s past. We must not allow mythologies of bronze or words to creep in and re-cloak that brutality and cruelty.

I know this specific town well. Charlottesville was where I earned my Master’s Degree in American Studies and taught gender studies at the beginning of the new millennium. I knew the streets where they were marching. I knew the anti-racist faculty who were speaking up in the press. And I knew that racism was nothing new to Charlottesville. The entire country shares in that extensive history of terrorism. So, while we currently have a president who is unwilling to denounce racism, anti-Semitism, and hatred toward many, we should cease being shocked by the violence and remind ourselves of the history, not the myths.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, I often saw a Thomas Jefferson quotation at the Aquatics and Fitness Center that reminded all the students, “Give about two hours everyday to exercise, for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong.” On first glance, it is a likeable enough idea, and as a busy student, it felt good not to think of exercising as time away from my academic pursuit—gym time, Jefferson seemed to tell me directly, was helping my scholarship. Even then, though, what I knew about Jefferson made me uncomfortable to take his advice. Also, there is something a little disconcerting about receiving two-hundred-year-old instructions on how to live a good life, but Jefferson was no average founder of a university, since he, of course, was also a founder of this nation, and so his words have lasting influence.

I was very aware of the mythic stature of Thomas Jefferson at the school. He was invoked at most symbolic moments as representative of the nobility we should seek in this impressive institution he established, and yet as a person he was deeply flawed, being one of this country’s slave-owning forefathers. Was he to be our model? The quotation summoned images of the man of leisure who was able to exercise in whatever way he saw fit because enslaved people were doing the work on his estate (and in building the university).

His words also overlooked that those laboring bodies were strong themselves with minds of their own. Ironically, their physical labor was often used as evidence of their poorly developed minds, in precise opposition to the meaning of Jefferson’s quotation. His argument was not meant for them. Instead, he spoke with the intimidating authority of the master, since he continued this quotation with, “[a]s to the species of exercises, I advise the gun.” He meant hunting, but again, he doesn’t see beyond himself and his menace as a gun-toting, white owner of people and territory.

Significantly, as Stuart Elden has explained, the word “territory” has a disputed source. It may be derived from the Latin word for land (terra), but it also may derive from the word meaning to terrorize (terrere). Thus, Jefferson is a “territorial” founder of the United States. He extended the dominion of the country through land acquisitions, but that ownership was gained through killing and terrorizing the Indigenous people already on that land, establishing the link between violence and land from first contact.

This connection had also been politically codified into the fabric of the emerging country by only granting voting rights to white men who were landowners (like Jefferson with his Monticello). Those individuals then maintained and advanced their capitalistic control over the vast majority of people in the country who could not vote by dominating enslaved people who were forced to keep the land (and their owners) profitable. The importance of harnessing power through land and fear was then passed through the generations.

This idea is evident in the rest of Jefferson’s letter to Peter Carr, the intended recipient of the above quotation and its context. The missive is meant as educational guidance for his nephew, including an extensive reading list of books that Jefferson himself had presumably read. Carr, though only fifteen in 1785 when this letter was written, was on his way to the kind of privileged and landed life of a “public man” that Jefferson himself led, and Jefferson hoped to hasten his nephew’s path through his own design: “I have long ago digested a plan for you, suited to the circumstances in which you will be placed.” The letter, therefore, is about the generational maintenance of power and empire, and although he instructs his nephew to “Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act,” should we seek our moral guidance from a man who owned other people? Should we continue to learn the lesson that success is gained through cruelty and supremacy over others?

I felt the incongruity of the world behind these words and the world I wanted to live in, and having them emblazoned as a twenty-first-century, self-help slogan precisely showed me the world I was living in. I knew that a fellow student, a young woman of African American and Korean descent, had had her head slammed repeatedly into her steering wheel on campus because she was running for student council president; her assailant reportedly informed her, “No one wants a n***** to be president.” Nineteen-year-old Daisy Lundy was not seen as strong in body and mind, even though she was both. This slur was delivered in 2003. It would be just a handful of years until it was the United States and not a student government that would be led by a multiracial African American, reminding us of the schizophrenic relationship this country has to race, since despite the myth of progress, in the twenty-first century, young women’s heads are still being slammed into steering wheels, and much worse.

That other president of old was also in the news when I lived in Charlottsville. At the time, descendants of Jefferson and his wife Martha were actively denying the 1998 genetic evidence that strongly reinforced the stories of Thomas Jefferson having a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings—one of the 607 people he owned during his lifetime—and fathering her children. Interestingly, one descendant’s attempt to distance the Hemings branch was to say that the father was Jefferson’s nephew, but the DNA evidence had now disproven that connection. That nephew was Peter Carr, the recipient of Jefferson’s 1785 letter on education and exercise. While that connection had been proven false, Carr and Jefferson did remain close, with Jefferson eventually writing another letter to him in 1814 that details another education plan, this time for the development of University of Virginia. The student and the teacher came together to teach succeeding generations.

On the Hemings front, though, by 2003, the animosity between the descendants had advanced so far that one woman disguised herself as a part of the Hemings line to infiltrate their listserv and report back to the Monticello Association that they were discussing ways to come to the family reunion as guests—thus, the society set limits on the number of guests allowed. The Hemings branch then decided to hold their own reunion and a “separate but equal” approach was the momentary solution. The old guard felt relatively content because they did not have to yield their most valued possession—burial plots at Monticello. In life or death, possession of the land was still the highest goal.

This is the Charlottesville I lived in then, and now, a decade later, it is still representative of the country we inhabit today. As an academic, I have lived in many places throughout this country and so have seen that the violence and anger toward people of color is not restricted to some location in someone else’s neighborhood. After my time in Charlottesville, I moved to Boston. While I was there, the student newspaper at Tufts University proclaimed, in the seemingly friendly rhythms and rhymes of a Christmas carol, that African Americans on campus were only there because of affirmative action with lines bemoaning the presence of “[f]ifty-two black freshman,” a mere seven percent of the student body. The lyrics labeled these students as “[b]orn into the ghetto” and said they were accepted “[n]o matter what [their] grades are, F’s, D’s, or G’s.” The antipathy of “O Come All Ye Black Folk” was made more threatening not only by the juxtaposition of the words and the song but also by its religious exclusivity and righteousness. Additionally, the repeated chorus of the precise number of new black students on campus announced them as direct targets for this terrorizing act.

I lived in Arizona where Governor Jan Brewer was continuing her support for SB 1070, an anti-immigrant bill that allowed police officers to stop someone merely if they appeared to be in the country illegally—this was referred to as “show me your papers” legislation, and it jeopardized Latinx rights. I lived in North Carolina right after Governor Pat McCrory signed into law some of the most restrictive Voter ID laws in the country, only weeks after pre-clearance was no longer needed because the Supreme Court had struck down portions of the Voting Rights Act. Since, then, though, the Supreme Court, by not hearing the Voter ID case, has allowed a lower court’s overturning of the law to stand, because as that court stated, North Carolina sought to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” in its goal of removing voter rights. By taking away some of the protections of the Voting Rights Act but then still undermining North Carolina’s ability to enact voting restrictions, the Supreme Court took and gave with both hands, in this instance, getting back to slowly diminishing equilibrium. Could North Carolina learn to restrain itself? Only a few years after I left, the same governor signed into law HB2, the “bathroom bill,” that removed nondiscrimination clauses on the books and included a provision that disallowed transgender individuals from using the restroom of their gender identity—hatred seeps in wherever it can and seeks to control.

Now I live in Columbia, Missouri, the site of the first land grant university west of the Mississippi River, partially based on Thomas Jefferson’s plan for UVA. Jefferson’s reach extends even here. Currently, Missouri is in the popular imagination because of the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. I am also commonly asked about the “disturbances at the University,” which were of course the student protests for racial equality on their own campus, but their plight has been broadcast to others as “black students acting up.” Meanwhile, last fall, the town acknowledged the long-term violence to black bodies by commemorating the 1923 lynching of a janitor at the University of Missouri named James T. Scott who was accused of rape and murdered without a trial. Now it seems mostly likely that his crime was being too upwardly mobile, with his steady employment; he had too much power. None of this is in isolation.

My living in the places where these major events occurred does not make me into a Forrest Gump-like character who jumps from one exceptional moment to the next; instead, it precisely shows how prevalent this violence is on our streets, on our campuses, and in our laws. The racist violence of this country is a problem across the nation. These moments are systemic, not isolated, and they have a history—the white supremacists’ fear of a lost history and heritage is a myth. Far too much of their desired racist past is very much with us.

This new US president is cruel with his words and policies, but he did not appear from nowhere. He too is born out of this racist history with a father in real estate who was investigated for his own civil rights violations. He too has learned from those who demeaned and terrified others in order to maintain their own power and importance.

When the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville was dedicated in 1924, reports consistently fixated on how Lee’s three-year-old great-granddaughter was the one who unveiled it, pulling off the Confederate flag that was draped over the statue. Instead of seeing this moment as a sentimental, generational connection, let us instead see what is not-so-hidden beneath that flag and beneath the symbol of the statues dominating over our public spaces. Last summer’s white supremacist violence in Charlottesville has become yet another call to knock down our mythologies—and hopefully a few statues—to see that the past is not past unless we actively acknowledge it and change our narrative moving forward; the racism and terrorism of our history is a hard legacy with which we must deal. Saying that hatred isn’t the real America, that it is someone else’s problem, only passes the power back to our leaders who are themselves far too beholden to just such mythologies that have granted them their power in the first place.

Lee Park has now been renamed Emancipation Park. There is power in these symbolic places. Let us be aware of the importance of these sites but also see that the needed change extends beyond them. Let us teach something new to the next generation that speaks to the lessons we’ve learned.

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Image credits: feature image by Cville dog [Public domain or CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons, image 1 by Bestbudbrian [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons, image 2 Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, image 3 by AgnosticPreachersKid [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons.


Abigail G. H. Manzella is the author of Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Migrations. She has taught and written on American literature and culture, particularly as they relate to issues of space, race, and gender, at the University of Missouri, Yeshiva University, Centre College, Tufts, and the University of Virginia. You can read more about her work at www.abigailmanzella.weebly.com or on Facebook @AbigailManzellaAuthor. More from this author →