A Brush with History
I am at peace in Richmond. We have just finished playing a show with our friends and colleagues Manatree and Lucy Dacus, and now we’re on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. The show was great fun, and fortunately ended early enough to allow us to go out afterwards. The museum is open for a special event, which runs until midnight and includes a number of installations outdoors in addition to the standard museum fare. You can even purchase beer or wine and sip it as you take in the art and breathe the crisp fall air. I do not. The show was at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, an excellent venue whose generosity with the drink tickets is quite possibly unequaled within the continental United States, and I am already quite full of hops and good will. I run into some friends from home and we shoot the shit for a while. I pet an unbelievably fluffy dog that communicates in almost birdlike chirps rather than the expected bark. I wander at a leisurely pace, admiring the art and taking in the scene, in and out of diverging clusters of our large party. One of our hosts points out the Confederate Memorial Chapel down the hill, a bone-white Gothic structure now lit brightly by floodlights. Like many historic sites south of the Mason-Dixon, the chapel used to fly the Confederate flag, and does no longer. The situation presents an interesting paradox. I don’t dispute that the Civil War was all about slavery, and I believe that the meaning of the Confederate flag is inextricable from white supremacy. Accordingly, I was pleased to see the recent spate of political leaders cave to public outcry and remove Confederate flags from statehouses and public buildings just about one hundred and fifty fucking years after what would have been the appropriate time to do so. A symbolic gesture; no substitute for the hard reckoning forever deferred, but on balance a good thing. And yet, here is a Confederate chapel that still stands, an enduring testament to the memory of the Lost Cause, while the descendants of slaves see their own churches burned in droves. Is it really that much worse if this already repugnant edifice has a repugnant flag on it which serves to identify its purpose? It would mean a different thing attached to a historical site than to a public building, wouldn’t it? I’m not so sure. I try to justify to myself why I would take down the flag, but would stop short of tearing down the chapel. How is this morally consistent? The flag is a symbol of hate but the chapel is a historical monument? Why does the fact that it’s a building rather than a two-dimensional symbol seem to imbue it with such a different sort of meaning? This must be why the Pharaohs built pyramids. Or, you know, had pyramids built for them.
The Virginia Flaggers keep vigil outside, rebel flag held high. I am disappointed to learn that the Flaggers don’t actually stand outside the chapel 24/7. I love the idea of a never-ending stream of Lost Causers working tirelessly to keep that flag in the air, as though something terrible would happen if it were taken away. The ultimate quixotic exercise. But no, they’re actually just here tonight and the next night to protest the installation of a sound art piece in the chapel, an act which they consider an egregious insult to a historic space. Certainly this targeted approach is a much better use of their time than what I had envisioned, and the predictable controversy about their presence has indeed drawn the attention of the local media. There are five or six of the Flaggers in evidence tonight, and they look like you’d expect; white skin and white beards. A few cops stand nearby to keep the peace. There are about as many Flaggers as police, and judging by everyone’s body language the precaution has been unnecessary. The cops look listless and bored. The Flaggers look defiant and sleepy. It is almost midnight. Empty plastic wine cups litter the street. A long line has formed outside the chapel for the sound installation contained within, and I get in it to see what all the fuss is about. I watch the Flaggers as I inch forward. They solemnly dare the universe to try and do something about them. Certainly they have a right to stand there, and if I were the chief of police I’d put some cops there to keep an eye on things, but there’s something perfunctory and sad about the whole scene. Some people stop to gawk; nobody engages. If protected speech falls in the forest and no one cares, does it make a sound? Is this act of protest a success or a failure? They stand because they feel that this flag and what it represents to them is threatened, and they consider this threat is grave enough to warrant action. Certainly the threat is real, I can’t imagine it becoming more acceptable over time to display the Confederate flag in public, but I can’t tell what outcome one would want or expect from doing so. Are they trying to generate a groundswell of support? Are they spoiling for a fight? Or does the act simply stand for nothing but itself, like a prayer? The last of these possibilities bothers me the most. What a shit thing to pray for.
I finally make it into the chapel, and I can’t help being impressed. The structure itself is beautiful, and imposing despite its small size, though the new-looking paint and gold inlay around the arches looks a little out of place among the aged wood and stained glass. Tiny microphones have been placed all over the chapel, and they pick up the footsteps and murmurs of the people as they pass through. Sounds are delayed and echoed and otherwise processed and played back from a small PA in the front of the church. The acoustics are such that I can’t tell what is digital processing and what is simply the natural echo of the space, and the effect is immersive. You can stay in the line and take in the sights and sounds as it files through, or you can sit in a pew and reflect. I leave the line to sit. It has been a while since I’ve been in a church, and I feel like there is something in this space I ought to try and sit with. The inscription above the pulpit reads: “In this place, I will give thee peace…Thus saith the Lord of Hosts. This Chapel is dedicated to the memory of the Confederate dead.” I feel the weight of history bearing down. I felt something like this once before, at a graveyard in Dresden. Amidst the graves of all shapes and sizes, larger than anything around and mounted on a pedestal in a clearing, was a stone monument in the shape of an iron cross. It had no name or inscription other than the dates of the two world wars along its base. I stood and looked at it for a long time. I remember thinking that whoever built that monument had thought it through just right. Not ascribing a moral value to the actions of the dead, or framing the events that brought about their death; all of those things will be done elsewhere, while the monument simply and elegantly bears witness. The chapel says “Confederate dead”, not “the Confederacy,” and the distinction matters. I try to put aside my outrage towards the ideals of the Confederacy for a moment and think of the dead. It is terrible enough to die in a war without also dying on the wrong side of history. Would forgiveness show strength or weakness? Can it be both?
I started the day with a homemade sausage, egg, and cheese burrito with Sriracha. The drive to Richmond was long, beginning around 10:30 in the morning and ending at a quarter to 7. Over the course of this drive, I consumed a Whopper Jr. meal with onion rings and zesty sauce, a slice of Reese’s peanut butter pie also from Burger King, gummy peach rings, sour watermelon candy, and an odd sort of coconut bar. At the show, I ate a bunch of spring rolls and corn fritters followed by a giant rice bowl of bulgogi, kimchi and green beans with Sriracha. I then proceeded to drink an assortment of fragrant craft beers. I do not usually eat like this, I swear. Travel offers a sort of temporary excuse in my mind, and in my defense it is difficult to take an all-day journey without consuming a meal of gross fast food from a truck stop. I provide this context so that the reader might infer the vile repugnance of the fart I let loose in the third row of that chapel. It comes on long and slow, a silent foghorn, and it smells like it contains the entirety of the human capacity to do evil. I like to think I can feel it embedding itself in the fibers of the wood forever, causing the dead to wrinkle their noses. It feels like a dispositive fart; a period at the end of a paragraph.
Outside, I feel a powerful urge to engage with the Flaggers. Not in a hostile way; I’m curious what they might have to say for themselves. As I approach, I can see that they are rolling up their flags and packing it in for the night. It is past midnight. I chicken out; I can’t do it. I can’t look one of these motherfuckers in the eye and humor him, even for a second. I don’t care what he might teach me about our common humanity, accidentally or on purpose. I don’t have the forbearance to mourn my enemy’s dead, or ignore the contempt in my heart. Hostility does feel like the appropriate response, but what would that accomplish? I do nothing. I hope one of them goes into the church for a moment of silent reflection and catches a whiff of my fart lingering in the dead air. In many ways their vigil is like a fart, a petty and meaningless act of protest against an unmet adversary, its effect dissipating as soon as it is completed. Do I feel more animosity towards the Flaggers than I do towards the soldiers who actually fought and died to uphold a brutal system of oppression whose effects were so far-reaching as to still reverberate through our everyday lives today? In that moment I do; another paradox. I know I’m right about the things I’m right about, but so does everybody, right? If you dig not even that deep I bet most people’s sense of morality is instinctive and emotional rather than rational, necessarily fraught with troubling-to-completely-irresolvable contradictions. I think of that old misquote from Santayana about those who don’t learn history being doomed to repeat it. I think it falls short; we’re all doomed to repeat it, because we learn different histories. It’s almost as if, wandering outside a museum half-drunk on a Friday night, I have failed to solve the problem of empathy and attain a Buddha-like acceptance of human weakness. Fuck me, right? It is time to go anyway, things are wrapping up for the museum as well as the Flaggers. As if by magic, my large group converges at a fountain from different directions all at once. We agree that it is time for more Korean food at a different place. I wonder if Flaggers get to eat Korean food. They don’t have a position on it one way or the other; it just doesn’t seem like the sort of thing they would do. I get chicken wings, a kimchi pancake, and some pickled radish. Everything is delicious. There were no Koreans in America in 1865. I wonder if you could even reliably source soybeans and ginger back then. The past is always with us, but some things are better than they were.