Like so many places in the American South, Charlottesville is beautiful and haunted. Thomas Jefferson haunts the iconic University of Virginia campus he designed like an invisible chancellor, just as Sally Hemings and hundreds of other slaves haunt Monticello as self-evident truths in the course of human events.
In 2010, I took a guided tour of Jeffersonâs hilltop plantation during which the words âslave,â âslaves,â and âslaveryâ were never mentioned. Since then, the $35-million Mountaintop Project, designed to accurately depict Jeffersonâs persona as both a slave owner and the genius who authored the Declaration of Independence and its immortal assertion that all men are created equal, has transformed Monticello.
Thanks largely to billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein there are now, among other corrections, a Slavery at Monticello tour and a restored Mulberry Row slave quarters. History once referred to on the groundsÂ sotto voceâas though the third president of the United States was the one inconvenienced by keeping fellow human beings in bondageânow has a Slavery at Monticello app.
Meanwhile, Charlottesvilleâs Dialogue on Race project has made it a target of racist hate groups.
Last Friday night, three miles from where Rubinstein helped excavate and represent the barbaric contribution of slavery to Americaâs evolution, white supremacists were marching through the streets of Charlottesville, wielding preposterous tiki torches and railing against black and Jewish people. On Saturday, as the violence was peaking on a day that would see the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer and the deaths of state police pilots Jay Cullen and Berke Bates in a helicopter crash while patrolling the chaos, United States President Donald Trump once again met his own apparently inviolable standard of being the least presidential president in history.
The widespread revulsion triggered by his equivocal condemnation of the violence âon many sidesâ in Charlottesville and refusal to explicitly denounce Nazis and white supremacists has been such a constant of his tenure that itâs impossible to think of it as a strategic bug, not a feature. By sundownÂ Saturday, a symphony of sanity had arisen, with outraged Republicans and outraged Democrats on Twitter, if not quite taking their country back, at least reminding the world that the hateful images emerging from Virginia were not representative of America.
In an age when political power is seen to reside with whomever dominates the daily narrativeâregardless of whether it is authentic or manufactured, constructive or destructiveâTrump practises a form of narrative domination based on the viral commodities of outrage, disgust, and despair. In the contest to drive the day, in which post-truth content and fake-news idiocy have become weaponized, homicidal Nazis trump all misogynistic tweets, executive falsehoods, and R-rated Scaramucci eruptions.Â On Monday, Trump caught up with humanity and made the statement he should have madeÂ Saturday.
In the matter of the larger narrative of American history, the fact that the relative value of Confederate statuary is still debated and a president can still contemplate the characterization of events Trump venturedÂ on SaturdayÂ underscore an overriding reality.
Unlike South Africa and Canada, America hasnât had a truth and reconciliation process. The National Museum of African-American History and Culture, opened on the National Mall last year, is an important declaration of historic truth, but the narrative it documents wonât be coming to a white supremacist meeting any time soon.
Thereâs been no national, public stacking of truth after truth about 400 years of slavery, lynchings, voter suppression, mass incarceration, institutional racism, profiling, and micro-aggressions. It would render white supremacy as a perversion of projected shame as ridiculous and as ridiculed as it should be, and expose it as a phenomenon whose very existence makes a lie of its label.
Lisa Van Dusen, associate editor ofÂ Policy Magazine, was a Washington columnist forÂ The Ottawa Citizen, Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, and international news writer for Peter Jennings atÂ ABC World News Tonight, as well as an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.
The Hill Times