The Graveyard

In her acceptance speech for the 2017 best supporting actress Oscar, Viola Davis reminds us, “There’s one place where all the people with the greatest potential are gathered – one place – and that’s the graveyard.” The voices of the undocumented, the ordinary people living their lives who dreamed and are forgotten to us. The power in resurrecting those unknown to us is life changing. This is perhaps what time at University is for – to place our stories next to those unknown to us.

In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, and our nation’s once-again consideration of the efficacy of Confederate statues and collective memory, I want to reflect upon the ground my mother, a Tarheel now deceased, walked on as she traversed the short diagonal between Franklin Street and the School of Library Science, before desegregation. One where she confronted every day that same statue that our Chancellor saw fit to erect a barricade around for love or protection, I do not know.

Silent Sam 8.2017

I remember here an ordinary day in this same walk I reference above – a small moment before that infamous graveyard of potential that Viola Davis so eloquently describes – and yes, mourns. A walk where the eternally exhumed meet living generations – where small acts of care exist in the shadow of a past some feel is too hard to reckon with.

Spring 2017. Chapel Hill. UNC gates.

The air is a mix of cold and heat as I walk past the often venerated statue of that Confederate soldier, and as I pass on the diagonal with the statue to my left, I see a family gathered before it. It takes me a minute to understand what they are doing, until I see the camera and the stilted pose. A man behind the camera, what looks like mother and child posing before the statue. She arranges the little girl’s blonde hair; the gesture is tender and I remember my own mother’s hand at my forehead. The man steps back, raises the camera and snaps a few photos. After what seems like silent reflection, they collect themselves and embark upon their journey toward their intended destination.

A snapshot and a gesture and certainly a feeling. Something very old commingling with something very young and new. Remembrance and commemoration are nothing new to us, surely. My recollection is very different, as I cannot see that statue without thinking of the black woman who was whipped on the morning, or was it the eve? of its dedication. Her crime: insulting the virtue of a white woman. The psychic life of that moment surrounds memory, remembrance and commemoration, turning our longing for place and heritage, birthright and history into something other. I am sick with remembrance and loss.

That child with the wayward lock received a lesson in history more profound than she will ever know – a way of forgetting what history is or should be. History does not unfold in the singular. When I think of the two sides of this debate around heritage, remembrance and commemoration, I want us to think deeply of the full arc of the intention of our welcoming face to visitors on this campus. What I am asking us to do is to tell the whole story: Julian Carr at the dais, the white men and women gathered, the soldiers on watch, the horse whip in hand, and the black female body’s subjection as a sign of racial power in the wake of a spectacularly failed seditious act decades before.

Right before Viola Davis takes the stage, the award giver observes that the most difficult task in life is “to oppose without hatred.” But we cannot do this without a full accounting, without seeing what our remembrance is for and how it works through us. Viola Davis is right: graveyards are filled with complex stories to be exhumed. For those of us who want to rid our nation of bigotry and hatred, it is time for us to come into the full arc of our story laid at the feet of that statue – silent still.

Perhaps the deepest slippage here is in that difference between monument and statue; the former honors through a likeness, both person and event, the latter pays homage to the one, flattening relationship, obfuscating community and relegating us to that rich loam called the graveyard.

My mother walked past that broken memory on the daily; my grandmother walked past it to see her graduate. I walk past it when I have to and my children have both walked past it.  I want this outrageous denial of our collective history to end. The brave students who are sitting in at its feet wish for our time in the shadow of Silent Sam to end. If the Trustees or Chancellor Folt are confused on this matter, perhaps they can turn to the words of W.E.B. DuBois on the issue of commemorating Robert E. Lee in 1928. That would be a good start and maybe we can end this more-than-a-century-old debate about its efficacy among us and begin discussions about our collective histories that are long overdue.

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