On being a Virginian

Guest commentary by Heath Rada

Reality time!  I am a Virginian, born and bred.  Whereas I have adopted North Carolina as my home (and I love North Carolina), I cannot deny my Virginia heritage.  On my mother’s side of the family, our roots in Virginia go deep.  On the wall of our sunroom hangs a needlepoint sampler that my Virginia-born daughter made for me, and which hints at the arrogance we Virginians feel. It reads: “To be a Virginian, either by birth, marriage, adoption, or even on one’s mother’s side is an introduction to any state in the Union, a passport to any foreign country, and a benediction from Almighty God.

A Virginian’s pride is different from the so-called pride held by people from other states. It’s not as flashy as a Texan’s —with their two-step dancing, cowboy boots, blue bonnets and rodeos.  Nor is it similar to the pride of the Midwesterners —smugly affirming their self-sufficiency and their hard-nosed attitude that they are invulnerable to the weather.  Likewise the residents of California and New York (especially New York City) have a pride that basically tries to tell the rest of us, “You just aren’t quite as good as we are  —we understand fashion and art and culture, and frankly most everything else in ways that you just don’t get because you aren’t one of us.”

No, a multi-generational Virginian’s pride (at least that particularly of a white male Virginian of means; I can’t speak for those of other races or narratives) is grounded in the history of this country, in the unique beauty of its Shenandoah Valley, and Eastern Shore and Skyline Drive. It is based on the lore of the early patriots and of proper British influence on our behavior (though we fought those redcoats with a fury). In our cities we still wear tuxedos to fancy meals, or weddings or other upscale events.  We celebrate our heritage as educated people —with William & Mary and the University of Virginia being the university flag bearers (even though I graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University and am proud of my degree and the increasingly excellent reputation of my alma mater, I know well which two institutions are known for their “legacies”).

We can trace our personal family ties to our forefathers (note that I did not say foremothers). For instance, after my father died I lived on the family farm —a farm that belonged at that time to my dad’s brother, but had belonged before that to my mother’s cousins.  It was the same farm, and house, and pastureland where Patrick Henry’s grandfather lived. Yes, I rounded up the cows in the afternoons with my collie, Skipper, in the same fields where Mr. “Give me Liberty or Give me Death”had gathered cows for his grandfather. In fact, his grandfather is buried right beside that pastureland. Virginia is the mother of our nation’s presidents —with more presidents born in the commonwealth than in any other state.  Virginia, the state that was one of the original 13 colonies, where Jamestown celebrates its history as the first permanent English settlement in North America, where the streets of Richmond are lined with statues of Revolutionary and Civil War heroes.  We were taught to be proud of that heritage, to recognize that we had inherited a unique position in life by being born in a place where so much of who we are as Americans today was formed.

But we whites didn’t focus on the other side of our history in Virginia —or the history of our own racial conditioning.  Sure, we knew there were slaves and slave owners.  Yes, I went to totally segregated schools and churches, and knew which side of Broad Street I was to walk on (the sun was too hot on the other side and it was relegated to those with less privilege).  Whereas my family wasn’t a member,I was often invited to occasions at clubs that excluded Jews and African-Americans and women. (I wasn’t aware of ANY Muslim or Hindu as I was growing up, but if they were there, I imagine they were denied membership too.) We also had a basic belief that to be a Virginian meant we didn’t lie or steal or cheat.  The honor codes at our colleges and universities are some of the oldest and most revered documents in a Virginian’s mind. Scandals and misbehavior were often passed off as being perpetrated by someone who had been unduly influenced by an outsider or had lost their marbles. It wasn’t considered possible that they, true Virginians, had made bad choices of their own will.

Today I am not feeling so smug. Oh, I still value much of the good, but the other sidehas reared its ugly head in ways that are undermining so many of the values and cultural norms we held to in the past.  Yes, as a boy, one of the local civic clubs in my community had an annual minstrel show —where white men wore blackface, sat on the stage on risers and sang songs between performances of other local acts.  In between some of the acts, the men would tell jokes that were meant to be funny.  And as a boy, in spite of my mother’s strong influence on my life to stand for justice and honor ALL of God’s children, I didn’t even think about the fact that what was happening was hurting people of color. I never wore blackface, but so many men in my church who I admired and who were leaders for basic goodness in our community were on that stage, singing and laughing. I was enculturated into a norm of society that didn’t recognize the impact of that kind of prejudice.

Now, Virginia governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is refusing to resign after a photo of two men –one in blackface, one wearing Ku Klux Klan robes – surfaced from his personal page in his 1984 medical school yearbook. Northam denies it was him in the photo, although he acknowledges darkening his face for a Michael Jackson dance contest. Virginia attorney general Mark Herring also has admitted he wore blackface at a college party in 1980.  And two women have accused Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, of sexual assault.

As I watch the almost unbelievable scandals today as they are unpeeled like onions in my home town of Richmond, I know I am watching much more than any misdeeds of a few people who have been elected to major leadership roles. I am seeing the undressing of white men, like me, who lived in a world where demeaning women, discriminating against people of color, having opportunities to be part of a society where no one but white men were allowed —all of those are contributing to a new cry that says: “Look.  The king has on no clothes.”

Yes, I am embarrassed —not so much by others as by my own naivetéfor many years.  Though I have worked deliberately for causes of justice and equality, I now can see where I was blind.  And I still am struggling to see even more clearly as I am seen often as a white man who can’t understand. That is true in many ways.  But It also is a form of prejudice, usually affirmed by someone who has been hurt by white men.  And I dare not try to defend myself because I still have on shaded glasses, and there is so much I cannot defend.

So today I confess.  Yes, I am a Virginian. But the joy and bright aura of that claim has faded recently.  And my guess is that it is just the beginning – not only for Virginians but for all of us in this country no matter where we may claim our roots.  The onion of the lives we have known in this country are being unpeeled, layer by layer, and they have a long way to go. May God and our fellow companions in this life forgive us and help us to find a new reality where our pride isn’t based on privileges which have only been afforded to a few.

heath-rada.jpgHEATH RADA was moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 221st General Assembly, former president of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (now Union Presbyterian Seminary), former CEO of the Greater Richmond Chapter of the American Red Cross,  teacher, speaker and community activist. He and Curtis Adams, as youth, were the first two people who integrated a church camp in the South (Camp Hanover just outside of Richmond).  He also integrated and taught fifth grade at Virginia Randolph Elementary School in Henrico County Virginia, the only white teacher in a school with only African-American students.