Charlottesville was a Place of Fond Memories for My Family in Our U.S. Travels But Not So Much Now

August 16, 2017 – Every once in awhile I reward myself with a rant. It usually is about climate change naysayers, or anti-vaxxers, or those who perpetuate false science led by bagmen trying to sell the world a bag of magic beans. But this time I choose to speak about what happened in Charlottesville this last weekend when a woman protester was murdered by a white supremacist who drove a car into a crowd with malice aforethought to kill those who he reviled. She was the ultimate victim of a post-Civil War mindset that continues to be perpetuated in the American South.

It is interesting that my memories of Charlottesville remain those of a progressive, enlightened city, with beautiful streetscapes and pedestrian walkways, not one filled with Aryan white supremacists mimicking the Brownshirts of Nazi Germany. When we visited there on two occasions, the first took us to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, America’s third President, and the writer of the Declaration of Independence that states “all men are created equal.” The bias excluding women in that statement should not be trivialized as anachronistic. It is a reflection of the historical socio-economic condition of the society of that period which also accepted slavery as a norm.



Being an American history buff, and one that heavily focuses on the Revolutionary and Civil War, I am amazed every time we have visited the southern part of the country because we see a fondness for the memory of the Confederacy, a rebellion to perpetuate the notion that enslavement of others with different skin pigmentation was a noble cause.

Couched in terms of “states’ rights” the political leaders of the South incited rebellion leading to the killing fields where more than one-half million Americans died. The collateral damage impacted millions more including slaves, emancipated African Americans, African American soldiers serving in both armies, displaced families and the destruction of property.

But today you cannot head south of the Mason-Dixon line, just below Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, without encountering memorials to the Confederacy. It wasn’t always the case. Immediately after the Civil War ended, the symbols and leaders of the rebellion that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands were vilified. After all they had attempted to rend the country asunder to preserve a “way of life” built on the backs of enslaved labourers. This “genteel” South of Tara and “Gone with the Wind” was always a fiction. “Happy slaves, happy life” remains a lie and insult to everything we hold to be humane and just today. But by the end of Reconstruction and the restoration of the Southern States to their antibellum politics, the racist roots of slave mentality rose up once again with co-partners, the Ku Klux Klan, and state politicians who perpetuated “white supremacy” but couched in the legalese of “states rights.”

I am not an American. My home is Canada, a country not blameless when it comes to systemic racism. Yes, we were the end point on the Underground Railway that gave African Americans a path to freedom. But our “Africavilles” and ghettos were reminders that Canada was far from exempt from perpetuating the same notions as our American neighbours. And we can point out our past treatment of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit to see our own Canadian brand of bigotry. But things changed in Canada in the latter part of the 20th century and we have been bitten by the diversity bug, accepting cultural and pigmentation differences, recognizing that a combination of all sorts of people from all over the world is a dynamic that strengthens our identity and makes us a better place.

I wish this were true of our American neighbours who call themselves a “melting pot.” For what happened in Charlottesville was precisely the opposite of that professed notion. Instead it was a display of bigotry with torchlight marches that looked too much like the brown-shirted Nazis of the 1930s. The fact that the march attracted those who opposed what they saw unfolding before their eyes should be no surprise. Charlottesville is a university city. The University of Virginia graduates scientists, lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers, historians, and social scientists. The students of the university were among those who responded to “white lives matter” taunts from marchers, to antisemitic slogans, and to references to “blood and soil.” As Americans, this was their right with or without a permit.



The axiom that “those who don’t read history are condemned to repeat it” could hold true in Charlottesville and, particularly, in the days that follow. For it appears that the 21st century’s history could soon be given a “white” wash by those seeking to rewrite the past, those who don’t know or understand what the Civil War was about, and those who see President Donald Trump as a man for the times, and the President himself.

When Trump stated in his “believe me” voice that taking down a statue of Rober E. Lee would soon be followed by the removal of monuments commemorating George Washington, he demonstrated false equivalency and displayed an acute ignorance of history. Yes, Washington was a slave owner. But he wasn’t a traitor. He was a product of his time and place, a landowner in Virginia where slavery was considered socially acceptable. He had hundreds of slaves, and upon his death left instructions in his will to free them after the death of his widow. She ignored his request and freed them two years later.

Washington’s legacy is not that he freed his personal slaves, but rather that he freed America from British rule. Without Washington, America might have never become an independent democratic nation in which Virginia was a willing partner. The same cannot be said of Robert E. Lee.

Lee was also a product of the same Virginia society as Washington and had slaves as well. His portrayal, by sympathetic southern historians, paints a picture of a man not sympathetic to slavery personally, but yet, a champion of those all-important “states rights” over central government authority. Yet this same Lee served as an engineer for the U.S. Army in its invasion of Mexico to overthrow the government. This Lee subsequently served as second in overall command of the American Army just prior to the Civil War. And when Virginia joined the southern states seceding from the Union in 1861 he made a personal decision to support the rebellion which aimed to perpetuate its racist theories invoking biblical references to justify the barbarous treatment of people with brown and black skin even though it was said he was not sympathetic.

We know Lee’s history. Lee was a traitor to the country he pledged to serve. We don’t need to glorify his memory with statues prominently displayed in public squares and parks. The history books should suffice.

So when Trump attempts to equate his memorialization with that of Washington, it is offensive in so many ways.

Today we have built a world founded on evidence derived from the application of scientific method. We know that pigment doesn’t define a human’s capacity. But it certainly did in the glory days of the American South. And now it appears that those ways of thinking, those past perceptions, are once again rearing up to trample science, belittled by the current American government under a President who calls climate change a hoax and questioned the birthplace of its first African American President. This is the same President who equates those who protest against Nazis and white supremacists as “equally bad.” This is a President who doesn’t understand the past or the future and who could condemn an entire generation of American people to a repetition of the past because he doesn’t know the very history of which he spoke at a press conference earlier in the week.



I recently read an article that described the skills all of us will need to deal with the unfolding 21st century and its many challenges. These are skills necessary to allow us to rise above our worst selves. They include enhanced interpersonal communication skills, adaptability to change, a broad understanding of the larger world (reading history is a good start), and an ability to think outside the confined space of limited perceptions. These are not skills attributable to Donald Trump.

So ends my rant.

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...