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Dealing with Loss


Seems to me there's a parallel here between Confederate revelers' fervent denial that slavery was at the root of the Civil War and their modern-day denial that racism is at the root of the flag salute. This denial is apt and predictable if you are familiar with trauma theory. A relative of mine, who's a psychiatrist, once provided a regional analysis of Richmond: The former capital of the Confederacy churns with a "Conquered-City" mentality. In total denial about the true victims of the pre-Civil War era (humans held in bondage), Confederates saw themselves (and still do today) as victims of "Northern Aggression."

For much of the past century, Confederate revelers were even in denial they'd lost the War between the States. And today, this age-old denial is spurring Confederate revelers to institute (in our tax-funded legislature) a flag salute revering the "Old Dominion as a place where liberty and Independence were born." In reality, though, Southern independence and liberty were lost in the Civil War.

Sure denial anesthetizes painful realities, but any therapist will tell you when people feel defeated, they often lash out. Indeed studies show most bullies themselves have felt abused. In modern Virginia, simmering beneath their denial, Confederate revelers' perceived victim status keeps them lashing out, searching for ways to keep the old war alive: in-your-face flag salutes with indisputable ties to flesh-and-blood Confederates, grand murals glorifying Southern leaders. In the most recent example of lashing out, the Museum of the Confederacy, forced to reduce its staff nearly 20 percent because of declining revenues, fought back by brandishing the Confederate battle flag outside its doors. To many, this move signaled the historical museum's plans to tilt its instruction toward a pro-Southern viewpoint.

And who can forget the divisive government-issued proclamations celebrating Confederate History Month each April since 1995, when then-Gov. Allen initiated them. Allen's proclamations, a lightning rod for racial agitation, ignored the suffering of blacks and the brave acts of abolitionists, instead citing Confederate History Month as a source of pride, honor and respect for Southern sacrifices.

While Gov. Warner recently pledged to stop the proclamations, for many African-Americans, these years of metaphorical lashes breathe life into ancestral ghosts who lived daily under the threat of a master's whip.

Sadly, though, still trying to avenge lost, relic battles, Confederate revelers aren't able to develop a healthy compassion for African-Americans who've long been traumatized by Confederate ideology and behavior.

Loss, in all its myriad forms, is universal: No matter how much we own or what part of the country we live in, loss is part of the human condition: Witness the terrorist attacks up North. But when we humans don't deal with our losses, work through the requisite stages of grief — denial, rage, despair and finally acceptance — we tend, like moths to a flame, to keep stirring the proverbial pot. We do this, hoping unconsciously, each time, to find a better resolution to our unpalatable loss. This gives new meaning to the phenomena of Civil War re-enactors ….

The tragic part for Richmond is that today's Confederate revelers, by not breaking out of denial and working through their century-old loss, keep our city stuck in a political time warp — keep us a national laughingstock, viewed as backward, provincial folk who can't let go of an ancient family feud. Another curiosity for folks in other regions is why Richmonders are so preoccupied with the War. To people around the country, the Civil War is a couple of chapters in a third-grade history book, certainly not the obsession it is for many Richmonders. Unfortunately, though, preoccupation with the past is another legacy of refusing to recognize and process loss.

Richmond and our region is at a critical juncture: Is our collective unconscious going to remain stuck in the first two stages of a universal grief process? Are we going to keep allowing Confederate revelers to use our government stage, as with the Virginia salute, to stir the racial pot? Are we going to continue encouraging business leaders to market a glorified Confederate version of The War to tourists, beckoning them with emotionally charged vestiges of a barbed conflict that till this day splinters our city in half?

For modern Richmond and its metro area to attract thriving industry migrating South, we must create a unified, regional economic base. To accomplish that we will have to lay down the symbolic and rhetorical weapons, grounded in denial, still being used to stage re-runs of the Civil War. Large, successful companies hire the best and brightest from all over the world. These folks come in all colors, speak all languages and the racial symbols and rhetoric so prevalent in our region have no place in a thriving, diversified business community. I know; I worked for Fortune 100 Du Pont for almost a decade.

So, Richmond, can we begin building a unified economic base, both black and white, putting the past in the past and working together to attract tourism and industry to our dynamic, growing arts community? Can we work together to attract industry to a diverse, but harmonious, stable work force? Can we work together to market our area's affordable housing, picturesque, crepe-myrtle landscape, nearby nationally ranked colleges and excellent regional schools? Will we continue to be divided by unresolved loss and a never-ending war, or will we move together toward a more compassionate, peaceful, and prosperous future? SSusan Ahern is a Richmond free-lance writer who is the author of a book on psychological kinship.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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