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Leave it and Love It

So when it comes to placing a sculpture of Lincoln on the grounds of the old Tredegar Ironworks, my suggestion for those who are opposed is to take a trip


There's nothing like it to make you feel more grateful to be an American.

Not a Virginian. Or a Southerner. But an American.

Whether you're sitting in a restaurant in Caracas, checking into a hotel in Prague or standing in line to ride the Eye in London, there's nothing like looking around and realizing that Americans are in the minority to make you feel more like … an American.

It happened to me — again — on a visit to London recently. I was having dinner with an eclectic mix, several Americans, two Londoners and an Australian. The talk turned to international politics. When America's weight in the New World Order came up, my sense of patriotism became a factor. I was ready to try to defend or excuse everything America ever did or will do. (Well, most of it. I'd have a hard time defending what we did to Japanese-Americans during World War II or excusing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, but that's another story.)

So when it comes to placing a sculpture of Lincoln on the grounds of the old Tredegar Iron Works, my suggestion for those who are opposed is to take a trip.

When I was a kid back in the 1940s and '50s, perhaps it was still understandable that the Civil War — or the Late Unpleasantness, the War of Northern Aggression or the Lost Cause, as some still called it — was still very much on our minds. More than a handful of kids in my class had Lee for a middle name. A few Confederate veterans were still alive. We had grandfathers and grandmothers and great-grandparents who keenly remembered the Civil War and its aftermath. Among white people, the South's defeat was still palpable. (And it's white people to whom my advice is directed. I haven't heard any criticism of the proposed Lincoln statue from African-American Richmonders. They have their own memories, vastly different from mine.) But it's been 137 years since the war ended, and generations of us have lived and died in the meantime. Surely it can no longer be considered … well … personal, as if Jeb Stuart had just been laid to rest a month ago. Some will ask, "If I forget, who am I?" Deeper thinkers will ask, "If I am trapped in the past, how can I move forward?"

I am a native Richmonder, but despite the world I grew up in, I believe Lincoln was a man worth honoring. He wasn't perfect. No president ever was. But he was as deserving of tribute as any of the others at whose bronze feet we lay wreaths here in the former capital of the Confederacy. Who are we fooling if we airbrush him out of history?

I've even heard intransigent Southerners suggest that the South would be a better place had it won the war. What folly that is. Howard Means imagined the aftermath of a Southern victory in his novel "C.S.A: Conferderate States of America" in 1998. It wasn't a pretty picture. On the contrary, what would have made life better after the war would have been if Lincoln had not been assassinated. His dream of a post-bellum South reunited with the North was far different from the vision of those who succeeded him. For that alone, he deserves tribute in Richmond — out of appreciation for what might have been.

If I had my way, I'd put the Lincoln statue on Monument Avenue. From Stuart Circle to west of the Boulevard, we'd have that pantheon of heroes of the Old South. Then, beginning with the Arthur Ashe statue and continuing to the end, we could remember others who lent us their considerable dignity and influence. It would make Monument Avenue even more worthy of its name.

I'm not alone, I suspect, in my opinion, heretical though it might have sounded to those who nurtured me a half century ago and those who taught me their account of history when I was a child. We love this city not merely for what it once was and never will be again, but also for all it is and all it can be. By the grace of God I was born a Virginian, and even luckier, a Richmonder. But most fortunate of all is that both places are in America, a country where Lincoln is a hero.

My guess is that if you polled the city, nearly everyone would agree with me — not all, but close to it. To state the obvious (because it seems to need stating), those who oppose change bring the loudest voices to public discourse. Those who think change is appropriate see no need to speak out.

Our heritage is a mixed bag, and we live with it in both pride and, sometimes, shame. But we're not our parents, or grandparents or great-grandparents. And we don't owe them blind allegiance. We are capable of change. They would have changed, too.

As for those who want to wave the Stars and Bars rather than the Stars and Stripes, well, maybe something else is at work. Something dark — the city's ongoing racial problem — that has more to do with today than with the past.

The cure might be a trip abroad, to Caracas, Prague or London. Someplace where you realize that the blue cover on the small booklet that gets you back into the country at journey's end is stamped U.S.A.

Venezuela, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom are great places to visit. But it's always good to come back home — to a country founded in part on the premise that we can acknowledge the past without being trapped by it. S

Don Dale is Style's TV critic.

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


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