In the wake of the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and the ensuing nationwide Confederate flag controversy, the discussion over what to do with symbols of the Confederacy has been gaining steam. The debate in Richmond over Monument Avenue has been especially heated.
A few weeks ago in his Back Page opinion essay for Style, Brent Merritt proposed removing the monuments altogether. “The individuals fighting on either side of the war weren’t strictly good or bad,” he wrote. “They were flawed human beings caught up in something much, much bigger than themselves. Yet there’s no denying that the Confederate army as a whole fought to protect an evil institution, even if we accept the argument that some Southerners classified slavery merely as a single pillar in the ‘way of life’ they fought for.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams, one of the most vocal opponents to the local Confederate status quo, has been pushing for removal of the statues too. “The Jefferson Davis monument was vandalized with ‘Black Lives Matter’ graffiti,” he wrote, “and I don’t condone defacing public property. But the statues on Monument Avenue send the unequivocal message that our lives don’t matter — not then and not now. It’s time for them to come down.”
Others have taken a slightly more sensible — and probably more feasible approach — and said that we should be adding monuments and symbols, and balancing the scale, so to speak.
Mayor Dwight Jones, as quoted by the T-D, said, “Rather than tearing down, we should be building up in ways that establish a proper sense of balance and fairness by recognizing heroes from all eras to tell a richer and more accurate story of Virginia’s history.”
The mayor nails it. We can’t destroy the past. And even if a consensus decided to make it so, it seems entirely unfeasible for the city to hire a squad of bulldozers to simply roll down the avenue smashing things. Not to mention the local crazies that would take up arms if this were attempted — and trust me, they’re out there.
The mayor went on to mention black entrepreneur Maggie Walker as a possibility for an addition to the avenue.
Richmond Magazine asked readers for other suggestions, drawing a who’s who of local historical figures including Henry “Box” Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, Oliver Hill, Prosser’s Gabriel, William Byrd and Virginius Dabney.
My pick, and who I’ll defend here and now, is a bit off base. And in terms of accomplishments certainly doesn’t belong among those listed above. But he’s someone who means a lot of things to a lot of Richmonders.
You guessed it: Fightin’ Joe.
Ha. No, I joke.
But seriously, it’s time to consider Richmond born and bred Michael Archer, who most of you know better as D’Angelo, the most talented musician of not only Richmond, but also an entire generation.
Most casual fans only know him as the steel-ab’d, naked guy in that music video. And you also may know him as the troubled, enigmatic young man who rarely releases albums, struggled with drinks and drugs, famously gained weight and flipped his Hummer one night on the side of Route 711.
But his first album, beloved by the most ardent hip-hop fans — 1995’s “Brown Sugar” — ushered in the R&B neo -soul movement. The term neo-soul didn’t even exist until that album. It’s been said that he singlehandedly revitalized the creatively dormant R&B scene of the mid-’90s. After that, he released “Voodoo” in 2000. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. And although much of the attention for the album stemmed from his abs and apparent lack of pants in the “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video, the album was an undisputed masterpiece.
He released “Black Messiah” in December to rave reviews, and rightfully so. It’s a perfect album. Interestingly, the original working title was “James River.”
I’m 31 and grew up in Richmond. Arthur Ashe and his incredible legacy were before my time. I admire heroes like Gabriel and Walker and Hill. I’ve been inundated with Civil War everything since birth and I’ve seen enough jackasses with Confederate flags on their trucks to last a lifetime.
But the Richmonder who has meant the most to me and many of my peers is D’Angelo.
Let’s give a living legend his due. S
Jack Lauterback also is co-host of “Mornings with Melissa and Jack” on 103.7 Play weekdays from 6-9. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @jackgoesforth.