Desmond Tutu, who headed the Truth & Reconciliation Commission following apartheid in South Africa (which spanned from 1948 to 1991), said: “If we are going to move on and build a new kind of world community there must be a way in which we can deal with a sordid past. The most effective way would be for the perpetrators or their descendants to acknowledge the awfulness of what happened and the descendants of the victims to respond by granting forgiveness, providing something can be done, even symbolically, to compensate for the anguish experienced, whose consequences are still being lived through today. It may be, for instance, that race relations in the United States will not improve significantly until Native Americans and African Americans get the opportunity to tell their stories and reveal the pain that sits in the pit of their stomachs as a baneful legacy of dispossession and slavery. We saw in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission how the act of telling one's story has a cathartic, healing effect.”
In 2020, the change of public school names from Stonewall Jackson and Ashby-Lee to Mountain View and Honey Run was such a symbolic decision; because, all three of the last names incorporated in these schools (chosen during or right after the Civil Rights time period) were ultimately derived from the names of Confederate leaders that fought in a Civil War to uphold the right to a new country, with slavery as its economic base, separate from The United States of America.
When I heard about the previous school board's decision to consider changing the names in June 2020, one of the very first things I did was to call my African American friends that still lived in Shenandoah County, Va, to ask their perspectives on such a decision. Every single one of them wanted the same thing: new names. Public School names that represented them, too. Whether or not you agree, at the base of this issue is one thing: what message did it send to local African Americans and Indigenous Peoples, whose ancestors were enslaved during and before the Civil War, to have the names of people who fought for the continued enslavement of their families on public school buildings they were required by law to attend?
The decision to make sure public school names are inclusive and representative of everyone in a community falls on the leaders of that community. Such decisions may not be popular, especially when justice is ignored for sixty years as it was in Shenandoah County, Va, but they must be just for everyone within a community.
As Henri Nouwen wrote, "Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own." Mountain View and Honey Run are not divisive or offensive school names. They aim to include and to represent all, not just some. What message would it send to revert to the previous Confederate-leader-based names in another year?
During this time of giving thanks, I just want to say how grateful I am for the names of the schools on southern campus in Shenandoah County, Virginia. Honey Run, derived from a nearby mountain creek that feeds into Smith Creek and thus onto the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, is such an apt image for what happens to elementary school children as they move into North Fork Middle School.
In personal conversations, I always hear how much people love the view of Short Mountain and The Knob from Mountain View High School. It's the most iconic aspect of the school's location: the mountain view. The presence of mountains is something students - no matter their gender, religion, ethnicity, or political affiliation - from Edinburg to Mount Jackson, Quicksburg to New Market, Basye to Fort Valley can celebrate and savor with commonality.
Even as early as the 1730s, when the first settlers were arriving in the county, the waterways and mountain views must have been as inspiring and vital as they are to us today. They are peace-filled landmarks and bring people together in positive ways, which is precisely what a school system is designed to do. And for this, I am grateful.
Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears has some fabulous quotes. I'll share one of them here because it follows this theme of gratefulness: “We have a saying in church, ‘I may not be what I’m supposed to be, but I ain’t what I used to be.’ And that’s America. We are not back in 1963, when my father arrived at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and things were very bad for us as Black people. Are there changes that need to be made? Most assuredly. There is no country in this world that does not suffer from racism…But you have seen people who are dying to cross the border into America because they know that if they can get their foot on American soil, the trajectory of their lives will change — as it did for my father.”
I'm grateful Shenandoah County, like America, is on this side of the Civil Rights Movement, and that it is a place of hope and refuge for so many people from so many backgrounds. And that is precisely why the new names are so important, not only for the mental health of our children, but also the well being and commonality of everyone in our community.
On November 18th, 1861, after the first permanent election of a new government (The Confederate States of America on November 6th of the same year), the Provisional Congress of the CSA met. It was the fifth meeting since February, with each meeting occurring in State Capitol buildings of the United States of America. First in Montgomery, AL, then in Richmond, VA. You can read more about the history of the legislative branch of the CSA at Wiki or, better yet, see the governing Constitution they created here. While all laws they created were secondary to their primary goal of winning the American Civil War, it's important to note the following in that Constitution, which is not a part of the Constitution of the United States of America:
- Sec. 7. (1) The importation of African negroes from any foreign country other than the slave-holding States of the United States, is hereby forbidden; and Congress are required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same.
- Sec. 7. (2) The Congress shall also have power to prohibit the introduction of slaves from any State not a member of this Confederacy.
- Section 2. - (3) A slave in one State escaping to another, shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom said slave may belong by the executive authority of the State in which such slave shall be found, and in case of any abduction or forcible rescue, full compensation, including the value of the slave and all costs and expenses, shall be made to the party, by the State in which such abduction or rescue shall take place" (Richardson, 1905).
Now, let me share with you a personal experience from August 25, 2019 in New Market, VA. I attended the funeral of an African American woman from my community. It wasn't the first time I was one of the only white people at an event, but in Shenandoah County that doesn't happen often. Afterwards, everyone gathered on the lawn of the Church, right along Route 11. As I stood sharing condolences with family members, a loud truck slowly drove by, brandishing a Confederate flag on it. Not the flag you see in the Wiki article above (we'll talk about that again), but the Confederate war flag that so many Southern white people claim as a heritage flag today.
My eyes were not the only ones watching the flag drive by. I glanced around and noticed the heads of every person on that lawn - their brown complexions shimmering in the sunlight - also following the movement of that truck, of that flag. But in their eyes, I saw fear and I saw acknowledgement of the hatred that such a flag was exuding in that moment as these Americans were mourning the loss of someone so dear to them. People who were directly descended from ancestors that had been enslaved in Shenandoah Valley were standing there in that moment and did not recognize the "heritage." They saw the hatred that divided our country and that left ancestors of the Confederacy blinded to demarcate African American men, women, and even children not as People or Humans, but as Slaves, as Chattel that could be sold like cattle at a stock market and buried like cattle along a fence line, often in unmarked graves.
Symbols and names that bring to mind these ideals and old truths of inequality have no place on a PUBLIC school building or any PUBLIC building or space, for that matter, where African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, and other minority groups must go to receive an education, to pay their taxes, or to do anything as a Citizen of The United States of America.
Please ruminate on this experience and on this history. And then remember that the current names Mountain View and Honey Run offer peace and equality to all people in our community. The previous names are divisive and, frankly, cruel.
For those that served, thank you. For your community service, thank you.
I also want to send a reminder that Thomas Jackson, Turner Ashby, and Robert Lee were veterans of the Confederate States, not the United States of America. These men fought to rend the United States of America into two parts - not to preserve it, nor to eradicate slavery. True liberty, as we see even today, is something we continue to work at in the USA. It took the 13th & 14th Constitutional Amendments, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and more for discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin to be dealt with in our country. During the 1860s, these leaders didn't care to extend citizenship to African Americans, Indigenous Peoples, or even women. Thus today, I do not thank Jackson, Ashby, or Lee. And I am grateful their names no longer grace Honey Run Elementary School and Mountain View High School in Shenandoah County, Virginia - due to a 2020 decision by our school board to rename schools.
And yet, in July 2022, three new school board members attempted to revert to the previous school names in an effort to reset justice. While the vote stalemated, a message was sent into the community: wait until there are more of us with the opinion of resetting the decision and then we will see how you like the process. That means, there's only approximately 52 weeks for me to somehow get this message through that these Confederate leaders are not the best role models we need to set for our children and for our community.
This week, I'm sharing an excerpt from Battleground Adventures by Clifton Johnson (1865-1940) that gives testimony from a Slave Blacksmith owned by Mr. Lewis in the Bull Run area (where we get our VHSL district name):
"We colored people knew that the war was on foot, and we thought slavery wound n't be allowed any mo' if the North won. Very few of us could read at all or even knew the alphabet, and our masters would have kept us ignorant about the meaning of the war, but the news leaked out so we got hold of it slightly...
"We wanted liberty... Planters from farther South would come hyar to market and buy up laborers for their tobacco and cotton plantations, and I've seen those slaves goin' along handcuffed, and they'd be put in jail at night to keep 'em from tryin' to escape. We was n't allowed to go visitin' from house to house. They had paterollers who went about on horseback at night and patrolled all the roads. Those paterollers would come to your house to see who you'd got there, and who was out of place. If they found you on the highway without a pass from your boss, and you could n't give a satisfactory account of yourself, they'd lay on so many lashes" (1915:54-55).
Jackson, Ashby, and Lee fought to keep colored people like this blacksmith enslaved. They fought for the CSA, not the USA. Their names have no place on public school buildings in The United States of America.
My one year old is enamored with sunlight. Often he watches it fall through the window into a patch upon the floor or illuminate dust particles floating in the air. Carefully, he tries to pick up the light, but instead his fingers find the more tangible qualities of wood or wall or window pane. The light eludes him, and yet he is content to sit and savor it.
On a warm afternoon, while my family traverses one of the myriad country roads in the Shenandoah Valley, I find my hand eager to slice through air breezing past the open car window. I suddenly feel like a child again, trying to grab sunlight. As soon as my palm flickers as brightly as a firefly, I close my hand like a snare. But, the enclosing fingers cast shadow where light should be. And instead of illumination, I seem to only grasp at more murky questions.
Do you feel that way, friend? Is it difficult for you, too, to filter the light from the shadow of life? The dappling of both gives deeper meaning to the other. I yearn for the constance of joy and peace and hope, but I'm cognizant that these are more richly experienced when there is perseverance through the asperity that life proffers. In moments like these, the greater fear is the creeping in of apathy.
Frederick Douglass, a 19th century abolitionist and orator, urged his brethren: "Be prayerful - be brave - be hopeful" (September 5, 1850: "A Letter to the American Slaves From Those Who Have Fled From American Slavery"). This line from the newspaper, The North Star, reflects the sentiments in Romans 12:12, "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer," which is one of my favorite inspirations. Human atrocities are unsettling. We see examples of them every day in newspapers, podcasts, tweets and posts, and personal conversations, so much so that they become paralyzing. In such times, we must look beyond ourselves and our personal biases to those who have experienced far greater hardships and chosen to walk a path of dignity and hope. In so doing, we're allowing sunlight to shine where we least expect it. It's a light that can elucidate those murky questions better than our own limited understandings. May today be such a day of clarity for all of us.
Winter contains inherent beauty. Bare limbs and blue land, clear skies and a chimerical array of constellations that seems less dim than during summer's humid nights. I'm fond of winter. But, I'm fonder of spring.
While late winter breezes whip past dried flower stalks and grasses, which the birds have cleared of lingering seeds, my eyes roam the garden for signs of warmer weather. Sage and thyme both show greener leaves in their depths. And, I also notice indigo starting to yearn to show off its vibrant flowers. Nor are those wild thorn bushes just donned in gray, for a rosiness blushes in their tips now.
February whispers garden. Do you hear it? By the end of the month, little sugar snap peas will be sown into their raised beds, along with leafy greens and similar cold-weather plants that do well in the Shenandoah Valley. I'm also yearning to start my indoor seeds, too.
Even moreso, I'm yearning to cultivate my soul's glow. Like long, deeply-felt illness, stagnation often seeps in when we least expect it. I can feel my heart longing for its awakening - for its time to shine beyond the pain and longing and bitterness that grow like weeds. Do you know the feeling, friend?
May winter's slowing lead to warmer and happier opportunities for you, too, friend. Take a moment to savor something that makes you truly happy - and then promise yourself you will share that joy with others. Don't hold back, don't resort to automatic pilot, and don't let yourself fall back into ruts. Cling desperately to God's calling and smile.
Birds in flight, swooping into fluid form together, are mesmerizing. At times the mass unravels into fraying threads that stream into individuality, but like shoaling fish, the careening flock creates a beautiful dance that entrances even the sky.
So it is with people, too, in times of swarming. Consider the peaceable act of barn raising in Amish communities or Kenyans working together to build sand dams. Acts of commonality, in which the greater good sings from the hearts of each individual, can evoke moments of true beauty - the kind of moments that show the worth of humanity.
We need individual voices to encourage and remind us - especially when rights are being denied or the mob mentality meanders along a less-than-ideal course. But, we also need to remember the strength of community. Together, mankind can accomplish remarkable feats of compassion that leave a lasting impression - even if it is focused on just one family.
Today, find time to align yourself with something larger than just one life: serve in a soup kitchen, build a Habitat house, tutor at-risk children from your local schools, advocate for the oppressed. You'll be amazed by what more than you can do.
The sun lights up yellowing cornstalks, an autumnal scene that seems destined for a stained glass. Even on a cool morning, warmth radiates all around when that golden glow slants in through the windowpane. Light lands across the bed, where the summer quilt lays in gentle heaps like rolling mountains on the edge of a vale. The baseboard's rich woodgrain mimics the clouds' layering in the sky outside and even shadows reveal the day's mood as birds twitter toward post-dawn and the wind shivers leaves on limbs. The silhouette of muntin bars proves the only constant as I linger in the coziness. And, for a moment I feel like the old (wo)man in the mountain, sleeping under the comfy quilt of blue ridges.
Just before the baby's waking coos, the house is silent. There is a sense of calm, although once the day begins serenity quickly vacates the property. Often our perspectives are like that, too, when we peer through the glazing at the lives of others. Everything seems perfect, or at least much easier than the lives we know. Any specks that would otherwise be noticeable are really just smudges on the pane that still don't deter the happy home interpretation that aligns with what we want to see. But just as we see, others do too. Our lives, from the strained sight of others, may seem so rich in the full sense of the word that it would shock us.
It is human nature to feel one's own plight more ardently than the despair of others. And when others do have perceivable difficulties, we are quick to help - for a little while, until we almost ache to have such care aimed at ourselves. If we're honest, we all feel that way.
So, today, amid the chaos you perceive, may God's golden glow remind you that you have special worth. You are a treasure, too, even with the frays that sometimes run you ragged.
Bee balm blossoms spread like fireworks. Their long stalks meander through porch slats, shade the verdant carpet of lithodora, and invade the gravely garden path. Poignant shadows, devoid of the vibrant red, shimmer on the gray porch boards, cracked from weathering.
Just the other day, churning storm clouds, which vibrated with more thunder-growls than lightning-strikes, brought a battering of rain. A bumblebee, its wings resting from flight, sat silently on the dry side of the porch post. The wind chimes were still, perhaps savoring nature's influx of percussion, which was as transfixing as Japanese fire drummers in an outdoor amphitheater.
Today, though, the sky is blue. But not just blue. It's the sort of blue upon which you can barely gaze and yet it calls to you. It's pure and unhazed by humidity. It's cheerful and tips over even the most dismal mood. And, it enhances everything: wisteria vine scrolls, browning delphinium flowers, even bee balm shadows.
Whether rainy or sunny, the allure of bee balm brings a pleasant visitor. I heard the hover first. Not the zingy bumble of a fuzzy bee. No. There's more intonation to it. The sound captures a primal chant, smooth and constant. I always hear it first. Then, eyes roving across the array, I catch the fluid flight of the hummingbird.
Such moments make life worthwhile. Amidst the waiting and the whirl-winding, we delight in stringing together the wonder we find. Sometimes we place such finds in a box - one that's worn and smooth with a slight creak in the opening - with a uniquely-shaped rock, a dried flower, a colorful shell, a black and white snapshot of people you always wished to know. We set them out in a strand over time, letting the sun and the rain, the night and the closeness settle in, so that no two are alike. And as you admire your own box of memories, take a moment to ponder the beauty in those of others, too. Maybe it will slow your quick words, pop a smile where indifference usually looms, and invite you to see beauty where you expected not to see it.
SENK is an artist and writer in the Shenandoah Valley. The blog, 52 Weeks, is an ethical contemplation on the importance of choosing to keep public school names that are not divisive. Each post is based on over seven years of research by the author. 52 Weeks is a compassionate appeal to community and school board members to not revert to the names of Confederate leaders for Shenandoah County, Va, public schools.