Saturday, June 17, 2006

Richmond, Saturday Edition:

This morning I got up and treated myself to breakfast at a local diner. Of course, I could not resist ordering eggs, grits and a buscuit. I also could not resist taking the extra buscuit they gave me to eat later for lunch. As I was reading the morning paper I noticed a letter to the editor about the Confederate flag issue. The letter was actually a response to an earlier letter to the editor. So I did a wee bit of digging on the Times-Dispatch website and literally not 2 days goes by without a letter to the editor written about the Confederate flag issue. Just for the past two weeks, letters to the editor on the flag have appeared on 5/26, 5/28, 6/1, 6/6, 6/7, 6/13, 6/15, and 6/16. Titles of letters range from, "Rebel Sympathizers Are Delusional" to "Confederate Flag Represents Pride." The letters are cut 50/50 on the flag issue. While my research doesn't focus on the flag, it's basically the same issue. Both flags and monuments are symbols that mean different things to different people, as these polarized letters demonstrate.

Anyway, I got my first glimpse of the monuments up close today. After breakfast, I walked along Monument Avenue. While I was there I was struck by several things. First, the monuments are huge, and mostly out of proportion. Lee's bronzed horse, Traveller, seems to be a huge equine beast. In reality, I've heard the horse was rather puny. To heighten the larger-than-life effect of the Lee monument, there are spotlights pointed at the monument.

I was also struck by how empty the avenue was. The only other cluster of monuments that I've seen was in Washington DC and there were certainly a lot people aroudn the space. But Monument Ave seems to be a dead civic space. On the one hand, this could be interpreted to mean that residents don't really care about the Confeds. on the street. But when the Ashe monument went up in 1996, that hypothesis was emphatically proven false. The other hypothesis is that people don't see a need to engage with these powerful symbols; that Richmonders (at leat the ones in the neighborhood) basically accept the didactic message of the avenue.

I flagged down a man walking his dog. Both the man (and his dog) seemed friendly. And most importantly, for my purposes, the man seemed local. In a Mercedes-Benz hat and boat shoes, he seemed like he probably lived in the high-end neighborhood. Plus, he was walking his dog on the street. I asked if he'd be willing to talk to me for a few minutes about the monuments on the street.
"I'll pass," he said. I told him I'd been having a hard time getting people to talk to me. "I'll bet," he said. "All this racism stuff. It's in the past. People need to get over it." "We have this guy at the paper, Wilson, he's just there to point out examples of racism all over the place. Get over it." This exchange seems to confirm my fear that people were going to be very resistent to talking to me. It also taught me that the man-on-the-street interviewing is actually not that effective. No one really wants to talk to you on the street. They're usually going somehwere, and it was particularly hot today. I decided to adopt a woman-in-a-cafe approach instead. That was more successful and I eventually talked to a lifelong Richmonder who lived across from the Ashe monument. Though I'm positive I would not talk to him under any other cirucmstances, he gave a great interview and made some very interesting points.

You can check out more pictures from Monument Avenue at my snapfish site.
Password: confed


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