Monday, July 13, 2015

A Flash of Empathy


The thought struck me like bolt from the blue. It was about 30 years ago. Facing east on Monument Avenue I was waiting for the stoplight to change. The sights were as familiar as could be. The J.E.B. Stuart monument and the hospital named for that place on the map -- Stuart Circle. I was born in that hospital and so was my daughter.

Not too long before this moment in the mid-1980s, I had run for a seat on Richmond's City Council. The task of campaigning had exposed me to some neighborhoods in my home town that had been unfamiliar to me before I suddenly decided to run for office. Why I took that plunge, with no chance to win, is another story, for another day. But the reason for mentioning it here is how eye-opening that experience was.

For one thing, I don't think I had ever spent any time in Gilpin Court before the campaign trail took me there. It was part of the Fifth District, which also included the part of the Fan District that was behind the equestrian statue before me. Virginia Commonwealth University's academic campus was sprawled out in the blocks ahead, just beyond the statue.

Can't say for sure if I was smoking a joint, but in those days, there was a good chance of it. The reason for bringing up that factor is that for me pot used to sometimes facilitate making connections between ideas that hadn't occurred to me before. Anyway, looking at that depiction of a man on a horse I suddenly had a fresh question explode in my head: What would I have thought of that statue if I had been born black, instead of white, and I had grown up in a federal housing project like Gilpin Court?

The thought that followed made me laugh. Answering my own question provided me with a momentary walk-in-the-other-man's-shoes epiphany, as I said to myself: "By the time I was 16, I would have blown that damn thing up."

That prompted me to be amazed that it hadn't already happened. Folks who remember the 16-year-old version of me should be laughing now. At least a few of them know there would have been a decent chance I would have really done it ... had I been a headstrong black teenager, who, like me, got thrown out of school regularly.

Before that flash of empathy, I don't think I had ever tried to imagine myself as a black Richmonder looking at those statues of Confederate generals, day after day. Ever since then, I've seen those memorials to the Lost Cause in a different light.

Today I think a lot of good people in Richmond need to try to step into the other man's shoes, if only for a second, and take another look at Monument Avenue's famous statues.

-- 30 --

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