Communication scholar at USC Annenberg

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Imaginaries of Past and Future in Southern Virginia

This post was originally published on the Civic Imagination Project blog here.

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This February, I had the great honor of accompanying Professor Henry Jenkins to Virginia, where he gave a lecture on our work surrounding the Civic Imagination at the College of William and Mary (W&M). While there, we also had the great privilege of meeting with graduate students and faculty at W&M doing similar work, and running a Civic Imagination workshop with LGBTQ activists in Richmond.

The trip was exciting for me in a variety of ways, not the least of which was to get a distinctly queer vision of the Civic Imagination, which we had not yet tapped with our previous workshops. I wanted to know what the queer future would look like, but more importantly, how we could get there. And to be among queer activists in the South—more specifically, in a former capital of the Confederacy—added a further element of uniqueness to the vision they would offer. I expected that my vision of the future as a European-raised queer person living in a West Coast metropolis would contrast sharply with theirs.

What emerged as most salient to me on our trip, however, was not the uniqueness of queer futurity or the peculiarities of Southern queerness, but rather the complicated interrelations of history and future across every conversation about the Civic Imagination we had while there. For us, in our work, the Civic Imagination is one clearly focused on the future. Of course, nostalgia and historical identities shape visions of the future, particularly (though not exclusively) among those who are more reactionary. Yet, despite the significance of the past, Civic Imagination is about articulating aspirations toward future worlds, not just temporally, but in terms of “progress” toward our ultimate societal goals. Thus, the continual focus on the past—in both positive and negative ways—as fundamental to visions of our civic futures surprised me. For some, in their articulated futures, the past and future would intersect, with a return to older ways as a solution to the woes of modern society, while for others the past and future would depart from one another sharply, with the necessary shrugging off of past ways in order to reach an ideal future.

Beyond the Civic Imaginations articulated by those we met, the settings of Richmond and Colonial Williamsburg offered their own historical civic visions (the Confederate legacy, in the case of the former, and the US’s colonial origins, in the case of the latter) that reverberated throughout our trip, coloring (for me at least) every interaction we had. On the way from the airport in Richmond to the bed and breakfast in Williamsburg already this began. I saw startling sites of contemporary Confederate politics in the region, including flag poles out front of old manor houses with swimming-pool-sized Confederate flags waving with smaller US flags waving beneath them and a barn with one whole side painted with the Confederate flag and another painted with Donald Trump’s campaign logo.

Once at the bed and breakfast, I was struck again by unexpectedly open displays of some of the darker sides of American history in the place’s decor, like paintings of minstrels and knit dolls of slaves. This made it impossible not to recognize and consider the history of the place we were visiting, even though most of the historical displays in the city of Williamsburg focused almost exclusively on the (patriotic) legacy of White colonists. As a living archive, in some ways, of American history, these testaments to White America’s slave-holding past is important, for to exclude these images would be to pretend it never happened. But to see these artifacts of racial domination alongside images of White colonist glory, such as wood carvings of fife and drum corps and sketches of George Washington, almost naturalized this past as part of the civic foundation of the America to which one is expected to pledge allegiance. Moreover, to see flippant, almost playful, objects memorializing the Civil War, fought in no small part over the freeing of enslaved peoples, such as chess boards of Confederates versus Yankees, boggled the mind, as these objects enabled playacted repetitions of history with potentially different outcomes—one which change the status and value of human lives in contemporary society.

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In my first activity with Professor Jenkins in Williamsburg, we met with graduate students in American studies at the W&M, several of whom contributed to “the Lemon Project,” a program dedicated to scholarship on the College’s history involving slavery. The project is named for Lemon, a man who was enslaved by the College itself, and, in addition to documenting the College’s broader exploitation of slave labor from its founding until the end of the Civil War, the project seeks to recuperate lost knowledge of the life of man from whom it takes its name. The project of reconciliation stood in stark contrast from my initial experiences in southern Virginia, yet even here the centrality of the past to the civic in this area was pronounced: moving “forward” for the College meant revisiting the conditions under which it came to be as it is, reckoning with that history, and articulating a vision for the future vis-a-vis their past.

In the evening of my first day in Virginia, Professor Jenkins delivered his lecture on popular culture and the Civic Imagination, and I heard a presentation which I had heard in various forms several times through new ears; with the events of the day that had preceded, I saw new threads of historicity and futurity woven together that I had previously accepted but not processed. Early in the lecture, Professor Jenkins discussed the example of the Broadway musical, Hamilton, which makes a powerful statement on the civic by retelling a White colonialist past with a cast comprised of people of color and focusing on the power that comes with being able to tell the authoritative narratives of history. Professor Jenkins then later cited the example of Horatio Greenough’s statue of George Washington, which depicts him enthroned in a toga, with a sheathed sword in one hand and the other hand pointed up toward the sky. Here, Professor Jenkins said, we can see how references to idealized pasts (in this case, Athenian democracy) offer visions of civic futures. Yet another example came in the form of Indigenous science fiction, in which peoples relegated to the past in our cultural imaginary assert their continued presence and articulate visions for future prosperity acquired without colonialist means (e.g., space exploration without colonization). The past and the future were frequently interwoven, sometimes to rewrite the past as a map for the future, sometimes to reference an ideal past as a model for the future, and sometimes to learn from a wicked past to dedicate ourselves to a more just future.

The next day, Professor Jenkins and I were driven back to Richmond, where we met with local LGBTQ activists in order to run one of our Civic Imagination workshops with them. These activists included long-time queer activists, local community leaders, and students, many of whom worked on a project collecting oral histories of LGBTQ life and activism in the American South. For these activists, LGBTQ identities and Southern-ness have been so strongly differentiated in our collective consciousness that they find it vital to record histories that show both that LGBTQ people have shaped the South and that the South has been an important place for LGBTQ people. The activists were also vastly disparate in their ages; their intergenerational perspectives oriented them differently toward the histories they collected, because some remembered them and others were discovering them for the first time through this project. Thus, coming in to a workshop oriented on civic futures, questions of the past were necessarily at the forefront. That is, their visions of the future were shaped by what they felt was left out of our understanding of the past.

Indeed, in our workshop with these activists, their articulations of an ideal future as pertained to identities exhibited a tension between the legacy of the past and hopes for the future. In the future, the activists expressed an ideal that we would acknowledge, accept, and affirm others’ identities without question or input; abandon the assumption that identities must be concrete and static; organize identities around common experiences, not common labels; and not need to know people’s identities to know how to interact with respect. At the same time, they placed a primary emphasis on the significance of histories of oppression to our future understandings of identities, envisioning a world in which histories of oppression are retained because of how they contributed to the formation of identities and their positionalities. For these activists, maintaining—and, as demonstrated by their work, fortifying—connections to the past allow us to move forward in ways that lead to more ideal civic futures than severing ties to these pasts and moving forward with identities ungrounded in their histories.

Yet history also seemed to play another important political role for the activists in our workshop. In our brainstorming, they emphasized that activism will always be necessary, and should be hoped for in our visions of the future, because activism is necessary for a society oriented toward perpetual improvement. As such, our striving for more ideal civic futures is always a project in dialogue with the past, and activism is the tool by which the woes of the past become the triumphs of the future, by which tracing our origins allows us to map our future course.

When Professor Jenkins and I left the workshop upon its conclusion, on our way to the airport to return to Los Angeles, we drove down Monument Avenue, the broad street running through Richmond studded with statues of Confederate leaders during the American Civil War, such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Erected in the era of Jim Crow, they were unambiguously intended as a political statement on the South’s political past and its hopes for a political future different from the one that would follow the end of the Civil War. As a bookend to our trip—one that, for me, was a tangle of messy affect about dark pasts, uncertain futures, and my disquiet with how they are interrelated—seeing such brazen displays of pride in the Confederate past of the city and contemplating the visions of civic futures they implied felt both discouraging and appropriate.

Particularly in the current political climate, such visions of civic futures rooted in a White supremacist past are salient and relevant and disproportionately influential in our work. They are also counter to everything that we as participants in the Civic Imagination project dedicate ourselves to in wanting to improve civic life for the future. But the events of the weekend made me question what we do with this past, then; what do we do with dark histories to ensure that our visions of civic futures rooted in the past lead us to progress rather than regress, toward justice rather than oppression? I left without answers, but convinced more than ever of the importance of our work on the Civic Imagination to finding those answers, and hopefully, in the process, making room for both the past and the future in our present work.