Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Taking care with words

Several conservative editors in Virginia have taken Governor Tim Kaine to task for saying, in the wake of Obama carrying the state, "Old Virginny is dead." By the editor's accounting, the Governor is bringing up long-dead racism.
"Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" was the state song until the late 1990s when it was retired. Although written by a northern black man, James Bland, the lyrics are in the language of slaves... "Massa and Missis." We'll never know, but Bland may well have been a 19th Century Stephen Colbert, skewering racists with their own warped beliefs.
I don't think Governor Kaine had any racist intent in his choice of words. I doubt he has a racist bone in his body. But, he could have disarmed the editors and conservative critics by substituting "Virginia" for "Virginny" or by simply using the term "New Dominion" or something similar. Words matter and it is important for all of us, especially people in places of public trust whether elected or not, to use them carefully. Lesson learned, Governor?
So, when did racism vanish from Virginia? It certainly was alive and well in the 1960s - I still have a KKK flyer I pulled off a telephone pole in my hometown. Racism flourished even after Loving v. Virginia removed it from laws affecting our most intimate relationships. In spite of the huge step of Doug Wilder's election as Governor in 1989, it was still alive and well but not quite so public. By observations of the past week it is still here - one man, when seeing my Obama button outside the polls, screamed in my face, "I'll never vote for his black ass...." And judging by some letters to the editor in couple western Virginia newspapers... I won't even go there.
To anyone who believes racism is dead, I say, "none are so blind as those who will not see." But, tremendous progress has been made since the decades of Jim Crow. Many people - black, white, famous, and not-so-famous have driven stakes in the evil heart of racism in Virginia and everywhere - Mildred Loving did it. So did Doug Wilder. So too, Barack Obama. But, it isn't yet dead.
Yes, words matter. And words can evoke emotions and feelings deeply hidden in our shared heart of darkness. Be careful with words. I hope I've taken my own advice.

1 comment:

Progressive said...

Good advice Belle. I also heard some really nasty racist remarks towards Barack when I worked the polls last Tuesday.