Email #317: “a different approach”?

Susan Svrluga wrote in the Washington Post earlier this month about my employer and your alma mater, Washington and Lee University, its neighbor, the Virginia Military Institute, and the ways the two schools are responding to the increasing association of Confederate icons with white supremacists. She noted at W&L:

“Scholars are confronting the most troubling aspects of the university’s history, faculty members are openly debating the legacy of slavery, and a commission has been charged with making recommendations to the president by the end of the year.”

Will Dudley, W&L’s new president, says:

“I haven’t put any constraints on what the commission can think about, talk about, or recommend… People are all very eager to take action, and to know what action is going to be taken. I think the most important action is to spend some time learning and thinking.”

This contrasts “a different approach” being taken at VMI. Their Board issued a statement a month after the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville saying they will continue “to honor all those who are part of the history of the Institute. We choose not to honor their weaknesses, but to recognize their strengths.” According to one senior student: “The cadets here, we’re all in agreement that these statues are part of the history, part of what we strive to be as great leaders.”

Svrluga also describes the campus:

“On VMI’s imposing campus, with its towering Gothic Revival buildings, a monumental statue of Stonewall Jackson stands before barracks facing the parade grounds. Some of the cannons he used when he taught here are lined up, their wheels painted bright red.”

You should be familiar with those red cannons. The homepage of your website photoshops your portrait over them. Does this mean you agree with the VMI Board “not to honor” the “weaknesses” of Confederate leaders? Do you disagree with your alma mater’s approach of first spending “time learning and thinking”?

Svrluga also quotes a 1968 W&L graduate who objected to a statement about Charlottesville released by members of the W&L English department, myself included. Though he and I have differences, we also had a very respectful and productive email correspondence in which we both listened and responded sincerely to each other’s concerns. This is the sort of thoughtful, civil conversation you’ve claimed to value and yet have shown no willingness to actually engage in. You seem to prefer “a different approach.”

When you hosted candidate Ed Gillespie at your annual annual barbeque at the Augusta Expo last month, he said: “My opponent is in favor of taking down the statues and I do not believe that is the right approach. I think we should keep them up and we should put them in historical context so that we can educate them about them.”

That sounds reasonable, and I expect W&L’s commission will recommend the same for the statue of Lee in our Lee Chapel. But the statue of Jackson on the VMI campus has received no such “historical context,” and so students who view it daily are receiving no education but the implicitly enobling attitude communicated by the statue itself. Is this the approach you endorse? Will you remain blindly grinning before Jackson’s red cannons too?

Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an associate professor at W&L University, comics editor of Shenandoah, and series editor of Bloomsbury Critical Guides in Comics Studies. He has published two novels: School for Tricksters (SMU 2011) and Pretend I’m Not Here (HarperCollins 2002); and six books of scholarship: On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa 2015), Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017), Superhero Thought Experiments (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Iowa 2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Routledge 2020), Creating Comics (with Leigh Ann Beavers, Bloomsbury 2021), and The Comics Form (Bloomsbury forthcoming). His visual work appears in Ilanot Review, North American Review, Aquifer, and other journals.

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