Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Visit to Winchester

I live near a city of great museums, but I recently drove in the other direction, to Winchester, Virginia, so I could visit the Museum of Veiled History.  It’s a small, unassuming storefront museum, run by an old community organizer.  Yes, he happens to be my brother, Larry Yates. 

Inside, a large room is divided, and tacked to all the wall dividers are photos and artifacts, each with a story attached.  There are photos of slavery’s atrocities – the instruments of torture, the auction block.  And there are also stories of lost heroes, like Robert Milroy, the abolitionist general who ran Winchester for a few months and helped thousands of formerly enslaved people move north before the Secessionists came back.  Of course, many heroes have remained nameless, such as the Black soldiers who risked everything to head back south and fight their former oppressors.   

After the war, there was a brief period in which Virginia moved towards parity.  There were fourteen African-Americans elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, almost all of whom had been born into slavery.  But there was also a constant struggle with the white upper class people who had run things before.  And then there was the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1902, which took the franchise away from all African Americans as well as most of the working-class white people.  Larry calls this a “coup” since it was never voted on, just proclaimed.  

And then, as Jim Crow became entrenched, there was Harry F. Byrd, Jr, who ran Virginia as his own personal fiefdom for almost forty years.  He was born in Winchester, but why are there no statues of him there?  Larry says he thinks it’s because the people there are now ashamed of their native son, who orchestrated a huge, expensive, and ultimately lost effort to maintain school segregation in Virginia.   

The idea of the museum is that knowing local history is empowering.  The stories you’re told are only half-stories, shadows of the truth, and so you have to look beneath the veil.  What would people rather that everybody forget?  And why?   

Nothing happens in a vacuum.  Every event is connected to the events that came before.  When we look at the devastation in Houston, after Hurricane Harvey, we see a history of covering up porous green spaces with cement.  And so where does the water go, when it doesn’t sink into the ground?  And then there’s climate change, a series of escalating disasters.  There have always been hurricanes, but now they’re fiercer, picking up more water, lingering longer. 

What stories are we telling ourselves?  Some are about human resilience in the face of disaster, and it’s important to acknowledge that.  But we also need to look back, to see the chain of cause and effect across time.    

Mars just entered Virgo, and this earth sign is the dominant influence in September, with the sun, Mercury and Venus all spending most or some of their time here.  Virgo is about figuring out the sensible, practical solutions to the many puzzles presented by our lives on this planet.  What do we eat and drink, where do we live, what do we use in our daily lives, and how do we manage each other?

The shadow side of Virgo is a tendency to seek control, especially when things are unstable.  And when aren’t things unstable?  This planet is incredibly mutable, with exploding mountains and sensitive weather systems.  And we humans are even more changeable, with our fidgety hands and our constant curiosity.  

Control is a way of trying to maintain the status quo, something that virtually never works.  If the status quo was perfect, if everyone was well fed and satisfied, maybe it would be possible for us all to live in a static society.  Maybe.  But our actual world is one of dizzying inequality, where some people are encouraged to gorge and others left to starve.  It’s a world in which everyone is urged to forget what happened yesterday, and remember only what we’ve been told to think. 

As long as people are hungry, sick, homeless, or oppressed, there is absolutely no possibility of long-term stability.  What we have is surface control, the slick plastic look that is meant to fool some of the people, some of the time.  It’s television stability, a representation of reality, not the real thing.  And of course, here in the US, we have a president who is an expert in television stability, who has spent all his life working on the illusion of control.

And so what should you do with the Virgo energy of September?  The best approach is to figure out what really works.  Althea Gibson (1927-2003), the first Black athlete to cross the color line in tennis, had the sun, Mars and Venus in Virgo.  She said, “Being champion is all well and good, but you can’t eat a crown.”  So this is the month to focus on what you can eat, what you can use, what needs to be built.    

This is the month that begins with Labor Day, and Virgo is the sign of workers.  One of the myths of our times is the superlative value of “job creators”,  people who hire other people to do things.  If these people have value, then those who actually do the jobs have many times more.  The true creators of wealth are those who get out of bed every morning and accomplish something real. 

And if you’re one of those people, if you contribute to the everyday lives of the people around you, raise a glass to yourself.  Your name may never be known, but you are creating the world we all live in.  History is made by all of us, day by day, moment by moment, as we figure out how to handle our human lives, on this constantly rolling planet.  Let us watch each other, see what works, and work together.