BY JERRY STERNBERG
As I write this, Asheville is poised to destroy the Vance Monument. The heavy granite stones may soon come crashing down onto Pack Square, leaving us all feeling emotionally relieved (or not).
Those of us with white guilt will now be absolved. The rightfully angry Black community can feel that “Vengeance is mine,” and many in the white community — who, racist due to birth and ancestry, don’t really give a damn about this old stone pile or the guy it’s named for — will say, “What will they want next?”
That all-too-familiar refrain was heard when we freed the slaves, when we grudgingly made them full citizens, when they were finally able to ride in the front of the bus and send their kids to the same schools as white kids, and even when they were given the right to vote — subject, of course, to considerable voter suppression efforts.
I’ll tell you what “they” want next. They want respect for their contributions to our great nation. They want respect from law enforcement officers who don’t intimidate their children. They want an end to the kind of aggressive, racially tinged police enforcement that led to the needless killing of George Floyd and the abuse of Johnnie Rush right here in our own community. They want an end to redlining so that they, too, can finance their homes and businesses. They want a change of policy by white banks that gladly accept their money but apply a different set of criteria to minority loan applicants.
Maybe they should have their own banks, some folks say. Well, they’ve tried that but found out that money isn’t black or white, it’s green and must be offered to all on an equal basis.
When we look at those heavy stones scattered on the ground, we have to reflect that the monument was a handsome piece of design that, for more than a century, served as our city’s centerpiece.
I must point out that in and of itself, this simple stone spire does not depict an armed man on a horse, a religious symbol, a swastika or some other objectionable idea. In its essential form, the Vance Monument resembles hundreds of similar obelisks found in cities around the world; what tarnished this striking work of art is the inscription dedicating it to a man who was a slaveholder, a Confederate officer and a Civil War governor.
There’s a strong movement in this country today to stop honoring those who served in the Confederacy to preserve the horrible institution of slavery. Many now consider these people to have been traitors to our nation, and the latest wave of serious racial incidents has only exacerbated that resentment.
Asheville recently spent $18,500 to put clothes on this “emperor,” and less than two months later those clothes were gone with the wind. Now, we’re about to spend several thousand dollars on the demolition.
That money won’t put one bite of food on the table for white or minority children; won’t improve their education or pay for critically needed affordable housing at a time when low-income people are in such dire straits. What it will do is remove any vestige of the name Vance from the public square.
If we follow that logic, though, shouldn’t we also tear down Vance Elementary School rather than merely renaming it?
A committee appointed by the city has recommended destroying the monument, and City Council is slated to take up the matter at its Dec. 8 meeting.
I understand the zeal that many feel during this time to “do something,” but I suggest that while they feel great angst and an honest desire for retribution, they won’t ultimately feel any better once this icon has been reduced to a pile of rubble lying on the ground.
I also believe that if given a choice between annihilating this objectionable symbol or simply removing the Vance name and rededicating the monument to honor a truly deserving citizen or group, a majority in the minority community would choose to preserve it in altered form. City Council is constantly doing surveys: Why not poll the minority community — who are, after all, the offended party — and get a consensus instead of allowing just a few people to decide?
Looking to the future
In the coming days, both City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will vote to determine the monument’s fate. Do these elected community leaders want to be remembered as the ones who chose to destroy a magnificent monument in a time of great racial strife in order to placate an influential group of angry citizens? Or would they rather be remembered for their courage in righting a societal wrong by repurposing this icon, so that future generations can look toward the sky and appreciate this awesome artistic structure, now cleansed of the ugly stain of slavery?
Rather than settling for a pile of useless stones on the ground, why not envision a very special, countywide turnout to rededicate this monument to honor one or more local residents whose lifework, conducted in a spirit of love, care and understanding, aimed to improve their fellow citizens’ lives?
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.