BY PETER ROBBINS
As I type these words, the demolition of the Vance Monument has already begun, and pretty soon we’ll all be looking for pathways to emotional closure. So it seems like as good a time as any to update my Asheville friends on my personal spiritual journey through these troubled times. It might give inspiration to those unhappy with the way things turned out.
Almost four years ago, I wrote what I hoped would be a thought-provoking commentary in Mountain Xpress on what to do with the granite obelisk celebrating the public life of Zebulon Baird Vance. Since he grew up in the place that was later renamed Marshall, I felt Madison County folks should have some say in the controversy, even though we’re not technically locals and people in Asheville can be suspicious of outsiders.
After undertaking a fair and balanced review of Gov. White Supremacy’s record, I suggested that the simplest solution would be just to tear the thing down. But then I got cold feet, fearing that so dramatic a step might be too much for popular opinion to bear.
So I settled, to my everlasting shame, for an inelegant compromise: Leave the Vance moniker on one side of the base but add three new names, including one or more African Americans, to the other sides. If we couldn’t get rid of the old racist entirely, I thought, we could at least make him spend eternity forced to keep company with people he devoted his life to segregating from his own kind.
Apart from the online heckling of a few gobshites, my proposal drew only yawns. Once in a while, someone in the Asheville media would suggest a vaguely similar way of renaming the monument, and their ideas were usually better than mine, so I didn’t pursue the matter further.
My bad …
But then the zeitgeist shifted. Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed. Black Lives Matter became a household phrase. Old ways of thinking were upended. Protests filled the streets. When graffiti appeared all over the once-unassailable stack of stones and a tarp went up to protect the monument from the people (or the people from the monument — I’m not sure which), suddenly everyone was calling for action.
I was smugly gratified last January when an Asheville City Council member advocated going one step further than my long-forgotten proposal: Removing Vance from all four sides of the monument and renaming the whole thing the Unity Tower. Never mind that the kind of unity for which the obelisk had theretofore stood had an ugly side: Hers was a noble sentiment, movingly (if naively) expressed, and that’s a commodity in short supply these days.
Then the entire City Council went one better still, voting 6-1 to demolish the monument altogether, and when proponents of the status quo ante unexpectedly crawled back under their rocks, I was left in the embarrassing position of standing alone on what was now the extreme right wing of the opinion spectrum.
So, OK, I admit it: I was wrong. My thinking was retrograde. Backward. Messed up. Egg on my face. I misread the community ethos entirely. If you were planning to erect a monument in honor of my pioneering leadership, well, you can just forget it. You’ll only have to tear it down later when people learn the truth.
All I ask is that you’uns view my shortcomings with some historical kindness, as you’ve done with so many others who came down from Madison County to reform your way of life. It was an innocent time back then: We were less enlightened. Many people held pro-Vance prejudices as bad as my own; some even worse. I was a product of my era.
I hope you can forgive me.
The concept of forgiveness, however, evokes another word that always seems to get dredged up these days in the wake of any sort of unpleasantness: healing. Face it, friends, we still have unfinished business. And I’m not talking about changing street names or making a public investment — call it reparations or whatever you want — to promote racial equity, though those are certainly important next steps.
No, I’m referring to the need to reconcile with those fire-eaters who opposed any changes at all to the Vance Monument. To maintain civic cohesion, we must convince these souls that despite the failure of their cause, they can return to the fold as legitimate members of this community. Think of it as a kind of reconstruction.
So here, you grumbling traditionalists, is my therapeutic advice on how to adjust to the new reality: Beat the lefties at their own game, Asheville-style.
If you can’t stop the obelisk from being torn down, let it go. Practice nonattachment. Meditate. Ponder a Zen koan. Recite the Serenity Prayer. Whatever. Groove on the rubble till you’ve exorcized the racist toxins you claimed were never there in the first place. Then repurpose the newly opened space in your mind as a spirit portal through which Zeb’s purified essence has been set free to energize the cosmos with hardscrabble vibes. Who’ll have the last laugh then?
Or you can just crawl back under that rock. Even with pandemic restrictions lifted, I’m sure nobody will be offended if you don’t want to group-hug.
Peter Robbins is a retired lawyer who lives near Marshall.