“Someday this war is going to end.”— Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, “Apocalypse Now”
Substitute the word “war” with pandemic and polarity, and that’s where we find ourselves at the end of 2020. The fictional Col. Kilgore might have been talking about the Vietnam War in the Francis Ford Coppola blockbuster, but the sentiment will continue to apply as we enter a new year.
In what’s been described as an “annus insanus,” 2020 tested our resilience. It was truly a leap year, a period that skipped over the usual milestones and events of our daily lives. We stood at a crossroads of pandemic, protest and political polarization.
The world is fighting a public health crisis that shows no sign of abatement. The United States survived a presidential election marked by deep divides that continue to fester. The horrific death of George Floyd, an African American, at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked national protests over racial injustice and police brutality that in Virginia—and especially Richmond—resulted in the literal and figurative toppling of Confederate icons. It became a watershed year that knocked down long-held sacrosanct narratives, forcing us to rethink how we portray our history.
A year ago, news of a debilitating respiratory virus in Wuhan, China, began creeping into headlines. By late January, the United States reported its first case of the novel coronavirus in Washington State. In early March, a Marine assigned to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County became the first Virginian diagnosed with COVID-19.
Nine months later, reported cases in Virginia exceed 344,000, with approximately 5,000 deaths. Global cases surpass 82 million, with more than 1.7 million deaths. More than one-fourth of the world’s cases are found in the U.S., where deaths number more than 340,000. Medical experts warn of a potential surge in COVID-19 cases following the holidays.
Scientists developed vaccines in record time. In Virginia, the first vaccines arrived this month, administered to front-line hospital workers. We hope the supply increases so everyone who wants one can get vaccinated in the coming year.
We yearn for the “before time” of easy travel, maskless shopping, dining out, gathering with friends, going to concerts and hugging our loved ones who don’t live within our designated pod.
For many, our homes have become our offices. Millions of students across the United States attend classes virtually, laptops substituting for schoolrooms.
The pandemic brought about its own unique vocabulary: social distancing, face mask, quarantine, stay-at-home order, the CARES Act.
“Upend,” “pivot” and “canceled” emerged as words commonly used to describe the upheaval of this year, from shuttering schools and universities to working remotely to closing stores, restaurants, gyms, hair salons, barber shops, concert halls and other social mainstays of our lives. Pretty much every annual event, from street festivals to county fairs, went on hiatus.
We became creative in marking milestones, holding drive-by funerals, online graduations and holiday dinner Zoom calls.
But this year also saw the overdue rejection of longtime milestones to the Lost Cause and a reckoning with Virginia’s and the nation’s complex racial history.
Who would have thought that 2020 would be the year of the fallen Confederate? Floyd’s killing in May—captured in a chilling video that went viral—ignited a summer of civil unrest. Scars of the initial rioting still mar downtown Richmond, where dozens of buildings, businesses and restaurants were burned, vandalized or looted.
The resulting obscenity-laced graffiti smothering Monument Avenue’s century-old Confederate statuary signaled the beginning of their end. No longer do towering likenesses of Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis and Matthew Fountain Maury dominate the grand Richmond boulevard as either protesters or the city took them down. Other monuments across Richmond tumbled as well.
Lee Circle, home to the looming statue of Robert E. Lee, morphed into an international symbol of protest against racial inequity, where “Black Lives Matter” replaced Confederate veneration. The paint-drenched memorial remains the lone Rebel on Monument as efforts to remove the state-owned statue work their way through court. However, Lee’s once-ubiquitous figure no longer stands in the Virginia State Capitol or U.S. Capitol, taken down this year amid the changing attitudes of who we should honor as heroes.
Across Virginia, memorials fell of those who fought in defense of slavery and against the United States as schools and streets, among others, dropped their Confederate-affiliated names. Stonewall Jackson’s statue came down at Virginia Military Institute, where he taught before the Civil War, removed amid a state-ordered investigation into its culture and treatment of Blacks and women.
The coming year will let us further define how we want to project ourselves as a region, a commonwealth and a nation. In Richmond—the one-time capital of the Confederacy—honest, communitywide discussion must ensue about how to reimagine Monument Avenue and properly memorialize the city’s role in the slave trade.
Someday the pandemic will end. Someday our nation will no longer be so polarized. Someday we will achieve a reckoning with our history. We hope 2021 will be that year.