I Visited a Cemetery and a Museum in a Very White Town

Abingdon, VA draws it population from I-81 in a very western region of Virginia. It’s a small town with a thick history. When we took our field trip there, I was really not expecting to encounter white supremacist nationalism so close to the surface of every message and aesthetic encounter I read and experienced. The trip was split between one visit to the William King Museum of Art, and The Sinking Spring Cemetery. I will discuss two forms in which I saw white nationalism manifested at both sites: two forms appear in the exhibition and two in the cemetery, and they correspond to the continuity of white nationalism. One form is narrative and one is aesthetic.

I was quite enraged by the curatorial statement, which seemed as some capitulatory nod to the shaky ego of white males in the region. Statements such as “They came to the wilderness and they began to tame it—to cut down trees, build homes and fences, start families… The wilderness became a little less wild,” vexed my slightly educated sensibilities. It seemed so heroic and historicist, catering to the predominantly white audience. Then there was this claim, which almost seemed a slight against the “progress” of railroads and coal: “Where once we saw isolation and freedom in the trees, we soon began to see profit.” This actually touches on something quite prescient of the coming of railroads and coal: the opposition between freedom and profits, which is seen so starkly today. The same logic is more or less at work in gentrification: artists move into a dilapidated area of, say, Berlin, having at first a great deal of freedom as they colonize a wilderness. This comes with danger; their spaces are always more prone to crime, fire, and disease (in Orlando there was a recent fire ending the lives of many artists, and it started because of poor wiring and improper fire escapes). Soon the wealthy discover they can mine, in the general case of gentrification, the cultural gold (or coal) artists discover through their activity. All analogies are a bit lame I suppose.

The aesthetic non-encounter I had with white nationalism at the historical exhibition was with the “diversity” corner, which I had totally glossed over during the visit. It didn’t register with me at all. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention. But there was a similarity I saw in this pathetic corner (made visible to me in conversation later) and the encounter I had with the black slave section of the cemetery. Both are rather difficult to see against their surroundings. The “diversity corner” just kind of blends in with the rest of the display, which makes sense if one considers there were simply far fewer black and brown miners. However, can you imagine the exhibition centered on black miners—the reaction that would incite? Similarly, the black slave cemetery barely has an entrance, which is a little scary to get to even (no sidewalks, and rather heavy traffic), and looks more like an empty lot, waiting to be bought, than a cemetery.

Since aesthetics often bleed over into narrative, I would think the “narrativity” of the placement of the cemeteries, their separation, and the level of accessibility can be discussed. However, I will zero in on the difference between two different types of namelessness I see present in the cemeteries. The first kind of namelessness is that of the forgotten and nameless confederate soldiers. A special section of the cemetery is afforded them, and it seems as though their namelessness grants them some special honor in the context of their heroism. They are remembered as having been forgotten and lost to anonymity. The other kind of namelessness is in the black cemetery. This one is subtler. It resides in the namelessness of the nameless there, a double namelessness through the inaccessibility of the cemetery and its unaccounted bodies contained within. It seems like an object designed not to be visible, and it contains the nameless. The confederate anonymous, however, is a highly visible object, and it contains the nameless. So it is as if being forgotten and white is special, while we (they?) just want to forget we’ve always also been black; our story is one of blackness.

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