Response to the Launch

 

At its core, Richmond Revealed (NOT https://civilwartraveler.com/richmondrevealed)  is information: information on Richmond’s ties to specific places and spaces on the African continent; information on the dynamism that pervades everyday life in these spaces. This dynamism is not only youth-led, but it directly debunks the xenophobic rhetoric emanating from political centers like Washington and Richmond. Considering the abundance of ingenuity, creativity, and leadership in Richmond, Richmond Revealed anticipates new modes of exchange to emerge between those diaspora and descendant communities who have done the work of strengthening these ties over decades, alongside counterparts across West and Central Africa.

Richmond Revealed is information. Richmond Revealed has never considered itself to be the definitive lens by which RVA stakeholders impose their gaze onto the certain places in West and Central Africa. These kinds of resources have always been here. They have never left. And thanks to the work of RVA’s diaspora communities, they aren’t going anywhere. Richmond Revealed has never envisioned itself to absorb, replace, or challenge any existing effort to strengthen these Transatlantic ties.  

I, Jackson Miller, recognize how this is miscommunicated by my presence, and the array of issues raised recently has called for transparency regarding my own intentions, this effort, and its outlook. To the extent that this project has engendered notions of recolonization, invasion, whitewashing, and disempowerment, I hold myself accountable and apologize. I recognize that no one needs this apology. No one asked for this apology. It is here.

 

The body politics of this space requires a constant process of reflection and re-positioning. And the work deserves a response when called.

 

Over 200 people, primarily in RVA’s Afro-diaspora communities, have been generous with their time over these past 13 months to meet with me regarding, Richmond Revealed, and these community, government, business, cultural and academic leaders (and those working at the intersections of these spaces) have all been instrumental in guiding this work. Many have demonstrated interest in folding this information into their existing missions. And I recognize how my whiteness, my ivy league affiliation, my capacity to work remotely, and my life en Gmail all operate to facilitate access to these spaces. Not everyone gets this crash course into the distinctly Richmonder politics of cultural memory, and for that, I remain grateful. I recognize that this crash course is not comprehensive, and I am still only scratching the surface.

As this is Richmond, I recognize how people in positions of power may need to negotiate decades of relationships before moving forward with this project as we approach 2019.

Stated another way, context is key.

And my decision to put Richmond Revealed online when I did was intentional after the experiences outlined below. I hope that the life-cycle of this project will also address false information in pieces like this. The perspectives raised are sound. And so the demand for truth becomes greater.

 

1. The myth of Richmond Revealed as a “summer interest project”

 

I split my time between Washington, DC; Richmond, VA. And across the Atlantic, I spend several months of the year between Harare, Zimbabwe; Kampala, Uganda; Cotonou, Benin; and Dakar, Senegal. I help manage a small foundation that supports local-led NGOs provide expertise to law enforcement units, specifically those mandated to target foreign criminal syndicates that pillage natural resources and foster corruption across 15 countries in West, East, and Southern Africa. These NGOs are paramount in bringing wealth back into local communities. These organizations are local-led and have dictated their needs on their terms.

To help pay for other life expenses like medical debt (because we’ve all been there), I have also taken on anti-timber trafficking consultancies, which has taken me to the Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Mozambique. These jobs have also allowed me to continue using both Mandarin Chinese and French every day.

 

So did this project unfold on vacation inspired by a fleeting interest in “Africa” as suggested by the piece above? That would be convenient, but it is untrue. So how did Richmond Revealed emerge?

 

2. The Myth of the “Cross-Cultural Broker”

 

In February 2017 (18 months ago), my boss and I were invited by senior advisors to President Talon to assess certain security threats in the northern part of the country (primarily tied to land conflict due to the Sahara’s expansion). During this study, an advisor strongly recommended we go to Ouidah.

Ouidah was a prominent port of capture for the trade in enslaved Africans, and as many of you know at this point, 380 individuals survived the Middle Passage and came to Greater Richmond in bondage directly from Ouidah, Benin, in 1739.  Today, avenues lined with monuments of former slavers criss-cross Ouidah’s city plan, while the history textbooks available to local students are unapologetically dictated by French academics...with little mention of slavery.

Evidently, the conversations taking place in Ouidah (as well as the education gaps) were strikingly similar to those in Richmond.

 

Previous work led by RVA diaspora leaders, particularly the Reconciliation Triangle among countless other groups, provided context to ask Beninois authorities if any Richmonders were working in Ouidah. Unfortunately, none of the scores of subject matter experts, community members, nor culture/tourism ministry employees knew of the Reconciliation Triangle, nor could they confirm 

 

And yet, China’s state-owned “Yunnan Construction and Engineering Group” is currently working to revitalize the port and museums.

How is a Chinese construction firm dictating what Ouidah looks like when there is no shortage of creative capital across RVA's, particularly by the diaspora leaders who have solidified these ties over decades? We are also dealing with a context of race in China that permits the use of blackface for television specials that reach over a billion people annually. (link here, feel free to watch from 3:17:00)

*Note: this should not engender anti-Chinese sentiments (that clearly opens up a whole other set of historicized racism and xenophobia, but the lack of transatlantic engagement on projects like Ouidah, which are vital to the ways Benin projects itself to the rest of the world, should be addressed. ASAP*

July 2017: When the Maggie L. Walker statue was unveiled, I forwarded this information to contacts in Benin, so they were aware of how RVA was reckoning with these histories (at least in one context, anyhow). They expressed interest in learning more about the ways RVA was dealing with issues like monuments, because again, Ouidah is peppered with monuments of prominent slavers.

August 2017: Where to begin...reached out to the Mayor’s Office, several City council reps, universities, school systems, NGOs, to gauge interest.

Fall 2017: Meetings across Richmond. Richmond City Government requested that any bilateral effort should involve the Embassy in DC, per protocol. And there was general interest in meeting counterparts in Benin

January 2018: President Talon’s tourism advisor came to Washington, DC, and reached out to me and asked if there was still interest from Richmond in meeting with him. I reconnected with government officials and business leaders, particularly those involved with the Reconciliation Triangle, and they requested an introduction to the Embassy. The Embassy asked that I set time aside during a morning in late January, while they were dealing massive staff changes (we’ve all been there).

I do recognize the problematic optics of a lone white guy “brokering deals” between Benin-based and RVA-based stakeholders. To the points made in this article, “brokering” often involves dictating the terms of engagement between multiple parties. In this case, for pure clarity, I was asked by leaders across the Atlantic to handle the benign, logistical elements for a conversation to take place, but the substance of the conversation itself was led by the interests (and concerns) of both RVA and Beninois representatives. The conversation proved to be a valuable learning opportunity for all of us on where priorities lied across both sides of the Atlantic, a year ahead of 2019.

Spring 2018: In the months ahead, it was not surprising that interest faded for the majority of stakeholders. Priorities change. Fires (metaphorical and physical) may need to be put out. However, several city leaders did request that I provide periodic updates, which I sent to approximately 60 people on a monthly basis, as a measure of accountability to everyone who gave me their time up to this point.

 

3. Capitalizing on Black Pain?

 

This should be a major concern for anyone who calls RVA home. At all times.

So one key theme that has emerged from this crash-course in cultural memory politics of Richmond has been the growth of parallel “ecosystems of memory” between minority-led and white-led institutions.

As many of you know, there are countless Afro-diaspora leaders doing the work, spending 26 hours a day devising creative resources for communities to unearth these histories. The narratives that arise are complex, nuanced, and empowering.

 

At the same time, there has emerged a separate “marketplace,” whereby interested, non-African stakeholders have developed programming that speaks to these histories, but do so in a nauseatingly simplistic way. These narratives often prioritize white comfort over critical reckonings of histories,which are anything BUT comfortable. And yet, these sentiments of white comfort mobilize donor support at lightning speeds. Please feel free to reach out for my personal take on this.

With that said, I have done my best to be hyper-aware of how my presence can generate such a potential for harm. Can more be done on my end? Absolutely. And as made evident by the article above, the notion persists: Is this white guy going to cash-crop my [Afro-diaspora leaders’] work and peddle it for some contract? A job? More money?

I have work, which is a blessing in itself. And I’ve used additional freelance opportunities to pursue independent research projects.

In this manner, I accepted requests for pro bono (no compensation) work from dozens of contacts across Richmond to build trust and facilitate, not dictate, engaging with places like Benin.

 

To be clear, these contacts that requested pro bono work include those who led the 2007 delegation to London mentioned in the above article. Whether it has translations, background research, talking points, or introductions, I have done my best to follow through because these leaders do the work. And they asked. They defined their needs, on their terms. 

 

Now, was this “table” of transAtlantic engagement already “set” by RVA’s diaspora communities long before this work began? Absolutely. So it became even more problematic when I learned that no one from the current embassy has been to Richmond since Talon was elected in April 2016. If there are records that suggest otherwise, please circulate! Further, there are replicas of the Reconciliation Statue all over the Embassy, but only one person working in the Beninois Embassy was aware that the Reconciliation Statues tied Benin to Richmond until the date of that bilateral call in January 2018.

 

The table had been set, but the actors in this particular context had shifted due to dramatic political change on both sides of the Atlantic. Does this mean that no work as done in places like Benin to strengthen diaspora ties? Not at all.

I recognize the extent to which these experiences inadvertently exclude more agile, creative, and grassroots modes of leadership. And I hold myself accountable to that. I am fortunate that members of RVA’s diaspora leadership have provided crucial guidance to promote engaging with more creative leaders.

If the main goal is to make information on what’s happening in places like Benin more readily available, where else should we be having these conversations? Again, there is no shortage of leadership or creativity here in Richmond. I organized a community luncheon to gauge interest outside the four walls of city offices. I also connected with a brilliant web designer (richmethods.work) out of VCU to finally build a digital platform.

 

Now, for campaigns like Richmond Public Library’s 100 Days RVA Reads, I absolutely understand how the presence of a lone white male talking about these histories can inadvertently disempower voices at the intersections of various communities, whose voices should always be centered in these discussions. Unfortunately, one guest (mentioned in the first minute of the video) could not attend, and I fell short finding someone else.

I recognize how this context can garner the assumption of white-washing these histories. And I hold myself accountable to that.

When I read responses to the “Revealing Richmond” piece about people learning about the work done by diaspora leaders in strengthening these ties, I feel elated because people should be talking about that. RVA should be recognizing that leadership. RVA should constantly be leaning upon those experiences and perspectives when engaging with these histories. I hold myself accountable for not engaging with more members of that cohort.

Recognizing those gaps is a necessary part of this work. And if the goal is to raise awareness and to mainstream these direct, multifaceted, multinational engagements into the ways that RVA reckons with 2019...then these these flashpoints, these re-positionings, these critiques, will be part of that process. No one says these conversations are easy. And if these conversations do not take place, the work is not being done.
 

4. Looking Ahead. But Grad School?

 

Yes, I am on my way to graduate school. I deferred admission to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Master in Public Policy Program in Spring 2017, so I could 1) save money and 2) gain more work experience.

 

Grad school affiliations tied to Richmond Revealed should debunk any idea that I am profiting from any of this work. No profit has been generated for anyone. The website, previous lunches, other research...have all been self-funded. And I do not anticipate making any income from this work.

 

In this vein, I receive two questions:

 

  1. How will this work continue? Well, that is a great question, and please note that I have managed these relationships and work in transit for over a year now. We do have prospective programs lined up over the course of next year, but in ways that add capacity to key cohorts and various diaspora leaders across Greater RVA. Since last year, I’ve written concept notes from grantee offices in Zimbabwe. I’ve held conference calls in the deserts of Namibia, all while working multiple jobs. The question is never: will the work get done, but how? And if this is a watershed moment in Richmond’s history like we claim it is, then it is our responsibility to make the time for the work. Grad school is just another variable to navigate.

In this vein, I clearly need to re-interrogate my role and fall back, in the words of a mentor who splits her time between New York, Haiti, and Benin. Richmond Revealed will likely remain a platform for information that should be accessible to the public, but the programmatic elements should be crafted by, of and for RVA’s Afro-diaspora communities. Richmond Revealed will remain a pro bono space for analysis, research, and support when asked. And just like the work done this past year, it should remain a resource to operationalize how key RVA stakeholders envision globalizing their 2019 agendas if they choose so.

 

2.Related Question: The delegation to Benin?

One common question I am asked, is “are there tangible outputs?” So 2019 doesn’t only mark 400 years since the first arrival (on record) of enslaved Africans to Virginia’s shores, but it also marks the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Global Slave Routes Project.

 

My above-mentioned mentor reached out to me in late Spring 2018, asking if I knew the organizers of Benin’s International Film Festival that is going on throughout August 2018; these same organizers also appear to be creating next year’s UNESCO programming in Benin. I did not know them, but several filmmakers in Richmond had asked for leads into Beninois filmmaking spaces. Could these be the filmmakers that they said they were looking for?

 

Turns out these filmmakers were already developing projects with Afro-diaspora creatives in Liverpool, UK, and Nantes, France. When I asked them about partners and projects across the Atlantic, there were none to their knowledge. They were also unaware of a pre-existing Reconciliation Triangle between Liverpool, Benin, and Richmond. This. Is. A. Problem. I recognize that work was likely taking place outside of these NGOs, but there is no reason that Richmonder perspectives, specifically those of the Afro-diaspora community, should not be part of how these moments are curated/commemorated.

 

Directors of Beninois NGOs (particularly Writers without Borders, Collective for the Memory of Humanity, the James Baldwin Collective (Facebook page sourced, feel free to scroll down to post from August 4), as well as members of traditional ruling families), were all interested in learning more about RVA diaspora filmmaking, so I quickly reached out to contacts in RVA and translated several documents from French to English as requested. Days later, Beninois contacts offered to commemorate these ties to Richmond as part of their Marcus Garvey Day programming for 17 August, 2018 AND 2019. Richmond, as a collective entity, will be recognized!

When the assumption was made that a lone white guy would go on a stage and accept a kind of recognition on behalf of Richmond, I simultaneously barfed and laughed. Those optics would be disgusting. However I should have clarified that the recognition is ceremonial this year, and should simply help raise awareness among Beninois film audiences about the work being done across Richmond. 

 

RVA’s ties to places like Benin, particularly the decades of work leading up to 2019, should form the foundation of how Richmond reckons with this moment. I am confident that an RVA delegation to Benin will help ensure that 2019 is more than a moment. An RVA delegation to Benin could ignite more sustained, multifaceted engagement with both Benin and the region.

 

RVA's philanthropies are well-positioned to fund such an effort. When asked what might a delegation look like? How long would Richmonders go to Benin? And other places? Where might they stay? and how is 'success' measured? I respond accordingly. Does this mean I am leading or participating in this delegation? No. If this was miscommunicated, I recognize that and apologize.

To the extent that conversations have re-hashed wounds tied to colonialism, toxic masculinity, and cultural appropriation, I hold myself accountable.

When the ultimate goal is to provide information, I am humbled by these conversations.

The questions raised are sound. Out of the infinite possibilities, what priorities should be addressed in these engagements? Who steps up? Who falls back? How do we prime the conversation now, so we all are ready for 2019? These are all necessary components of these conversations.

--

We just commemorated one year after the domestic terrorism and racial violence that wreaked havoc on Charlottesville, VA. Weeks after this terrorism, Richmond’s Reconciliation Statue was vandalized with the words, “Confederate States Forever.”  These perspectives are amplified by the hyper-masculine, racist, xenophobic, Trumpismo political climate emanating from Washington.

In this manner, actions like leaning into these conversations, actively listening, and working to re-adjust positionalities, become more urgent than ever before, particularly for those who benefit from whiteness and interlocking systems of masculine, Anglophonic, and/or heteronormative power. 

Thank you very much for your time.

 

Sincerely,

 

Jackson