Casual Killing and the Fall of Taney

Arguably, Virginia soil is historically, karmically, the birthplace of race in America—one of the first places where the American race mythos runs headlong into the happenstance and bloody history of its creation.

It is in Virginia that the biological reality of the “Roanoke Missing” meets the Cartesian reality of the “starving time” of Jamestown. It is in Virginia, we are told, that in 1619, a Dutch vessel traded Black people for food and supplies. It is in Virginia that John Rolf’s sweet tobacco seeds nearly missed meeting the bitterness of perpetual servitude codified and legalized.

In 1669 Virginia, the Casual Killing Act was enacted. This law exempted slave masters and those under the direction of slave masters from being charged with the murder of their slaves, if the murder occurred in an attempt to punish or correct them. The Casual Killing Act became part of what would come to be known as the Black Codes—a group of laws which would lead to the creation of America’s horrific, maternally derived, “race”-determined form of slavery. This new form of bondage was largely created by gradually “legally” redefining the Virginia colony’s relationship with its Black inhabitants. These laws and customs would lay the foundation for and begin the process of hardening race—a cultural fiction—into the main determinate of which “real” America one would be consigned to reside within, slave or free.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, in 21st century America, two visions of the nation converged—one based on a growing reality and one deliberately constructed of myths. This included the myth of the “lost cause,” the pretty packaging white supremacy was wrapped in at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. That vision cannot co-exist with the other America, the one that’s always been here, grounded in an ever-diverse reality. Heather Hyer had a vision of the latter, and someone took her life for standing for it.

In the days since Heather’s murder, the very thing her killer sought to prevent is happening all around the country.  Civil War statues, monuments, and plaques, largely erected during the dark days of Jim Crow, are coming down. One such memorial is a Maryland statue of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger B. Taney. The memorial, which stood on the grounds of the State house in Annapolis, was taken down in the middle of the night. According to an article in the Baltimore Sun, “Taney authored the 1857 Dred Scott decision that defended slavery. Taney wrote that Black Americans could not be citizens and ‘had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.’”

Taney’s decision is credited with creating the environment in which the slaughter of the civil war possible.  No cause is won solely by what is lost, but by remembrance and counting the cost.

We are all called to live together, whether we succeed or fail will be determined by us.

A special thank you to Phyllis K. Wil for her contributions to this story.

Wood, Pamela. Erin Cox. “Roger Taney statue removed from Maryland State House grounds overnight.” Baltimore Sun. Baltimore Sun. 18, Aug. Web. 20, Aug. 2017.

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