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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Poems by ODU Professor, Alumna Selected by Governor for Time Capsule

By Amber Kennedy

Until Wednesday, a statue of Robert E. Lee overlooked the former capital of the Confederacy for over a century. The statue in Richmond finally came down, and crews began to look for a time capsule believed to have been placed inside the pedestal around 1887.

Based on reporting at the time, the copper capsule was believed to hold about 60 objects related to the Confederacy.

But a new capsule, holding 39 artifacts, will now tell the story of Virginia in 2021 to future generations. Among its items are two works by poets connected to Old Dominion University: Virginia Poet Laureate Luisa Igloria, a professor of English in the College of Arts and Letters, and Pulitzer Prize-winning alumna Natalie Diaz. Dana Chesser, a junior studying English and women's studies, suggested the Diaz poem for inclusion.

The statue removal came after more than a year of intensified protests and legal challenges following the death of George Floyd. In anticipation of the statue's removal, Governor Ralph Northam announced plans to replace the 134-year-old time capsule. On Sept. 2, the Virginia Supreme Court unanimously affirmed in two cases that the statue could be removed from its perch on Monument Avenue.

"The past 18 months have seen historic change, from the pandemic to protests for racial justice that led to the removal of these monuments to a lost cause," Northam said in a press release.

The Governor's Office invited Virginians to submit artifact ideas with a description of how the object represents Virginia. Submissions were collected through July 20 and, once selected, placed in a capsule crafted by Richmond sculptor Paul DiPasquale. The artifacts range from photo collages to videos to a piece of the tarp used in the unveiling of Kehinde Wiley's "Rumors of War" statue at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

When the stainless-steel capsule is someday opened, the words of Igloria and Diaz will capture the spirit of America in this moment.

Janice Underwood, the state's chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer and the former director of diversity initiatives at ODU, asked Igloria to submit her "Dear America (American Dream)." Igloria gave a signed copy of the poem printed in broadside form. The poem, which she previously read at a Juneteenth celebration at Fort Monroe, examines and dissects the myths and realities of the "American dream."

"As an immigrant and a woman of color, as someone part of a minority community, it feels empowering to know that a poem I wrote as both an act of witness to our times and also as a kind of letter of reminder and complaint to an America which has not fulfilled that part of its promise to its citizens to safeguard '... liberty and justice for all' is part of the collection of artifacts in this new time capsule," Igloria said.

"It's almost as if the wounds, in order to eventually heal and close, must still paradoxically sit with these artifacts of our shared, ongoing hopes and suffering. We need to actively remember everything that happened."

She noted that although society has a "very long way to go," the plan to replace the former time capsule with present-day artifacts showed "tangible steps in the right direction."

Chesser learned about the opportunity to submit ideas for the time capsule in midsummer, not long after Diaz was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Diaz, an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in California. Her award-winning work, "Postcolonial Love Poem," is described by her publisher, Graywolf Press, as "an anthem of desire against erasure." That mission motivated Chesser to nominate her work.

"I thought it would be a really good way to honor Virginia's seven federally recognized Native American tribes," Chesser said. "I wanted to make sure her voice was heard. The poem is going to live on for 100 years."

Imagining how the poem might be received by future Virginians, Chesser hopes the struggles facing Indigenous people will have been more widely acknowledged and addressed. "In the worst-case scenario if they haven't been addressed, I think it will be a really good glimpse into what progress was in 2021," she said.

When those Virginians read Igloria's poem, they will be challenged to confront whether the American dream has been made real for more people.

"Does The Dream we've been granted
taste, smell, and handle like the ones our neighbors have?
Does each of us down our block and around the city
Have the same level plot to cultivate, make multiply,
Pull up by the bootstraps?"

Find a full list of the time capsule's artifacts here.


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