I Grew Up In Charlottesville And Racism Has Always Lived Next Door

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Innumerable flashbacks came to mind as I watched this weekend’s events unfold in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. Centuries-old stories of intimidation, brutality, exploitation, and impunity consumed my thoughts as I watched ignorant, dangerous, domestic terrorists march down streets that I know like the back of my hand. On Friday, I watched white supremacists wield torches through the grounds that are a part of my deepest memories. I saw the lawn that serves as the book ends of my adolescence — from capture the flag games as a child to my college graduation, serve as the launch site for vicious hate speech and unprovoked physical attacks. I watched men with torches move freely up and down a space that Charlottesville, Albemarle, and University police tried to force my comrades and I out of when we peacefully marched for Trayvon Martin in February 2012. Those same police forces’ absence and silence this weekend is a visceral reminder of what many Charlottesville residents know all to well — safety and justice are not equally applied concepts in this town, and racism has always been a part of our shared legacy.

I learned about Charlottesville's racist history through stories my family told me about neighborhoods, local sports legends, major events, and everyday happenings growing up. These stories circulated at family gatherings as easily as the food, bloodlines, and celebrations that brought us all together. Family members introduced me to the complex racial dynamics that are mapped onto this small central Virginia town. My grandparents — my maternal grandmother, in particular — first taught me about the deep historical roots of those complex dynamics.

My interest in history and its impact on the present were sparked by her willingness to share her stories with me, and I take tremendous pride in the idea that their stories, their lives, live on through me. One story in particular, is etched into my memory. I was probably 9 or 10 and I can still remember the chill that entered my grandmother’s sweet voice as she recalled the time when a group of white men harassed her as she walked down a street in what used to be the Black business district, Vinegar Hill, with her mother and sister. She recounted their vulgar words and physical threats and the double wound of the awareness that there was no redress to be sought, no official protection to be found. She couldn't call the police — no one would protect her. My heart ached for her then as it does now for the countless marginalized people who continue to be subjected to racial violence, hate speech, and economic exploitation at the hands of domestic terrorists and in the face of silent witnesses.

Deep-seated tensions and persistent inequality within and around the town's borders demonstrate that ignoring the ugly, hard parts of the local history does not make them go away.

My formal schooling was filled with lessons on the importance of Charlottesville’s traditions and legacies. These lessons praised Thomas Jefferson’s intellectual contributions to the United States’ founding documents and the architectural beauty of the University of Virginia. However, these histories avoided the atrocities (and lasting impact) of enslavement, failed to mention Virginia’s seminal role in the domestic slave trade, skirted around the horrors of Jim Crow segregation, and minimized the ongoing patterns of intimidation, racism, police brutality, and gentrification that have shaped Charlottesville. Deep-seated tensions and persistent inequality within and around the town's borders demonstrate that ignoring the ugly, hard parts of the local history does not make them go away. In fact, it maintains the dominant power structures and re-injures the most vulnerable populations, past and present.

Photo of the author's grandmother, c/o the author, Sarajanee Davis.

What we witnessed in Charlottesville on Saturday are the effects of a community’s long overdue attempts to address and reconcile its troubled racial past. The mob spewing their vitriol through Charlottesville’s streets might be emboldened by current events, but their actions and ideologies are not new. In fact, their ideologies are older than the statues the city finally sees fit to remove. The women and men eager to wreak havoc on the city are not strangers to us — they are the most familiar aspects of this community specifically, and this country at large. They are violent because they are allowed to be; they attack others because they know they can do so with impunity.

Theirs are the faces of the bigotry and discrimination that are woven into the fabric of this country.

It is not enough to deplore these actions or to cast these people off as a few reckless extremists. Theirs are the faces of the bigotry and discrimination that are woven into the fabric of this country. If they are to be stopped — and they must be stopped, not simply quieted — everyone who says they are against racial injustice and violence has a role to play. Charlottesville’s mayor must speak as much about housing inequality as he does about Donald Trump’s deplorable campaign. UVA alumni must demand the same protection for Charlottesville’s residents that they desire for UVA students. Charlottesville and Albemarle’s school boards can heed students’ and parents’ of colors calls for culturally relevant pedagogies and more teachers of color. Students should be taught the full breadth of our nation's history, as ugly as it may be.

These are not immature young adults reacting to economic anxiety. These are domestic terrorists representing the status quo of inequality.

You and I can begin to stir change by appropriately naming these events and their participants. In our social media posts and in-person conversations we must identify hate speech as such and avoid minimizing the violence embedded in their words as well as their actions. These are not immature young adults reacting to economic anxiety. These are domestic terrorists representing the status quo of inequality. Moreover, we can actively look for ways to practice authentic racial, religious, sexuality, and gender inclusivity in our work and recreational spaces. We can unequivocally reject the racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist language that permeates our culture so that our justice movement can adequately address each and every form of oppression we face today.

In my grandmother’s name, in the names of those whose histories of resilience and resistance that have actually been erased, we the people must press on. Those of us who are sick, who are fearful, who are outraged, who are tired, and who are crying for yet another unnecessary loss of life, must draw on our communal strength. We must support each other and continue to fight. There is no time for ambiguity and no time to "pass the buck." There is only time for unwavering honesty, a renewed commitment to justice, equality, and collective action, and we must not forget or try erase our history in the process.