Their Eyes Were Watching Charlottesville
At first we did not know they were white supremacists. We thought it was a parade, one in honor of the event in which we came to participate: Charlottesville’s Festival of Cultures. It was May 13, 2017. My wife, toddler, newborn, and I had eaten local popsicles, enjoyed some chicken-on-a-stick, and made a bracelet with a Muslim. It was time to go home for naps, and, as we loaded the stroller and turned to walk the two blocks to our car, we heard the drums. My mind immediately went to Civil War drummer boys, which was a more appropriate connection than I realized.
Rachel, my wife, said something like, “Look, babe, a parade! What a perfect way to end the day.” We turned to watch. Men stood in the front of a silent, somber, moving group, men in khaki pants and tucked-in white shirts. But that was not my first clue. I noted something off when I processed that all of the people in the parade were white (something really noticeable after being with the Festival of Cultures crowd) and that all of those fifty or so bodies in the front of the parade were men. All the women were trailing in the back. I read a few of the signs they were holding up on sticks, and it all clicked. We stood in silent, open-mouthed disbelief as we watched this display, a resurrection of something that actually never died.
The parade passed by the Festival, which was in Market Street Park (formerly Lee Park, then later Emancipation Park), directly behind the bronze beast, the statue of Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee. They were on their way to another park and another statue.
Two blocks down the road the hoard of dozens stopped at their destination, one chosen, I assume, in lieu of Market Street Park being, likely in their view, overrun by people of color and cultures of concern. The group, trailed by my wife and I, stopped at Court Square Park (formerly Jackson Park, later Freedom Park), and gathered around the second statue that helped Charlottesville come to be known for more than being America’s Happiest City or the hometown of John Grisham — the Civil War Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.
Sydney the Subaru, our ride, was parked directly beside the statue, as close as you could get without illegally parking on the grass. In order to leave, to flee, we had to come as close to the event as any non-participant had at that point. We loaded our children in the car just as white nationalist Richard Spencer raised a megaphone and touted the benefits of being white and the plight of being white in a colored world. Appalled, but mostly shocked, we drove away, thinking this an isolated event, though a horrible one.
Then the national media started to give this event attention, and it all grew from there. My city officially became a hashtag.
Not until the next day did we learn of the events of that night, a gathering at the Robert E. Lee statue, complete with tiki torches whose lights fell upon the face of one of my African American high school students as he quickly drove away from the approaching throng. Then the national media started to give this event attention, and it all grew from there. My city officially became a hashtag.
Before this point I had processed embarrassingly little of the statue debate, local high schooler Zyahna Bryant’s statue removal petition, City Counselor Wes Bellamy’s press conference calling for the same, or Jason Kessler’s verbal attacks. After hearing Richard Spencer talk and seeing pictures of torches lit one-and-a-half miles from my house, I made myself aware. I lost the luxury — the privilege — of being ignorant.
I saw no pathway in which the statues and their continued presence would lead to a better world. There were historical arguments, institutional ones, political ones, and moral ones. I was first convinced by the cultural concern. A statue is a figure on a pedestal, a pedestal that raises the figure literally and figuratively. Cultures get to choose their heroes, the women and men memorialized in art. Regardless of whether or not Lee and Jackson are part of history, they do not need to be part of heroic history. I am not advocating for Lee and Jackson to be removed from our textbooks; I want their heroic status removed from my town. They are tragic heroes, at best, as honorable as the petulant, bloodthirsty Achilles, and I choose other heroes.
On July 8, 2017 we had my daughter’s two-year-old birthday party, a little over a month after the Festival of Cultures. Since she was under three, her parties still were more of a time for our adult friends to gather and celebrate that my wife and I had survived another year of parenthood and been blessed along the way with friends and family to ensure that. The party included a mix of temporary tattoos for the kids, mimosas for the adults, and homemade pop-tarts for all. The pop-tarts began as a labor of love and quickly became a labor of obligation after the 99th pop-tart, tenth batch of dough, and third night staying up past midnight baking and making. We were thrilled to have our fifty guests but also kept an eye on anyone who might malign the tarts in any way.
The location of the party was the result of wanting a place for free and a place for play. An art park in Charlottesville called IX Park granted us this, and so we (without a reservation that I knowingly ignored and which was technically required) emailed out the invitations. A few days before the party, when my wife and I were knee deep in dough, regret, and excitement, we found out that IX Park was going to be the location of a counter-protest picnic.
The KKK was coming to town. We were not surprised by their coming. It had been in the news for weeks, and the city was bracing itself for a day of services, counter-protests, signs, and other displays of resistance. The surprise for us was when I checked the IX Park online calendar the night before the party — crossing my fingers in hopes that no one would be competing with us for our unreserved space — and saw that a group had reserved the park for a “counter-protest picnic,” which until that point I did not really know was a thing. But it was. And it was not only on the same day as our daughter’s birthday, but this event would occupy the same space.
We shifted the party forty yards to the south, into a neighboring field, and set up tables, balloons, and the pop-tarts. Maybe because of the baking fatigue and maybe because I had never done anything like it before, it did not cross my mind to participate in an act of counter-protest against the Klan. (Wasn’t there simply protest and acquiescence?) The sense of our space, our lives, our town being disrupted (and a little desecrated) would not quite be real to me until the night of August 11th, when I heard there were Nazi slogans, swastikas, Sieg Heils.
Like most white people, I would have happily said I was not a racist, which would be true. I think. But the notion of being an anti-racist, the necessity of being an anti-racist, was new.
July 8 almost felt like a performance. The KKK comes all dressed up and the good people of Charlottesville protest. I do not want to minimize what counter-protestors did, especially considering that the KKK protest ended in violence (tear gas and multiple arrests), but a grad-school word echoed in my mind: performative. I did not really buy that the KKK were still real or doing something significant. I felt reassured and vindicated when I saw their crude signs, pot-bellies, and pickup trucks at the event. They seemed like a parody of themselves, stereotyped and reproduced for our consumption.
So while the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization tied to more murders or other acts of violence than humans will ever be able to know or prove, Klan-ed it up by the Stonewall Jackson statue, and while friends of mine protested their presence, I celebrated the life of my daughter, a short life, and our parenthood, which was short as well. The parallels of our birthday sweets and singing as a performance and the Klan’s shields and signs were not lost on me.
My response was to keep reading books on race, racism, and reconciliation. I kept asking questions. When I got to the idea that “race is a social construct,” my thinking shifted. Like most white people, I would have happily said I was not a racist, which would be true. I think. But the notion of being an anti-racist, the necessity of being an anti-racist, was new.
Virginia was no stranger to the boys of the KKK. I read of the Halloween in 1915 where parents dressed up a group of kids in KKK gear and marched them from the white school through the heart of black life Charlottesville, a neighborhood (later destroyed as part of the “urban renewal” movement) called Vinegar Hill. UVA’s founding father Thomas Jefferson fathered more than a few children with his slave Sally Hemings, beginning when she was fourteen years old. And in 1619 Virginia was the first colony to have African captives on its soil.
Despite all this, there was not a lightbulb moment jettisoning me into a place of public protest. And maybe that is okay. Organizations like the superb Greensboro-based training organization Racial Equity Institute (or REI), strongly recommend, once feeling woke, that white people wait, think, and process. So I processed and read and talked and questioned.
One idea quickly dominated my thinking. It was the revelation that, once had, unlocked the undeniable brilliance and intentionality of white supremacy: the creation of a racial caste system based on the (largely) unchangeable physical expression of skin color. If race and racism are all about power, and they certainly are, then what better way to maintain power than to tie the basis of power to something that can rarely be changed and even less often hidden or denied? Money can change hands in a moment, can quickly be gained or lost, so to base power only on money is too unpredictable. But to have power as a motive and race as the method is, well, effective. The power associated with my skin color historically had been leveraged over others, in every context imaginable — housing, education, the justice system, and even job applications — and I was an unwilling but no longer unaware beneficiary.
There have been two instances when I was hyper aware of having a white body. One was on a Belizean bus in 2007 when I realized for the first time I was the only white person in a space of dozens of people. The other was on the streets of Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, just over two years ago.
I think of them as invaders. Like a dreaded, maligned army or a foreign substance to the body, the white nationalists invaded. We had plenty of people Paul Revere-ing their imminent visitation, but it was still a surprise to see guns and riot gear and flame-throwers and blood and beatings and bullets and death.
I was determined for our family to have a public, bodily protest against the white supremacists coming to our town and a protest for peace and unity in diversity.
For our family it started before sunrise. My alarm woke me well before the sun so that I could attend a sunrise service at First Baptist Church, one of two First Baptists in Charlottesville, due to a sharp disagreement over the practice of having its black attendees sit in the balcony over a hundred years ago. Cornel West was slated to speak, and I wanted to gather again in the space that had hosted hundreds of us after the Charleston shooting in 2015. West spoke, as did others, there was singing, and there were outstretched hands of blessing on those who had been trained in nonviolent resistance and were asked to gather at the front. I left the service scared and sure that violence was inevitable. Then I drove by the Downtown Mall and saw a nearby parking lot simply filled with dozens of first responder vehicles, all parked and off but ready for action. I was not the only one expecting trouble.
I drove home to pick up my wife and two kids so that we could participate in a march from the Jefferson School, a former all-black elementary and high school, to a park one block away from the statue of Robert E. Lee. My wife and I had discussed at length what our role should be on August 12, especially after the events of the summer leading up to this day. I was determined for our family to have a public, bodily protest against the white supremacists coming to our town and a protest for peace and unity in diversity. I could not do what Atticus Finch advised Scout and actually walk around in someone else’s skin. But I could endanger my body out of love for another.
So we marched, with a two-year-old and a four-month-old in strollers. We marched with men and women of all colors. We chanted, “No hate! No fear! White supremacists not welcome here!” We heard a few speeches and even had a female minister turn to me, nod at the protest, and say in an Eastern European accent, “We do this,” gesturing to my children, “so they don’t have to.”
I looked around at the diversity united by a common desire for grace and a common refusal of hate. I was having a moment when I started to really notice the only demographic not represented — people anywhere near my children’s age. Ours were the youngest kids there by well over a decade. And then the armored bus showed up with hundreds of state police holding guns and riot shields. And then I saw the individuals moving around with walkie-talkies. I felt something that was, for someone of my gender and skin color, a first. I felt afraid for my body. More importantly, I felt afraid for my wife and kids’ bodies. Then I did something too many people before me were forbidden to do, either by law or by conscience. I removed our bodies from danger. We got in our car — passing more armed state police and barely missing, minutes later, the local armed militia marching up the road — and returned to our house, just down the road from the Lee and Jackson statues.
It was later that same day during a baby shower we were hosting for friends — a shower that was supposed to be at a brewery near the Downtown Mall, but the brewery had closed after some of the fights broke out before noon — that we saw the skirmishes escalate into riots. And it was at a service at Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church — immediately following a drive that took me over the Water Street bridge, where I saw a protesting crowd at 1:41pm marching down the street — that I learned someone had died. That was, of course, Heather Heyer, and she had been in the crowd I saw on my way to the service. Still alive.
That event, that murder, put Charlottesville on the global hate map, a place the city had actually occupied for quite some time. Now, however, there were reasons in my lifetime, in my children’s lifetimes. Redlining had turned to flatlining and partisan politics had violently partitioned privilege from people. A white person had used his position of power and bulldozed his way through a life. The same old story.
This was our city. This was our land. I felt violated. I felt oddly connected to suffering and those who were suffering while also feeling isolated from the world, and marked by this event. Guilty by association even. Still, there was nowhere else I wanted to be, nowhere else I wanted to live. My love for this city was challenged but unchanged. Many said this event did not represent Charlottesville; many others said this was exactly who Charlottesville was, but that others just had not seen it until a car drove that point home.
Racism is threaded through Charlottesville in some deep ways, but so too are the mechanisms for fighting it. There is a history of Charlottesville abusing its black citizens. There is a history of people erecting monuments and barriers to block themselves from “the other.” Even back to Thomas Jefferson there is a history of him putting a barrier between himself and his land — in the form of slavery. That is not just a Charlottesville story; that is an American one.
Whites put a barrier between ourselves and the land. A buffer. A buffer of enslaved, lynched, and incarcerated bodies.
My wife says that she feels “bamboozled” by her history teachers. The story we were taught as children was wrong. The story of America’s “discovery,” founding, building, and maintaining is one reliant on the exploitation of bodies. I have had to do the work my family, school, and church should have at least initiated in me growing up. We all live on stolen land built by a stolen people.
America’s national sin is not slavery. It is deeper than that. It is an inordinate desire for power in the form of white supremacy.
If people have their most-used phrase engraved on their tombstone, my dad’s would be, “Son, don’t make a decision until you have all the information.” I was not only given partial information about the story of America — I was given information that was false, and intentionally so. I now tell my students in the history classes I teach that the American story is one that alternates between exceptionalism and exploitation — and that those stories are interdependent.
Author and farmer Wendell Berry writes in his book The Hidden Wound, “[T]he root or our racial problem in America is not racism. The root is in our inordinate desire to be superior.” Race and racism are about power, about supremacy. America’s national sin is not slavery. It is deeper than that. It is an inordinate desire for power in the form of white supremacy.
I think of the signs in the civil rights movement that said I AM A MAN. This was not just a reminder to whites that an eighty-year-old black man should not be called “boy”; this was a reminder that the eighty-year-old black man was a man and not an animal, or an object. When we treat people as creatures, our animals as beings and not machines, our land as creaturely rather than as a factory, we will be shaped well. We will be reminded of the truism that bodies are precious, that land is a gift, and that human flourishing lies in the careful and humble balance between body and land.
I am a white man, a WASP, trying to reconcile myself to individual and institutional racism. I believe this requires a private and a public response. I am trying to figure out how. I am still left with questions: How do we fight whiteness when race is culturally conditioned but a lust for power is not? Why do so many of my students flinch at cruelty to animals far more so than cruelty to human bodies, particularly black bodies? Toni Morrison said that racism is distraction, so I think I have some of my answer there. The culture we live in is one giant distraction. Wendell Berry would love that explanation.
August 11 & 12 did something to the moral imagination of those of us who live in Charlottesville and were on the streets that day.
Berry says in The Art of the Commonplace, “We depend on other creatures and survive by their deaths. To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.” Many bodies were broken on August 12, and I long to see the sacred day when the injuries to and deaths of those bodies are transformed into something life-giving for creatures and creation. Healing is happening, and the good fight is being fought. I have the hope of progress.
And so I read. I talk. I write. I ask questions.
One of the speakers at the Baptist service the morning of August 12 said that we needed to leave the building boldly, with “the heart of Martin and the mind of Malcolm.” And then he raised a staff horizontally in his clenched fist and said to those who were headed to the streets and soil of Charlottesville, “By any means necessary!” The road that he is suggesting we walk down is nuanced and difficult, seemingly impossible. My method has been to find ways to wed together the righteous fury of Malcolm and the fierce love of Martin, and I am fumbling through how to do that. But there is something there.
August 11 & 12 did something to the moral imagination of those of us who live in Charlottesville and were on the streets that day. Because of that weekend I want to learn different things so I can love in different ways. That is why I put my body in danger that day in Charlottesville, why I was able to watch my wife do the same, why I did this with the bodies of my children. Because, really, how often are white bodies actually in danger? Rather, how often are we whites the danger that endangers others, mostly others of color? When the state police showed up on August 12, we left. What a privilege that was. Yes, a white one. But what a day it will be when that privilege is one for all. What a day it will be when our bodies are secure, honored for their inherent value, truly celebrated in thought, word, and deed at all levels of the public and private spheres. There will come a day.