What the events in Charlottesville helped me to see, unfortunately, about my former beloved home
I wrote this post about two weeks ago, and have hesitated to share it. It is ALWAYS intensely difficult to press "publish" when sharing one's voice on such a sensitive topic. But I have decided that it is important to do so; we all need to speak up in these difficult and confusing times in order to come together and create positive change.
I attended a university that was built by slaves, and only one faculty member in my four years there - my favorite English professor, Mark Edmundson - took the time to mention it.
For all of the times the University lauded Mr. Jefferson (a man with his own slavery baggage) for his contributions to the school, the administration seemed to leave out this quite important detail. Only a small plaque, which I have only read about - so small it is that my feet never happened to actually cross over it - commemorates the slaves who built the Rotunda, UVA's most iconic building. So, as students lounged on sunny days amid the school's original buildings on the lawn, or partied along the old houses on Rugby Road now belonging to the school's many fraternities, they didn't offer gratitude, in their carefree college minds, to the hundreds of slaves who helped build their surroundings and lay in unmarked graves nearby.
What happened on Saturday, August 12th was a terrible thing. There is no arguing with that. On a day when downtown Charlottesville is usually peaceful, home to runners and shoppers at the farmers' market, it was instead flooded with a group of people believing sincerely that another group, by the nature of the blood that courses through their veins, does not deserve to coexist on this planet. Now that, friends, is an archaic and amazingly saddening mindset. But it is not one that is unfamiliar.
I had no black friends at UVA. Zero. I am ashamed to admit that, and now, in retrospect, living in as diverse a place as New York, I find it shocking. It wasn't a conscious choice, but it was a byproduct of the world I chose to be a part of there; and it was true of most of my fiends there as well. There was little diversity in my social circle, the one that seemed to be THE social circle at UVA: Greek life. My friend group in my pledge class, while I remained a part of it, had a running joke that the "diverse" members were the brunettes in the mix, as most of us happened to be blonde (natural or not). Over the course of my time in my sorority, there were a few members who were mixed race, and there was one fully African American girl who joined, I believe, after I left. And the fraternities seemed equally un-diverse. The secret societies seemed to invite a slightly more mixed crowd. And there was an entire separate social scene at UVA -the "black" fraternities and sororities, unaffiliated from official greek life. Their parties, I heard, were much more fun. But what a crazy idea, that our social lives were so incredibly separate. I am not sure what the solution to that would be; perhaps some of it had to do with preference, with cultural differences - choosing to be a part of the club in which you know you will feel more accepted. Certainly, rushing a black sorority would never have crossed my mind, had I even known they existed at the time of rush. But how much of this separation, also, has to do with a culture of discrimination? With not making African American women and men feel accepted into a white social structure, or perhaps, behind closed doors, blatantly rejecting them from it in the very fucked up process of rush? Further still, there are countless times every weekend, at several doors, when people are turned away from parties, from bars, based on how they look; on occasion, race certainly plays a part.
I want to convey that the events in Charlottesville were tragic beyond measure. But they also awakened a kind of "Not My Charlottesville" attitude in the people I had left behind in that community that I find slightly worrisome. Because Charlottesville, I think, has a LOT of work to do. Of course, I am not talking about trying to coax white supremacists into reason, because that is impossible. But the issue of race in Charlottesville, both at the University and within the city at large, is an enormous issue. While at UVA, I was a part of the Big Sibling program, and I got to see a side of Charlottesville that I otherwise would not have seen. Lyrique, my "little sister," who was nine years old when I met her, is African American and lives in a neighborhood about seven miles from the Charlottesville campus, up highway 29. It was a nice-enough looking campus, but her family survived on her mother's government disability income (about $1000 a month), and while she had enough to get by and to be fed, she was not a lucky kid. This was true of the entire community she lived in, and there were countless communities like this all around Charlottesville - government housing for disadvantaged families. Now, even closer to campus, there were even less advantaged communities, but university students just zoomed by all of these in their cars and didn't see them. A lot of this, granted, has to do with economics rather than race, but in Charlottesville the two are tied in a way that is impossible to ignore. While a large part of Charlottesville - the one that was visible, most of the time, to me during my time there - is booming into a beautiful, artsy, foodie heaven; the other half is is a stagnant struggle somewhere on the outskirts, and the first half doesn't even seem to be employing the latter.
This is a sputtering of my discomfort. What is most concerning is that, in the midst of this discouraging disparity, hateful people could condone white supremacy. But we shouldn't believe that these awful people are where the problem starts and ends - there is more work to do; these people, unfortunately, are just the horrendously ugly tip of the iceberg.