Charlottesville, Virginia is one of my favorite places in the world. It was my home for four years while I attended the University of Virginia, and there’s still a part of me would be willing to move back in a heartbeat. Lots of people are emotionally attached to their university towns, but Charlottesville is truly special. A little blue dot in a sea of rural right-wingers, this little town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains is progressive, artistic, quirky, and utterly charming.
Today, and for the past few months, Charlottesville has become the epicenter for a kind of bigotry and hatred that the country hasn’t seen in decades, and I’m pretty conflicted about it.
My home state of Virginia is home to a violent and oppressive history. Thomas Jefferson’s university was built by slaves. There is a confederate graveyard in the middle of its grounds. Construction of a new academic building halted when they uncovered a slave cemetery. “Tradition” is honored above all, often to the detriment of progressive change. In short, UVA is full of rich white frat bros who would probably be hard to distinguish from some of the Nazis protesting today. Some of them ARE the Nazis protesting today: Richard Spencer is an alumnus of the university.
But people in the Charlottesville and the University communities have worked very hard to shine a light and tell stories of the oppression of people of color. To tell the truth about the city’s historic relationship with race. That slave cemetery that was uncovered while digging the foundation for the new building? The building was moved to a different plot of land and the site is now part of the Virginia Landmarks Register.
The white supremacy rally that was held yesterday was partly in response to the removal of a statue of confederate general Robert E Lee from a public park. My friend Adam explains perfectly:
Charlottesville is just at the beginning of a journey reconciling her history of racism.
Lee Park and Jackson Park were built in the 1920s on the edges of black neighborhoods. They remind us that white residents of Charlottesville refused to see black residents as their neighbors. They tell our children that these men deserve our respect because they were “good men” even though they fought in service of a crime against humanity.
Today they are called Emancipation Park and Justice Park, and the statues are coming down.
Charlottesville has just started to do what every city in the south needs to do: examine her monuments to a racist ideology, and reject that ideology resoundingly. And today she is under attack by neo-Nazis.
The people of Charlottesville were made targets not because they accept or support white supremacy, but exactly because they have been progressively working hard to expose its symbols and influence.
This week, I read March, a series of graphic novels by congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis. They were extraordinarily moving accounts of his experiences participating in lunch counter sit-ins, getting arrested countless times as one of the first Freedom Riders, making a keynote speech at the March on Washington, and getting brutally injured on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
I learned a lot about the philosophy and organization of the civil rights movement that I wasn’t fully aware of from what I’d learned in school. I hadn’t realized how insistent the movement’s organizers were on the idea of peaceful protesting and meeting hatred and violence with love and peace. I didn’t know that “nonviolence” is not just a description but a philosophy that requires training and heroic amounts of discipline and restraint. They needed to practice looking their aggressors in the eye, connecting with their humanity, and loving them. Always protesting out of love.
I am afraid, because I don’t think this philosophy of nonviolent action is as significant or rigorous a part of what is going on right now in Charlottesville and all around the country. It’s easy to say “let’s have a peaceful protest” but not as easy to practice. John Lewis taught me how directly non-violence was responsible for the success of the civil rights movement. I’m afraid because it seems like there is just as much hate on the left as there is on the right. And as valid as the anger may be, hatred will never be a productive solution. Hatred is violence.
I don’t have any answers. I understand that Charlottesville is not a miracle safe-haven. It has flaws like any other place. But I am proud to have called it my home. It is a city that considers its history one of its biggest strengths, and is doing the hard work of confronting and undoing its darkest past. It’s a city that won’t be intimidated by tiki torches and bigoted chants. And it’s a place I know to be full of extreme beauty and love.
Visit Charlottesville! Eat the best bagels outside of New York. Walk the serpentine paths constructed by Jefferson at one of the country’s best and most beautiful public universities. Visit the locally owned bookstores, coffee shops, markets, and ice cream parlors. Hike the Monticello trail, or swim at Blue Hole or climb Old Rag mountain. Fall in love.❂