My Black mother, a fairly consistent church-goer and wedding and funeral attendee, raised a Black and happy heathen in Charlottesville, Virginia through the 80’s and 90’s, not realizing just how political that was or she is.
August 12, 2017, just before the terrorist drove his car through the wall of people, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring many, a white girl wrote on Facebook, “My father is a Charlottesville resident, and what those racists are doing in that town is not what Charlottesville is about. It’s a beautiful place, full of diversity and love.” I imagine her face while she typed those half-lies, her lips curling up at the ends, waiting on likes like she spoke the most obvious truths. I image her hands moving swiftly across the keyboard as to not lose much more time because there was a brunch to which she was already 3 minutes late. Her father, undoubtedly out of earshot of the clinking of the poles burying themselves into Deandre Harris’ skull just outside of the police station, sipping on an old fashioned, not realizing he never told the whole truth to the daughter who only spent her summers in Charlottesville. I told her, “my Black father is a Charlottesville resident, too, and has fallen victim to almost every part of Charlottesville’s racist system, including education and justice, and now the city has developed plans to oust him and thousands of others from their homes to ensure the photos look good when another magazine or the Washington Post comes to town to write another “greatest city” article. Thanks for reminding me to once again watch Chimamanda’s “The Danger of a Single Story” Ted Talk.
Truth: Charlottesville is beautiful.
My sister’s new, white neighbors called the police on my sister last week because there was “too much noise coming from her house.” My sister lives in a house that once existed in a neighborhood where Black folk rejoiced loudly no matter rain, sleet, or police patrolling. The house has not moved, but it now sits in a neighborhood that brings memories of cancer wards in the nearby UVA hospital; so sterile, so quiet, so white. The only rejoicing Black voices in that old neighborhood comes from my sister’s house.
My mother calls me, sometimes too often because she’s a mother, and we talk for a few minutes because she needs to make sure I’m safe wherever I am in the world. Isn’t that the politics of it? Isn’t it important to check on your Black son often when he’s run far from the plantation Thomas Jefferson built, quite literally? When she calls, we laugh. Like me, she was born in Charlottesville, too, and still finds reasons to laugh. As kids in different eras, me and my mother ran through the streets the city hides from the papers that write nonsense like, “Most Beautiful Place to Live,” and “Number One Place to Raise Children.” We know the one good cop in the city by first and last name because he’s fed us and played cards at my grandma’s house. We know the hundreds of other bad cops by last name, and we know where we aren’t wanted. We show up in those spaces anyway, and we’re loud on entry and exit. My mother calls me and I’m happy. I’m happy she called, I’m happy I made it out of Charlottesville, and I’m happy to be free and Black, then simultaneously sad that my happiness is political. The truth is none of my white friends in Charlottesville believe me when I tell them how the city has attempted to kill Blackness since long before we’ve come, and if it weren’t for their need to feel superior to someone, they’d be a little more intentional about it. “They” being Charlottesville City Council, Charlottesville Police, Charlottesville School Teachers and Administrators, and White Women in Yoga Pants. Like Lucille Clifton, I celebrate “that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.”
White children in my neighborhood played in the street until well after dark on weekdays, but Black parents who grew up far away from those kids’ parents made their children came in just before the streetlight because “these white folks are crazy,” the old folks said. Strange though, because every time I was stopped by white cops was while I was playing in sunlight near a park, near what used to be a plantation, near my grandmother’s home. It was in Charlottesville that I learned white folks would not protect me, no matter their job description; no matter how close our friendship is. I remember my mother ending her vacation early to come home and find out why my fourth grade teacher called me a liar. My Black friend, Chris, was adopted by a white woman who watched in horror as her son was tormented by white classmates and white administrators, but did nothing to protect him. Charlottesville’s Black neighborhoods, whatever is left of them, are zoned to one day be white. Charlottesville has never protected its Black citizens.
In the name of “Urban Renewal,” Vinegar Hill, a Black safe space in a time when Black folks in Charlottesville and everywhere else weren’t safe, was destroyed by the city and left to fester until the cancerous, gentrifying folk came along. McDonalds now sits on the land my great grandmother’s house once sat and there’s an underdeveloped structure in Rose Hill that symbolizes the end of Black safe spaces in the city forever, and we’re pretending to be surprised that it took them this long to push us out. When I go home now, I can’t find my friends, or their parents. What used to be their homes are now filled with yoga mats, string bean casseroles, and tanning salon receipts. I try to call them, but their area codes have changed. They’ve been pushed out into the counties in which we said we’d never live.
To grow up Black in Charlottesville and smile often is an act of revolution. To grow up Black in Charlottesville and be surprised by the Alt-Right and Ku Klux Klan Rallies is to have slept through your own existence; to be surrounded by bliss. The heathen I am, uncivilized and all, never cared to abide by what seemed normal. I played in all the housing projects and laughed loud when “they,” the white folks who did all they could to keep my friends and their parents in these communities, thought they killed my laughter. I refused to let the police look at the serial number on my bike when I rode through the University of Virginia, because they weren’t going to take the joy the sun and the breeze brought while I rode down that hill fast, my feet in the air, not knowing they were following me. The smile on my face when I told them “no” was rebellious. When I called the one good cop and told him what happened, he made them call me and apologize. Their voices were monotone and their apologies were empty, but they called a 12-year-old Black boy to apologize for attempting to kill his joy. The rarity.
“I have a message to all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today,” Governor Terry McAuliffe said at his press conference. Our message is plain and simple. Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you. You pretend that you’re patriots, but you are anything but a patriot. You want to talk about patriots, talk about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington who brought our country together.” I listened as his voice did that American thing that voices do when they condemn racism and supremacy using a racist and a supremacist as shining examples of how folks should conduct themselves. I listened at what sounded like an attempt to put Jefferson and Washington above the racists who carried out the plans Washington and Jefferson helped design. We can’t condemn the builders and not the architects, can we? Like the Black Charlottesville officer who put his life on the line to protect the racists and their system of oppression, they were doing what they’ve been taught.
The white educators of Charlottesville have grown accustomed to rewriting history to make figures look like them; to make them fit a mold that serves their narrative. In an early town hall meeting about whether or not to remove the statues, an educator told me Queen Charlotte, for whom Charlottesville was named, was a white woman despite what PBS and all other historians have taught us. He reminded me of the tours they currently give of Thomas Jefferson’s home, telling visitors Jefferson abhorred slavery, but kept his slaves because he knew they’d be safe on his plantation. It was these same educators who told my friends college wasn’t an option for them because of their performance, instead of telling them the truth. The truth is they weren’t taught properly. The truth is the education system in Charlottesville was never on their side. I imagine these educators told these things to my fiends with a grin on their face, using a standard set by the practically newly integrated University of Virginia, failing to mention Virginia State University, Virginia Union University, and Hampton University, schools that would have gladly welcomed them all with open arms. “Learn a trade,” is all they said, dismissing my friends to the cafeteria for lunch where I told them about the Honors English teacher who asked if I was sure I was in the right class.
I live in South Africa now. I’m witnessing the almost immediate after effects of Apartheid, realizing what the 50’s and 60’s must have been like in Charlottesville. I remember my grandmother’s integration stories and how white folks ran my uncle out of Charlottesville because of his dealings with a white woman. My ancestors told me stories of invisible lines they couldn’t cross and animosity toward the families whose houses they cleaned and whose clothes they ironed. On a flight home, a middle-aged white man told me Johannesburg was one of the greatest places on earth to him, and I remember Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer saying the same thing about Charlottesville, both men surely not bothering to take into account the pain their favorite cities have caused those existing on the other side of a line no one bothered to actually draw. Invisible lines holding back invisible people. Ralph Ellison spoke about such things.
The heathen I wasn’t quite raised to be, but have successfully maintained, wants to return home and knock on the doors of the homes that were stolen from our Black grandparents and aunts and uncles and ask the sympathetic owners if they care enough about equality and morality to give back the stolen property. I want to ask the city if they have plans to look at how zoning could save Black laughter and maintain joy. I want to ask the Black residents who remain to join me.
I miss the laughter. I miss congregating on porches, merry-go-rounds, and in intersections and storefronts and parks. We will have it all again and we will laugh a loud, deep, Black laugh.