I grew up all over Charlottesville, Va. My first memory is of me in a stroller on 5th St. SW and Dice St. and someone with a blurry face getting into a cab. On Ridge St. I peed on a bookshelf when I was five-years-old because my teacher made me stand and face it for talking too much during nap time. I built club houses on Hardy Drive’s 812 section, busted my lip in Forest Hill Park, and stayed over my best friend’s house playing video games so long that when I was finally riding my bike back home to Rock Creek Road, my mom was waiting for me at the bottom of the hill in her robe, slippers, and curlers in her hair.
I led forgotten revolutions at a High School on Melbourne Rd. and talked about the lyrics to All About The Benjamins in a treehouse on Amherst St. before turning a riding lawnmower into a go-kart that would never run. If my once-deepest fear of losing my sight ever came true, I’d go home to Charlottesville, and buy a car. I can navigate the city that well. Even as a blind man, I’d point to the exact place in The Projects where the police ran to stop me as a 10-year-old with their hands on their guns to ask why I was running from them, when I was really running toward my little cousin in a game of tag. I can take you to my old barber who was accused of rape because, as history and science shows, all Black men look and sound the same. He was released when they found he was telling the truth. Downtown is where our big library is, and in the basement is the machine that will pull up all the old copies of our local paper, The Daily Progress, and if we do a search, we’ll see how almost every incident of racism and racial injustice in the town never made it to the paper. If necessary, I’ll explain how things like that get justified so often, even the victims thought what the cops were doing was right and just part of the job.
There are two Charlottesvilles and I’ve learned them both.
Before computers were in every home and because Kappa League existed, I spent my free time at the University of Virginia, talking to strangers in chat rooms, collecting age, sex, and locations, and being the “cute little brother” of some of the coolest guys on the planet. at 12-years-old, being with these cool kids on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s Academic Village, I felt a million miles away from my folks’ place on Henry Ave., or my grandmother’s spot in The Projects; both only two miles away. Here, Black boys aren’t being chased down by cops without reason, I thought. Hell, the cops didn’t make me nervous when they tapped me on the shoulder. All they wanted was to tell me to watch out for the biker. This was a different world. On these grounds, I learned to talk to women, build websites, and become the Black exception.
Sharing stories over the last few days with family who’ve been around the town much longer than me, and friends like Nikuyah Walker, you hear about how often the Virginia ABC Police, and of course the local police, have been throwing black men and women to the ground for decades at Foodmaster on Ridge St. and in front of Estes on Cherry Ave. If I behave like the cool kids in that part of town covered by the magical bubble, I’d be exempt from having my head bashed in, I thought.
Martese Johnson is my brother from another mother. We have the same ten men in our lives, motivating us to achieve in every field of human endeavor. As a young man, I’ve helped shape some if his thoughts, and he’s inspired me in countless was in return. We’ve laughed, chanted, partied, and discussed relevant issues. I love that man. We’re brothers. I want to tell him how important this moment is before it slips by and the world, especially Charlottesville, is no longer looking.
The world is now watching as Charlottesville officials pretend this is new. They pretend Martese isn’t the umpteenth Black man this has happened to since 2015 has begun, and they hope the other men don’t come forward. These other Black men won’t come forward because no one recorded their mistreatment, and they’re convinced that because they loudly protested their arrest, what the cops did to them was somehow proper. In Martese’s statement, he mentioned a “community of trust we’ve worked so hard to build.” I need him to push that. I need him to ask about the other men who look like him who were also bloodied and stitched; those Black men who don’t sit on Honor Committees, but are just as honorable. We’re still afraid to show our lives out of fear that these lives somehow justify mistreatment. They don’t. Understanding this is understanding why Rosa Parks made the news and Claudette Colvin didn’t. Rosa didn’t even mention her. All I want is for the question to be raised to start the conversation.
When I go home now, I’m in the same places. I sleep in Garrett Square, stop by Amherst when Whitmore’s home, go to Fellini’s and drink with Kim, and hit the streets with Nikuyah to discuss local Black politicians with their hands in the pockets of white politicians, and the state of education and welfare. The lines are blurred for me now. I haven’t stayed home long enough to know if I am the Black exception with unknown, unlimited resources that will show their face when I find myself in trouble like I once believed I could become, or if I’m just another Black man from Charlottesville who’ll get beat, harassed, followed, and have his character assassinated quietly, while media ignores my calls.
If there was a goal in place to keep the two Charlottesvilles apart, Martese was the wrong Black man to bloody. To build this community of trust, a community that’s made its way into town-gown conversations but not into reality, the exception must speak up for the rules. All it takes is the question.