I am not surprised that my beloved Charlottesville took the hit for all of us last weekend by standing up so bravely to the hatred, violence, vitriol, and bigotry that invaded the town. Charlottesville set an example for us all.
I came to this picturesque college town, home to the University of Virginia, after graduating from what is more commonly known as the “Fame School” in New York City, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. My high school was exceptionally diverse in every sense of that word. Chaz Bono was a couple of years ahead of me and went by the name Chastity Bono at the time. Recurring characters from The Cosby Show roamed the halls, gospel music and Beethoven filled the stairways. It’s a school that requires a series of auditions in order to gain entry. You were admitted on talent, not because of who you were, or from where you came. As a result, the student body reflected the city of New York itself with no one group dominating another.
When I entered the University of Virginia as a biracial young woman, I was shell-shocked, to say the least. The campus was extremely segregated — with whites congregating primarily with other white people, Blacks associating with Black people, and other ethnicities similarly staying with “their own.” I didn’t expect this division, and frankly, didn’t know how to navigate these divided waters. To broaden my social circle outside my dorm, I rushed what were called the “social sororities,” having no idea that this term was code for the primarily white sororities. I accepted an invitation to join Delta Delta Delta, and was the first Black Tri-Delt at UVA. I thought I was making a statement — that I would not be excluded, that I belonged, that we all belonged together.
One of my first interactions with an older “sister” disabused me of that naiveté. She told me after using a racial epithet in my presence that it shouldn’t bother me because I didn’t represent the epithet to her. To be clear, this woman was an aberration in Tri-Delt for sure, and I gained some amazing friendships with exceptional women that I hold dear to this day. But the racial divide was omnipresent on campus — a fraternity that had a Confederate flag hanging in its hallway, heated discussions about affirmative action in admissions to the elite state school. I eventually managed to find my own path, and somehow bridged the divide. I joined a group of students to re-establish an on-campus NAACP chapter and volunteered at the Women’s Centre, along with students of all colours and creeds.
My initial frustration with race relations on campus led me into the arms of Charlottesville. I was trained as a jazz singer at LaGuardia and performed professionally in New York, so I picked up some gigs. I got a part-time job at the cool new restaurant on Main Street, Southern Culture, where I met my current partner so many years ago. I moved off-campus to a predominantly African-American section of town. I went to book readings, helped on local theatre productions, and left the library to listen to live music on a regular basis. In the city, I was just another character on the scene — a piece of the fabric of this liberal, artsy, accepting, and intellectual tapestry of Charlottesville. I never felt like I didn’t belong, or was different, or like I had to choose sides. Without the town and people of Charlottesville, it would have been much more difficult for me to make it through Mr. Jefferson’s University.
So it is no surprise to me that Charlottesville so ably took the tragic blows of hate. No surprise that it stood up for what was right, was just. No surprise that its people confronted racism and yelled in its ugly face to leave. On the Sunday after that tragic, bloody Saturday, Jason Kessler, the white supremacist who organised the Unite the Right rally, tried to speak in front of Charlottesville City Hall. No one could hear a word he said. He was surrounded by the people of Charlottesville screaming “shame!” and “murderer!” and had to be escorted from the podium.
We have to learn from the actions of the people of Charlottesville and drown out this hate — deprive it of oxygen, knock it down from its platform. We have to confront it. White people who call themselves allies have to stand up and speak out, especially to their white friends, family members, and colleagues. Roll-up-your-sleeves work needs to be done to dismantle systemic racism and oppression. We have to all push against the false narratives and equivalencies. Protests by Neo-Nazis and Neo-Confederates carrying clubs, bats, and guns, employing the tactics of terrorism to murder and maim in the name of white superiority, racism, and bigotry is not the same as those protesting against them and their warped ideals.
I cried tears of pride watching UVA students, faculty, and, I am sure, townspeople, thousands of them, walking on the same Lawn that was the scene of such fear on Friday night, participating in a peaceful candlelight vigil while singing “We Shall Overcome.” Indeed, we shall. Together.
So this is my love letter to Charlottesville. Thank you, from the bottom of this Wahoo’s heart.