On August 12th, a young woman by the name of Heather Heyer was tragically killed in an act of terror during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Much of the nation and the world could only muster up a feeling of fear and perhaps a slight sense of confusion as they witnessed on their TV screens neo-Nazis and white supremacists freely march in the streets in what is usually considered to be a peaceful college town. On that day, I was one of the many people who watched those horrific scenes of hatred and terror while within the comforts of my home. However, in the back of my mind, I grew more and more anxious knowing that what was unfolding on my TV screen will soon become my own reality.
That following week, I moved into my new apartment in Charlottesville, ready to start my second year of college at the University of Virginia. My emotions this time were much different than on my move-in day last year as a wide-eyed college freshman eager to start a new life chapter. This time around, even though I was still anxious to start a new school year, I was much more cautious and observant, interested in seeing how this school and community will react to the events that occurred the weekend before. Unsurprisingly, for the most part, things seemed to be back to normal. The dust from the storm has settled and for most students, everything is back to the usual, but not for all.
During the first week of school, almost all of my professors took some time out of their class to address the situation that happened last week. Before they opened their mouths, I pretty much could guess every word they were going to say, would be along the lines of, “That is not the real UVA,” or “This isn’t the Charlottesville that I know,” and honestly these phrases over the past week have almost become cliché. But even though I value their thoughts and concerns, their words could do little to heal me. The truth is, while at a glance Charlottesville is a pleasant city that rests on beautiful mountainous terrain, if one took a deeper look at its past they will uncover a history stained with the markings of white supremacy. However, this can be said not just for Charlottesville but for America on a whole. Despite being a country that so proudly labels itself as being built off of freedom, the sad reality is that its history contradicts that. But as a country, whenever asked to confront our dark history, we tend to shy away from it.
When I was younger, I had fond memories of my classmates and I dressing up as Native Americans and Pilgrims during Thanksgiving and learning about how Thanksgiving was a time where Native Americans and Pilgrims joined together and celebrated a successful harvest. What we didn’t learn was the fact that European settlement of the Americas led to one of the most horrific genocides in human history. I can also recollect about the many school lessons I had about how slavery provided economic prosperity for the South, but we learned very little about its inhumane practices and the brutal role that racism has played in our society. Such as the story of Mary Turner, who was chased down by a mob and hung upside down by her ankles as a member of the crowd proceeded to cut open her stomach, causing her unborn child to fall to the ground and be beaten to death by the rest of the crowd. Turner then was viscously shot to death as she helplessly hung from a tree. The story of Mary Turner or the countless number of other black people who have been unjustly brutalized will never be told in American history textbooks. Instead of acknowledging its past, America instead tries to sweep it under the rug, and as a UVA student, I deal with this reality every day.
The members of the Alt-Right that marched in Charlottesville aren’t the faces of white supremacy, they are simply a byproduct of it; instead, the real face of white supremacy in America is its inability to reconcile with its past. Myself along with many other members of the black community at UVA will not be satisfied with the University’s response to the events that occurred in Charlottesville until the school starts to take an honest effort to properly address its own history. Thomas Jefferson once said, “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” While he is known to be one of America’s great intellectuals and founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson was also a white supremacist. However, the fact that calling him a white supremacist is a controversial statement, shows the failures of American history textbooks. While I don’t believe that UVA should ever remove Thomas Jefferson from the university’s identity and traditions, it should at the very least stop idolizing him without proper context. By failing to do so, the school will continue to struggle to gain trust and support from its black community, which is especially important today when considering the events that recently transpired.
My opinion of Thomas Jefferson is an unpopular one and the voices of those like myself who are concerned of how UVA portrays his legacy are easily drowned out. But, the fact is that this issue matters. What this University has failed to mention when addressing the “Unite the Right” rally, was that two of the rally’s prominent organizers, Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, are UVA alumni. The most important aspect of learning about history is that it gives an opportunity to learn from past mistakes, thus an institution that doesn’t confront its own history will continue to repeat the same mistakes. While I believe that the rally could have happened in almost any city in America, it was not a coincidence that it happened here in Charlottesville. What happened in this city was a tragedy, but it was also an instance in which history repeated itself. It is vital that UVA starts to get real with its past, because it is not only an institution that is associated with white supremacists, but it is also an institution that still produces white supremacists as evident by those who organized the rally.
With that being said, UVA and Charlottesville are a microcosm of America as a country today. The recent riots in Baltimore and Ferguson draw parallels to the race riots in the 60’s, the private jail system that disproportionately affects black men essentially exploits prisoners for free labour, public schools are just as segregated today as 40 years ago, one out of every five African Americans have lost their right to vote… the list could go on. To put it bluntly; segregation, racism, and white supremacy still exist today, and these things will continue to repeat themselves and resurface in American society until serious efforts are made to take a look back at the past and learn from those mistakes. The conversation can’t just be about how those white supremacists “don’t represent the real Charlottesville” because while the white supremacists may have left, for the time being, the actual consequences of white supremacy still remain, and it is not just in the form of Confederate statues. The city still remains highly segregated and a disproportionate of those who live in poverty are black. The last thing that should be done is to forget what happened on August 11th and 12th and try to look forward because this school, this city, and this country will never defeat white supremacy until anybody of any race feels like they are represented in American society and genuinely believe they have a fair chance for prosperity.
For me as an African-American student at UVA, I think it unfair for me to have to idolize a man, Thomas Jefferson, who would think I was inferior to him. As an African-American, I think it unfair that I should pretend that white supremacy only comes in the form of white men who wear Klan robes or carry swastika flags. As an African-American, I think it unfair that I have had to sit in history class after history class where the exploitation of my ancestors have been constantly downplayed for the sake of protecting America’s perception as a place where “all men are created equal.” So, my message to UVA and the rest of America is that in order to move forward to a better future, we have to take a look back at the past. I love both UVA and America, but that doesn’t mean I am unwilling to criticize them because being critical of our country and its institutions will be the only way white supremacy can be defeated.
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