Riana Elyse Anderson, University of Southern California
Oh, my dearest Charlottesville, there is a difference between aspirations and reality. The city of Charlottesville, Virginia — of which I was a resident for five years during my clinical psychology doctoral program — does not want to be known for racism, anger, fear, and the loss of life. But the reality — that Thomas Jefferson founded the flagship institution for White men on the backs of slaves who were angry, fearful, and stripped of their lives — is ever present and unresolved.
I worked with fantastic coalitions who pushed tirelessly for slave recognition and commemoration. I interned with children’s services and the city council on a Promise Neighborhood grant which collaborated with residents to provide quality services to families in the most resource-deprived area of the city. And I spent a good majority of time integrating myself into the community by understanding practical elements of psychology through the strength, resilience, and dedication exhibited by the citizens of the town.
But something wasn’t right.
The day I stepped foot onto the lawn of the “grounds” of UVA as a burgeoning grad student, my skin tingled. I couldn’t understand the goosebumps that adorned my arms, nor the uneasiness of my stomach and spirit.
Something wasn’t right.
I learned only later that the ground I walked on was the original campus of UVA, home to the first students and professors. And their slaves.
The slaves were kept under that ground. There are metal grates which were the source of air for the slaves kept under their masters. I was walking on my ancestors.
And the descendants of those (eventually) freed slaves likely comprise the majority of the Black service staff who still work for the mostly white faculty.
And, the founder, whose sordid history is sometimes casually glossed over at Monticello (depending on your tour guide), is revered in the city and school. There is a quote of TJ’s in virtually every building at UVA, not to mention in the papers that the students write themselves. I found it ironic that the students who had to pledge the honor code (in which they would not cheat) were the same ones praising someone who cheated hundreds of African people of their sense of self. Their wholeness. Their humanity.
So when Charlottesville residents say #ThisIsNotUs or a newspaper suggests that Cville doesn’t want to be known for the crimes committed this weekend, I wonder, well, who exactly are you? Let me be clear — I know many fantastic Cville citizens, but the constant distancing of ourselves from our history is exactly what makes Charlottesville like every other American city — one established by the theft of land from our Native peoples, the backbreaking labor from stolen and stripped Africans, the severely underpaid services provided by Mexican and other emigrated peoples, the connected railroads assembled by the disenfranchised Chinese, and the list continues.
If America cannot recognize that, this IS in fact us, Charlottesville will be the first of many cities in which the founding elements bubble to the surface.
My stomach never felt any better on that lawn.
Not when I protested the verdict of Trayvon Martin’s killer.
Or marched both defiantly and triumphantly across when I received my doctorate.
Or when I awoke this weekend to several dozen texts and tweets about a city in which I still have loved ones residing.
As people living in America, NONE of our stomachs should be easy. And not just a few days after a rally. When discrimination, injustice, and poverty are still rampant in so many cities across the US, we should be asking, what do we want our cities to be known for? How can this history, which bleeds into our current era, end with me and my fellow community members? And, perhaps most importantly for Charlottesville, how can we strive for a peaceful future while finally addressing our unjust past?