Growing up in the town that became a byword for hate
versão em português (para assinantes)
I spent the morning of August 12th in a nearly three-hour service in a synagogue in Chicago. This was just one of the celebrations included in the wedding of my older sister, Amelia, who had recently converted to Judaism. We grew up in a family with a religious orientation that might be described as agnostic, but flirting with a late-stage hippie ideology; this made it both entrancing and strange to see her there, singing in Hebrew, carrying the Torah and being celebrated by the women of a community I barely knew.
So as to ward off any gaffes, Amelia made sure to brief us on the protocols beforehand. One of the rules she mentioned most specifically – because she knows her family – was to turn off our phones before going into the temple. This was both out of respect for the ceremony, but also because it was a Saturday, or Shabbat, a day of rest for observant Jews when the use of electronics is prohibited. From the synagogue we went to an annex, a basketball court temporarily converted into a social hall, where I ate bagels and chatted with uncles, aunts, and cousins I hadn’t seen in a long time, and who all seemed equally out of place. I lost track of how many times I answered that yes, I’d gotten married and moved to Rio de Janeiro, and tried to explain the topic of my dissertation in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies.
When I noticed that a few relatives were starting to drift off to their hotels, I felt that it would be acceptable to escape, and finally turned my phone back on. But even before I could open up a car-sharing app, I was flooded with messages in Portuguese. “Querida, are you and your family all right?” “Isn’t that the city you’re from?” “What’s going on??” Confused, I opened up Twitter and saw that the small Virginia city where I was born had become a hashtag. My newsfeed was filling up with messages of solidarity, condemnation, and horror. New York Times breaking news alerts were starting to use the name of the city as a less-than-flattering metonym for the terrible events of the day.
Since early the year, Charlottesville had been host to a handful of sparsely attended far-right protests. Chanting anti-black and anti-Semitic slogans, groups were protesting the decision, taken by the City Council in February, to remove the equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee – the most prominent of the generals of the Confederacy in the American Civil War – a monument which for many represented the racist, segregationist values of the old South.
The order to take down the homage to Lee was suspended by a court order, and the statue is still there, at least for now. On the eve of my sister’s wedding, after we’d all arrived in Chicago, extremist right-wing groups gathered once again in Charlottesville, this time in far greater numbers. The images of white men in polo shirts holding torches in the night swept across the world. That morning, while I watched the ceremony with my cell phone turned off, there were more protests. Counter-protesters outraged by the baldly racist statements of the statue’s defenders also descended on the historic downtown. There were clashes. Early that afternoon, a man rammed his own car into a group of counter-protesters at high speed. Nearly two dozen people were injured. One of the victims, Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist, died.
The messages just kept popping up on my phone. I felt that I didn’t know how to answer them, and so I closed the messaging apps and hailed a car.
Last December I finally moved to Rio de Janeiro, after six years with one foot in my homeland and another in my adoptive country. My hometown is decidedly not a part of the Brazilian collective imaginary. My new friends tended not to know anything about it, and would be hard-pressed to locate the place on a map. Moreover, my vague description of it as “a little city in the middle of Virginia” always struck me as insufficient. During my first stay in Rio I went so far as to carry a nickel in my wallet and show it when I was asked where I was from. The coin, with Thomas Jefferson’s head on its obverse, bears an image of Monticello, the house he built on the reverse. It sits on the crest of a mountain: its name comes from the Italian and means, fittingly, “little mountain.” From the summit, you can see Charlottesville, just below.
Although it might seem strange to point to the monument on the coin as a way of saying that 50,000 people lived just down the way, that was the roundabout way I found to express that I came from someplace that mattered. It’s in the south, I’d say, but it’s not really the South. What I meant was: it’s a progressive city which just happens to be in one of the historically most conservative regions of the United States. Until recently, the municipality showed up on state electoral maps as a little blue dot in a red sea. It was always racking up rankings like “the happiest city in the United States” or “best place to live.” The sort of news item that never makes headlines, and which has limited interest except for locals themselves.
And then, on August 12th, my little house-on-a-coin shot from relative anonymity to international notoriety. How could I explain the city’s transformation into a synonym for racial hate? The news churned my stomach, and yet it didn’t come as a total surprise. Still, it wasn’t easy to explain why in a WhatsApp message. I wrote to a few people that I was all right and so was my family, and that I preferred to talk things over later. I stopped opening Facebook so as to avoid the strangeness of seeing Charlottesville referenced in long posts in Portuguese.
This essay is an attempt at a response. I hesitated before writing about race in Charlottesville because I left the city when I was a teenager, to go to college. My most meaningful experiences there took place when I was a child, a white child relatively oblivious to the tensions and inequalities that shaped my hometown. It was only when I came back from Brazil, as an adult, that I began to better understand the place that had made me.
I was born in the former Charlottesville, now #charlottesville, thanks to the University of Virginia. My parents are northerners: they grew up in Pennsylvania, studied in New Jersey and California, and only moved to Charlottesville when my father was hired as a professor of jazz history in the early ‘80s. When I was five, my mother completed her doctorate and soon began teaching environmental policy. The University was the center of it all, and in my earliest memories it seems like an extension of my house. I ran along the neoclassical expanse of the Lawn, all white columns and red brick and green grass; across from the stately building where my father has his office, I would climb up onto a statue of the Greek poet Homer, fitting perfectly into his lap.
Not far from Homer is a statue of the omnipresent Thomas Jefferson – “the patron saint of Charlottesville,” I used to joke. He was responsible for that academic idyll, having decided to found the University of Virginia there, and not in Richmond, back in 1819. The idea was to create an “academic village,” a campus removed from big-city distractions. There seemed to be something in Jefferson’s biography to please everyone. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, became the country’s third president, and purchased the Louisiana Territory – most of what is now the western United States – from a cash-strapped Napoleon. He was a rebel, a diplomat, and an architect. Only in the wake of #charlottesville was it announced that his Washington, D.C. memorial would be updated – to reflect that the hero of the Revolution had also owned slaves.
One of the many summer camps I attended as a child involved spending a week at Monticello. My strongest memory is the afternoon we spent digging up potatoes in one of the gardens of the little houses slightly down the slope from the mansion. The counselors must have told us that these were the slaves’ houses, but at age seven all I remember is the joy of scrabbling around in the soil to turn up dirty little tubers. A few years later, excavations would turn up a slave cemetery on the property. Around the same time, DNA testing proved that Jefferson had had children with one of the slaves, Sally Hemings, who was also his wife’s half-sister.
Off the University of Virginia campus, scattered across the city, there are a few statues of men in fighting poses, some on horseback and some on foot, which never drew my attention. As I grew up, probably thanks to the influence of my mother and sister’s feminism, I began noticing one monument in particular, installed at one of the major downtown intersections. There are three figures in bronze. In front, striking a virile pose, are Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the men sent by then-president Jefferson to explore the newly purchased West. Crouched down, almost hiding behind their legs, is Sacagawea, the indigenous interpreter who accompanied the expedition and became known to history as the adventurers’ great guide.
My irritation never rose to the level of concrete action. I came to understand the monuments as a strange relic, part of the landscape of a south that no longer existed, like the old folks who still referred to the Civil War as “the War of Northern Aggression.” The South’s desire to maintain and expand slavery – the basis of its agricultural economy – was the principal motive that led eleven states to declare themselves an independent confederation over the course of 1861. The North, home to the federal government and thus styling itself “the Union,” fought to subjugate them and won four years later. But before then, in the midst of the struggle, in 1863, then-president Abraham Lincoln decided to free the enslaved population in rebel territory. For some in the South, abolition was a low blow in what was essentially a conflict between regions.
Since the Confederate States were slaveholding regimes, their symbols have been seen not as mere homages to the history of that part of the country – just as São Paulo has a major avenue and a 200-foot obelisk paying tribute to the separatist Revolution of 1932 – but rather as explicitly racist emblems. While some southerners deny the association, defending their right to honor their ancestors, the fact is that monuments to Confederate heroes and the flag of the Confederacy proliferated at moments in time when the Black population moved to stake out more political representation, and marked the implementation of segregation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I didn’t know, for example, that the statues in my city didn’t date from the time of the war. They had only been installed in the 1920s, and the inauguration of some had been accompanied by celebrations from Confederate sympathizers – among them the notorious Ku Klux Klan.
Just like the Statue of Liberty and the Trojan Horse, many of the city’s statues were given as presents. The donor of several, Paul G. McIntire, was born in Charlottesville in 1860, where he saw the victorious Union army arrive as a child. He studied at the University of Virginia, flunked out, and wound up moving to New York, where he made a fortune on the stock exchange. McIntire financed the creation of parks and sowed monuments across the city. In addition to the colonialist, sexist effigy in honor of Lewis and Clark, he came up with the idea to put two Virginia-born Confederate generals on pedestals: Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. It remains ironic that the latter should have sparked the conflict between white supremacists and progressives that catapulted Charlottesville into the headlines. Lee himself, who headed the Confederates’ largest army and surrendered his forces to the Union, had let it be known that he wanted no monuments or memorials to the Civil War.
Ancestors of mine fought on both sides, but the Confederate flag hasn’t been a part of my family’s identity for many generations. I have a vivid memory of visiting the museum at Gettysburg, not far from my maternal grandmother’s house, where the Confederate army suffered a key defeat. The major attraction was to be found in a dark room: a table-sized map with three-dimensional hills and slopes showed the site of the battle. As a recorded voice ran down troop movements, red lights representing the rebels and blue lights depicting the Union troops blinked on and off. I remember the thrill of seeing the red lights forced into retreat. In that battle, one of my father’s ancestors, a Confederate from Virginia, was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp in New York.
Only much later did I realize the absurdity of another memory from the same period. When I was in elementary school, the calendars celebrated an incongruously named holiday: Lee-Jackson-King Day. The triple-barreled homage stemmed from the fact that Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were all January babies – born on the 19th, 21st, and 15th, respectively.
The southern generals’ birthdays had been celebrated together in Virginia since the turn of the last century, but pastor King wasn’t deemed worthy of mention by the state until 1983. After years of lobbying, rather than giving the martyr of the civil rights movement his own day, someone thought it would be a good idea to put him together with the two Confederates. I can imagine all three spinning in their graves, but I don’t remember how the teachers might have bent over backwards to deal with the historically impossible trio. In 2000, when I was eight, the generals’ birthdays were separated from King’s again.
Recently, Charlottesville took the initiative to stop celebrating celebrating Lee-Jackson Day altogether. The decision to exclude them from the calendar speaks to the sort of place the city has become. As an ever-increasing part of the population came to have some connection to the university, one of the most renowned in the country, the quiet town gained a metropolitan air – a busy cultural scene, good ethnic food, and hip little stores – as well as the sort of progressive ideology typical of academic communities, which set it apart from its immediate surroundings. Residents tend to say that Charlottesville has the best of a big city and the calm of a small town.
Almost all of my years in Charlottesville were spent in one school or another. And the story of the city’s public schools is itself a story of racial segregation and its perpetuation – just as in the rest of the South – and of the city’s painfully slow march away from its past.
I started kindergarten in an imposing brick building, its doors flanked by white columns that wouldn’t look out of place on the university campus. The school is called Venable Elementary, and it was only while researching this essay that I found that the name pays tribute to a Confederate officer, Charles Scott Venable, who was also a mathematician and professor at UVA. When I mentioned to my father that Venable was named after a Confederate, he nodded. “You knew?” I said, feeling somehow betrayed. “Confederate this, confederate that, they’re all over,” he said.
Venable was opened in 1925 as an all-white school. The history books will tell you that the Supreme Court banned school segregation in 1954, but integration didn’t come immediately. The state of Virginia was among those to resist the order, putting it off as long as possible. Three years after the court’s decision, governor Lindsay Almond was elected on a segregationist campaign. A vote by the Virginia General Assembly opened up existing legislation to allow the government to close schools rather than integrating them, which was what happened in 1958. Venable closed its doors for five months before finally accepting a dozen black students. A decade after I graduated, the school installed a sign in honor of the “Triumph of the Charlottesville Twelve.”
My friends in elementary school were more white than black, but it would probably be more honest to say that they were few, of any color. I skipped second grade at my teachers’ suggestion, which helped isolate me even further. I was a strange bird in any group, obsessed with English royalty – and not Princess Diana and company, but the Tudors and the Stuarts.
At some point in elementary school, I was chosen to attend a special class for gifted students. While in the other classes we played recorder and learned our times tables, in here the teacher challenged us to build systems to cushion an egg thrown from the third floor, design labyrinths, and work in teams to resolve international conflicts and achieve world peace. The class had fewer students in general, but the group was also whiter than the school average. Years later, I found out that the mother of a friend, who taught a similar class in a majority-black school, had to complain to the administration several times when she saw that teachers were only sending her white students.
At age 12, I began attending middle school, which, unlike my previous schools, was located on the other side of town. While I dozed on the bus en route to “yet another day of hell on earth,” as I described those years in a diary, I passed through parts of the city I barely knew, including a complex of brick buildings on low-lying ground by the train tracks. I didn’t know that in 1964, the year that the Civil Rights Act was signed, Charlottesville’s government had begun to destroy Vinegar Hill, the black neighborhood in the heart of the historic downtown. Promising infrastructure improvements – a familiar tack in the Brazilian context, which resonates with hygienicist pushes for “renewal” in Rio and São Paulo over the centuries, from Pereira Passos to João Doria – the city moved to raze the region. Charlottesville’s own bota-abaixo, or “knock-down,” destroyed the houses of hundreds of people and put an end to 29 black-owned businesses. Westhaven, the housing complex I saw out the school bus window, was the poor substitute offered to the exiled.
Charlottesville High School had to be built in 1974 after the old whites-only school proved too small to house all of the community’s adolescents. The student body was the most integrated in the region, approximately half white and half black. We went in through the same front doors, but the rest of the day was a tale of two cities.
The process of tracking, or placing students in classes of varying difficulty, had begun years earlier, separating children into groups that supposedly corresponded to scholastic talent, but which mirrored class and race lines in the rest of the city. Nearly all of my classes were designated either “Honors” or “Advanced Placement,” meaning that they were meant to be college-level. Nearly all of my classmates were white. In the high school that I attended, the orchestra played in New York and London, and students jockeyed for Ivy League placements. In the other high school, housed in the same brick building, security cameras were installed in the hallways and the graduation rate fell. Instead of Harvard or Yale, or even the University of Virginia, counselors tended to recommend technical schools for these students. A friend of mine, Jo Blount, one of the few black students in the most advanced classes and who also played on the women’s basketball team, wrote about an incident after a game in which our school defeated one of the whitest in the region. “Well,” said one of the players on the losing team, “you might be good at basketball, but at least we’re all going to graduate.”
An image always comes to mind when I think about the twinned schools. In the yearbook for my senior year, there’s a picture of most of the graduating class, standing in one of the courtyards and looking up at the photographer. The group is about half white and half black, and it’s almost impossible not to see the line separating the two. Nobody lined us up. We walked into the patio and stood with our friends and classmates. In a way, we’d been lined up like that for a long time.
My hometown and school days had never seemed relevant in Brazil. There are no Brazilians in my family; I only discovered Portuguese when I left Charlottesville and went to Princeton University, in New Jersey. What followed was a headlong crush on the music and culture of the 1920s and ‘30s in Rio de Janeiro, a reality that couldn’t have been more different from my little hometown. I started translating biographies of Carmen Miranda, and my headphones only played Mário Reis and Francisco Alves. I felt as if I’d been born in the wrong place (and time, too, but that would only occur to me later). When it came to Charlottesville, I only missed my family and a local restaurant’s famous bagel sandwiches.
Having fallen in love with it at a distance, I came to Rio for the first time in 2011. The first host families I stayed with worried about the dangers facing a starry-eyed gringa, but I tried not to let the invisible barriers between neighborhoods keep me from exploring. I still remember venturing far out of the South Zone for the first time to do something other than attend a football match and finding myself the only foreign tourist at the museum of the Igreja da Penha. Like any apprentice Brazilianist, I studied the myths of racial democracy and took notes on Roots of Brazil and The Masters and the Slaves. I might have drawn comparisons to the Old South and cotton plantations, but none of it made me think of my Charlottesville. I was too happy to be plunging into a new and endlessly fascinating world.
All exchange programs come to an end, and after six months in Rio I caught a plane back to the United States. “This place is whiter than the Shopping Leblon,” I grumbled on my blog a few days after arriving home. The ideal of a left-wing city set apart from the South started to fade. Although I knew that my school was internally segregated, I’d somehow never noticed that the places where I lived, shopped, and circulated were violently white. “It’s not like Brazil’s some racial paradise,” said some relative in response to my stream of complaints – correctly, of course.
Both here and there, racism is baked into the landscape. In both places, the discourse around race is much more progressive than socioeconomic realities. In Rio and in Charlottesville, when racism bubbles up in cartoonishly explicit ways – a woman in Rio’s South Zone telling a cashier to “go back to the slave quarters,” or racist vandalism at the University of Virginia a few years ago – it is denounced as both extreme and exceptional, something not belonging to the place. Similarly, in Brazil as in my native city, attempts to denounce more subtle forms of racism are cast as inappropriate and unnecessary – oversensitivity, political correctness gone mad.
In 2012, at a book fair in Charlottesville, a city councilor, the mother of a classmate of mine, suggested that the time had come to remove the statue of Lee. The idea didn’t find a foothold in the presumably well-educated and progressive audience, and was met with gasps. Last year, vice-mayor Wes Bellamy, a young black teacher, became the public face of efforts to remove the general. He held a demonstration at the park, which led to the creation of a commission on the statue. Three out of five of committee members voted for removal. The “no” votes came from the mayor and a city councilor, the mother of one of my high school friends. Most of the arguments against removal focused on historical preservation. Others felt that the money spent removing the statue would be put to better use in more high-impact public initiatives. Better to leave things as they were.
After the vote, however, the statue became a magnet for far-right protests, and the seeds for #charlottesville were sown. Some, including the editorial board at the local newspaper, blamed the vice-mayor for riling people up. When a small group of KKK members was authorized to hold a protest at the statue in July, I thought about writing something.
I happened to be in Charlottesville a week before the protest, attending another family event. It was the first time my wife, a São Paulo native, had visited my hometown. I remember Paulinha’s eyes shining at the Black Lives Matter sign and rainbow flag on the facade of my family’s church. In the neighborhoods we drove through, colorful yard signs in multiple languages declared that all were welcome, no matter where they came from. “I don’t know who these hateful white people are,” commented a relative, appalled, when I mentioned the KKK’s imminent arrival.
On the day, around fifty Klansmen did show up, where they were outnumbered by both counter-protesters and police in riot gear. The police protected the pro-statue crowd during their brief appearance, and then tear-gassed the protesters when they refused to disperse. Outrage and debates followed the incident, even as activists began warning that a much bigger event was planned for August 12th. I tried to keep an eye on what was going on in Charlottesville, but I was engrossed by preparations for our trip to Chicago. I spent the week before the rally buying Carnival accessories for the guests to wear as they danced, fussing over whether my bridesmaid’s dress was formal enough, practicing walking in high heels, and trying to give my sister and the rest of the family moral support as the ceremony approached.
Things only started feeling real on Friday, the 11th. Rumors began circulating that there would be a sort of right-wing pre-protest on the university campus. Classes hadn’t started up yet, but a small group of students back from vacation rallied in counter-protest and formed a circle around the statue of Thomas Jefferson, as if to defend the democratic ideals of the college he had founded. They were quickly overwhelmed, cursed out, and beaten by the crowd of young white men in polo shirts bearing torches – not the crude torches of the Klan, but Polynesian-inspired, Chinese-made tiki torches, easily found in any gardening supply store. They chanted slogans like “white lives matter,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “blood and soil.”
On the morning of the 12th, as members of my family struggled to follow along with the readings in Hebrew in the synagogue, chaos reigned in Charlottesville. The crowds in Emancipation Park had been growing since early that morning – rally-goers carrying banners and shields, heavily armed militia members promising to “keep the peace,” anti-fascist protesters, members of the clergy, civil rights leaders, and curious bystanders. Just around eleven o’clock, as Sam, my future brother-in-law, was preparing to sing over the Torah, a group of white nationalists marched down the street in the direction of the park. When a line of counter-protesters formed to block their way, bottles, rocks, sticks, urine-filled balloons began flying. Friends and acquaintances of mine were hit with punches and pepper spray. At the protest in July, the police had been accused by many of showing up in excessive numbers and only protecting the Klan. Now, the order of the day seemed to be to stand back and let the fights play out.
By the time Sam had finished his reading, the gathering in Charlottesville had been declared illegal and the governor had proclaimed a state of emergency. Most began to leave the park, but many remained in the historic downtown, walking down its leafy, store-lined pedestrian mall. At about the time we were leaving the synagogue in Chicago, a white man drove down one of the streets crossing the mall, revved his engine, and slammed into a group of protesters. Heather Heyer, who was killed, was a white woman nearly my age.
The next day brought the last of the wedding ceremonies. After the traditional wedding contract had been read and blessings recited, the rabbi spoke as he held the glass that the groom was to break. He said that the act recalled the destruction of the Temple, and that we should keep in mind that for all our joy, there was brokenness everywhere in the world – including in the bride’s hometown. He placed the cloth-wrapped glass on the ground. Sam brought his foot down hard, but it slipped off to one side and the glass remained intact. On the second try, it smashed, and the guests cheered.
After the wedding, I’d planned to travel up and down the East Coast with my wife, spending some time in New York and then driving down to Virginia. When we were brainstorming about the trip, Paulinha had confessed that she wanted to see a traditional American agricultural fair. A few Internet searches later, we arrived at the Eastmont Tomato Festival, the 10th annual celebration of the fruit in Shawsville, a tiny community in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, some 130 miles from Charlottesville.
We couldn’t find any hotels listed in Shawsville, so we planned to spend the night in the nearby city of Staunton. What with traffic and occasional detours, the drive took nearly twelve hours. We arrived close to midnight and headed to the cheapest hotel we could find. The parking lot of the Econo Lodge was so full that we wondered if the city was having an event. “Must be the tomato festival,” Paulinha joked. The next morning, the receptionist – a young white man with a heavy Southern accent and a lisp – made semi-incomprehensible but friendly-seeming comments as we ate breakfast in the lobby. When we came back to check out, he slowed down when he saw my address. “Charlottesville, huh?”
“We were out of town,” I said.
“A good thing,” he said enigmatically, after a pause.
“What?” I asked, suddenly afraid he might praise the supremacists.
“Good thing you weren’t there.” As he printed out the receipt, he commented that some of the protesters had slept in the hotel en route to Charlottesville. “Even got folks from Missouri,” he said, sounding impressed. I didn’t say anything else, and hastened to take the paper and get in the car.
Paulinha, who had barely understood anything of what he said, almost made me go back to the lobby and ask more about the protesters. My fear grew, and turned to shame. I pondered out loud that I should’ve told the receptionist that we couldn’t wait to see that statue torn down. “I’d prefer to hear more about his impressions,” said Paulinha mildly, with her habitual journalist’s curiosity.
The route to Shawsville and the tomato festival took us down an interstate highway, then down a smaller road that grew ever narrower. “Caution: Heavy Traffic Ahead”, an electronic sign warned an empty street. It seemed as if all the cars in town were parked at the community center, where the festival was already beginning. “It really is small,” sighed Paulinha, contemplating the group of approximately 50 people, almost all of them white, with a handful of black and Asian attendees. A few dozen folding chairs were arranged in front of a stage in the middle of the courtyard, ringed by small stands.
We’d arrived too late for the singing of the tomato hymn, but we circled around until the start of the tomato beauty pageant. First, two mothers brought up their baby daughters, each of which allegedly had some tomato-related talent, but which the children failed to reproduce onstage. The two candidates for the “Tomato Heirloom Queen” were a white woman dressed up as Little Orphan Annie, the cartoon character from the 1920s, who sang a song about tomatoes to the tune of “Tomorrow,” and an older Asian woman wearing American flag leggings who performed a long tai chi fan dance. It felt like we’d fallen into a David Lynch film about some eccentric tiny community. The husband of one Shawsville native was surprised to find that he’d been crowned Tomato King – he didn’t know he’d been signed up – and gave an improvised acceptance speech. “Make tomatoes great again,” he exhorted the crowd at the end, to laughter and some applause. Paulinha and I exchanged disappointed looks.
We wound up leaving before the tomato-eating contest. The plan was to drive around the region, a part of Virginia I didn’t know well, before heading into Charlottesville. At the gas station where we filled up the car, a few stands were selling antiques and collectibles. My wife and I struck up a friendly conversation with one vendor before our gaze fell on a display full of Confederate paraphernalia: bumper stickers, baseball caps, and pocketknives bearing the rebel flag.
We left quickly, but, unable to resist our curiosity, wound up stopping farther down the road at a place called Dixie Antiques. The space was larger than it looked from the outside, and we spent a long time looking at old saltshakers and commemorative beer cans. We didn’t see too many Confederate flags, but unfailingly, we came across trinkets depicting big-eyed, big-lipped black people. “I think I’ve lost all desire to buy old things,” Paulinha confessed. Even the Elvis figurines started looking sinister.
Instead of taking the interstate highway to Charlottesville, I drove the car up to a winding road that runs along the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was a relief to spend a few hours seeing only trees and the valley below. We came in through a part of Charlottesville I didn’t know well. Not only did the town not look familiar, it reminded me of the other Virginian hamlets we’d just driven through.
The next morning, we went with my father and his family to the church where I grew up. In addition to the “Black Lives Matter” sign out front, the order of service bore a photo of Dr. King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech with arms outstretched. This was the theme of the day. The altar was covered with cards of support that the congregation had received from all over the country. One of the church’s members had been hit by the car in the attack and was still in the hospital.
At one point in the service, I nudged my wife. “See how people even go to church wearing gym clothes?” I whispered. “Actually, I was just thinking about how everyone here is white,” she answered.
Afterwards, I caught up with people who had known me since the age when I fit into Homer’s lap. “It never felt like the South here,” said one, as if Charlottesville were a postracial island in a prejudiced region. “And the alt-left protesters really went overboard.” She was referring to the antifascist protesters, or antifa, which Trump had just baptized the “alt-left” for their propensity to show up to protests ready to physically confront rally-goers.
Another spoke of how difficult it was for her small daughters to understand subtler manifestations of racism. “They know all about racism, but they still can’t understand that it’s part of the barrier between them and the kids from Westhaven,” she said, referring to the majority-black housing complex.
During those days, nearly every conversation in Charlottesville slipped over into issues of race. What I felt around the city was a strange sense of hope, as if the emergence of racism in its most blatant form – even though the vast majority of the protesters had come from elsewhere – had opened up a poorly healed wound, forcing the city to examine its ills. It seemed painful but necessary. Saying that the damn statue was just the start, the vice-mayor had just gotten $4 million for programs to benefit marginalized communities.
When I confided this hope to Jo, my friend from high school who played on the basketball team, she hesitated before answering carefully. She said that the black community had been trying to bring these issues to the table for years, and that although it was important for those in power to recognize structural inequalities, she feared that this new awakening to racism might remain superficial. I realized how perverse it was that it took an invasion of extremely racist white people for such a big part of the well-intentioned white middle class to pay attention to race.
For Jo, the conversation about #charlottesville focused too heavily on the most radical manifestations of white supremacy. It was easy to denounce the neo-Nazis, blame Trump, and not look to the fact that there was an affordable housing crisis in the city, that cheap supermarkets were closing down and being substituted by shops charging steep prices for local, organic treats. The poor black population was besieged by gentrification. “Things you see all across the United States. Charlottesville’s no different. But the problem is that it thought it was different, or sold itself that way,” she said.
On Monday, August 21st, I went with my family to Emancipation Park, the stage of the previous week’s clashes. Big drops of rain were falling, and a small crowd of children and adults sought shelter under the trees. This was the day that a solar eclipse would be visible across the United States, and the public library had distributed special glasses for those who wanted to watch across the way. Nobody there was unaware of the significance of our being in that space. At the foot of the statue of Robert E. Lee, people had left flowers, candles, and waterlogged messages. A white woman walked around holding a handheld sign that read, “Nothing will eclipse our love.”
The determined group clustered under our tree was a diverse lot. Children, young adults, older people, black and white, trying to take the clouds overhead in stride. As the rain fell harder, one man joked darkly about a lightning bolt hitting the statue. My father opened up a weather app on his phone, showing that while all the rest of Virginia seemed cloudless, there was a bright blotch of rain hovering over Charlottesville. It seemed like a punishment.
And then, three minutes after the peak of the eclipse, as the damp crowds were already starting to disperse, the clouds opened up to reveal a sliver of sun. People ran back and craned their necks, trading off pairs of glasses and cereal boxes transformed into makeshift reflective contraptions. All with their backs to the great green statue.