Fire on the Lawn: Charlottesville, VA

In 2014, I received an email from the University of Virginia’s admission office. At the time, I knew nothing about the university. I was looking out of state for colleges, but UVA never crossed my radar. The next day I went into school early and shared the news with my history teacher. Word for word I remember what he said: “Holy shit, you got into UVA?” It hit me then that UVA was a much more prestigious institution than I anticipated. For the rest of that day, all of the teachers came up to me and congratulated me. I later did some of my own research and learned that I really got into a school that is often one of the top 5 public universities in the country.

In the spring, I was invited to visit UVA and attend Spring Fling, a program run by the Office of African-American Affairs in which current students host various events for incoming Black students. My host was a little shorter than I, with long braids and wide glasses. We spent the day walking around the massive campus–Grounds, she told me it was called–and ended the night with games and laughter hosted by a Black Christian group she was a part of. It was during that game night that I accepted my offer to UVA.

Ignorance is bliss, one of the free joys in this world, if ignorance is to be considered a joy. I’d like to think I was happier when I was ignorant of the way things worked in America, but even writing that feels untrue. To be Black in this country is to be awake at all times, and just when you’ve thought you could finally close your eyes and sleep American insomnia kicks back in.

Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of the Charlottesville riots spearheaded by white supremacists. It happened just a week or so before my mother would take me back to school for my final year. We were in our New York home, watching them harass and spew vile insults at protestors. Social media was ablaze; the UVA GroupMes were moving faster than I could type. We watched a car fly down a street I walked on with friends and take the life of Heather Hayer. My mother didn’t want me to return. No one who was Black wanted to return.

We came back to an academic year of professors denouncing and unraveling white supremacist mentality. Or at least, that’s what I was lucky enough to come back to. We came back to a former president who refused to call them by name: white terrorists. We came back to citizens of Charlottesville and UVA students gathering on the Lawn, at the Downtown Mall, to bring peace to a city that sits atop a white supremacy geyser.

Thinking back on it now, none of it felt real.

I saw how quickly white Charlottesville natives and students flocked to the candlelight vigil, to the free star-studded concert, crying out “peace in our city.” I wasn’t convinced that most of them attending those vigils and concerts were there because they knew the gravity of the alt-right. They said Trump wouldn’t be elected, and here we are: 2 years into a white fever dream of a presidency. It is a fever dream; this country is sick but no one wants to take medicine. The vigils and concert became something Facebook worthy–let me tell my followers about how much of a good person I am, how in support of peace I am.

Black America was given the burden of racism, has taken on the struggle against racism. When we think of Charlottesville, that bloody summer, and when we think of them attempting to carry white supremacist ideologies through Washington D.C. on the anniversary, my question becomes why? Why have we been toiling away for centuries, toiling away into the future, and picking up the slack for our white counterparts?

Everyone can commit to lighting a candle, but no one wants true change.

I didn’t write this to attack anyone, to hurt anyone’s feelings, and if it did then please consider doing some introspection. I’m tired. I’m tired of the “how could this have happened to us?” reactions from white America. I’m tired of the lackluster, surface-level conversations we have with white America about race. I’m tired of being in a group project, doing all of the work, and receiving no extra credit for it. I’m tired of white America earning my As because they put their name on my work. You get A’s for working hard. Let’s be real, white America: you’re hardly working.

Your silence is complicity, and your inaction speaks volumes. Inaction allowed last August 11th and 12th to happen. Perhaps if white America took us seriously instead of thinking we were crying wolf, maybe they wouldn’t have come with torches and a hatred so fervent it drove a woman down. How do you expect change to occur if you’re not putting in any of the work to make it happen? How long do you expect minorities in this country to clean up after your mess?

Because this is your mess. The continued existence of white supremacy groups, the fact that Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer aren’t imprisoned–look at what your hesitancy, your inability to call racism by its name, has done. Charlottesville’s history began with Jefferson, a walking irony, a man who believed in the freedoms of all but reaped the benefits of slaves. Since the founding of this country, minorities have been excluded, isolated, and demonized, and yet white America can’t look itself in the face and admit that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

The longer we let these same old tragedies repeat, the more this country will stay the same. Educate yourselves; Google is free. Get out of your comfortable white privilege and admit that there’s a problem.

This weekend, this anniversary, remember that Charlottesville is definitely not the first and, at this rate, it won’t be the last.

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