What can we learn from Charlottesville? City leaders renounce racist history

Charlottesville, Virginia is going through a coming of age of sorts. On August 11-12 this year, White supremacist groups, organized by Jason Kessler (reportedly once a supporter of former President Obama and the Occupy movement) and led by Richard Spencer, were protesting against removing the Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park).

Unite the Right, White nationalists, White supremacists, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, and other militias arrived carrying torches and chanting racist remarks. It was during that protest that James Alex Fields Jr. plowed into a group of people with his car, killing Heather D. Heyer, 32.

Such events are sparking discussions, debates and forums around the country. The University of St. Thomas’ Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted “Home a Synonym for Hatred: Lessons from Charlottesville” on October 17 in downtown Minneapolis as part of the university’s Forum on Workplace Inclusion.

Dr. Artika Tyner (Lou Michaels/MSR News)

Dr. Artika Tyner moderated the forum and hosted four panelists: Rev. Brenda Brown-Grooms of New Beginnings Christian Community; John Unsworth, dean of libraries at the University of Virginia; Juandiego (Juan) Wade, City of Charlottesville school board member; and via FaceTime, Wes Bellamy, vice-mayor of Charlottesville.

Bellamy said, “The events that transpired showed Charlottesville is a beautiful [yet] ugly city,” saying the city has had these issues for a long time “but now everyone sees it. In my opinion, we are at a very delicate place, but I think that is about to change. There is goodness coming from what we have done, and there is otherness coming from what we have done, and I hope we can end the otherness.”

Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy, Charlottesville (Photo courtesy of Wes Bellamy)

Since the Charlottesville protests, Bellamy has received hate mail and phone calls, even disturbing calls to his children’s schools. Bellamy declared, “This is not the Charlottesville of yesteryear. This is not your grandmother’s or auntie’s Charlottesville.

“We are not going to take it and we are woke. It is our job to speak up about things that are not going well. We will look for solutions that allow us to work together.”

Tyner asked Brown-Grooms what were Charlottesville’s narratives. Brown-Grooms responded, “Narrative is important. Who gets to craft it and tweak it has generally been…White people, largely White males. I think [it] has happened in Charlottesville and in this country; we have gotten the narrative wrong.

“The narrative we have gotten has been out of the Old Testament scholar. It used to be that you could write a systematic theology…which can only be written if you were from a dominant country, [and] from the network of world domination.”

Rev. Brenda Brown-Grooms (Lou Michaels/MSR News)

Brown-Grooms continued, “People who wrote systematic theologies thought that their culture was ‘the culture.’ That narrative no longer holds! It never made sense to Native Americans, and I was very young when I said, ‘Wait a minute.’”

“We are not going anywhere,” she said. “We built this country for free.”

As the conversation turned to how and when racism is learned, Juan Wade said, “This is something that amazes me, because I am a people watcher. We will go to the park or something and you can see little White kids and little Black kids…playing in the sandbox together. I really believe they may see different colors, but they just see another person. They are just having the time of their lives.”

Juandiego (Juan) Wade (Lou Michaels/MSR News)

Wade explained that “Young people across the spectrum make dumb decisions. Besides being a race problem, there is a class problem. What I see is that the young White kids tend to have more financial capital to get off their charges, whereas, the Black students who may lack funds do not. He added, “I do not know when it starts, at what age, but I know that [prejudice and racism] are learned over time!”

Unsworth added that there are many museums across the country dedicated to telling the real history of America, “the good, the bad and the ugly… What I would like to do as an educator over the coming year — and we are going to find a way to finance this — is to do a series of events that alternate back and forth between the community center in town and the university — and begin in the community center by addressing the cross.”

John Unsworth (Lou Michaels/MSR News)

Unsworth said the burned cross was the most prominent piece in the university’s collection because of its symbolic representation. The cross was in the collection “because we received it along with faculty papers and the cross [that] was burned on faculty lawn…during the time of massive resistance.

“I understand they used to burn crosses very regularly on the [university] president’s lawn,” Unsworth added, “when [protestors] were not happy when he did not do what they wanted [in terms of segregation].”

Attendees had short conversations at each table about what they took away from the forum and how they will be a part of changing history for the better.

At the end of event, Dr. Tyner gave each person a quarter as a physical and mental reminder that changing the world for the better will come at a cost. As we move through this time of change, it is important for us to think about what each of us will give up to make change happen.


Brandi Phillips welcomes reader responses to bphillips@spokesman-recorder.com.