Last Friday night, a few hundred white nationalists and supremacists marched with torches towards the University of Virginia, chanting “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us” over the impending removal of the statue of the Confederacy’s top general, Robert E. Lee. The following day, they congregated in McIntire Park with David Duke and other members of the Ku Klux Klan, waving swastikas and Confederate flags. Towards the end of the afternoon, we learnt that one person had died and several were injured after a white supremacist drove his car into a wide pedestrian alley where anti-racism protesters had gathered. Following Saturday’s events in Charlottesville, there were marches held across the country in solidarity. Across social media, there were expressions of anger, denial and shock, while many went on to declare that the recent happenings in Charlottesville were unlike us.
Earlier this year, I arrived as an admitted student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Like many university cities and towns, Charlottesville prides itself on being a progressive enclave; a quasi-paradise in the South where the nature is stunning, there is a mix of food, music and culture, and a rich academic and cultural history. Students at the University of Virginia joked about how often Charlottesville is named one of the happiest places to live in the United States. As I walked around the university town, the overwhelming whiteness that surrounded me in the spaces I visited were evident. When I attended a panel with current students about race on campus and in the surrounding area, serious racist events were brushed off, there was little mention of Thomas Jefferson’s involvement with slavery or indeed, Charlottesville’s racially charged history. The students seemed eager, almost desperate, to reassure me that this was a progressive place, a hub of thought where I could learn to appreciate student’s conservative opinions, and to give the “good white people” of Charlottesville a chance.
The next morning, I explored the sprawling campus. I walked around the Rotunda, the university’s signature building and wound up at a statue of the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. That crisp Wednesday morning, I experienced a feeling I had never really known as a black British woman. To be aware of the traumatic legacies of the confederacy, colonialism and slavery, is one thing. To stand before a statue of Thomas Jefferson and feel the cool spring breeze pinch your cheeks as you grapple with the fact that the very university grounds you stand on were built by enslaved black people, is another. The history of African-American people in the United States is one that many of us are familiar with. We can name key figures and moments: the American Civil War, Frederick Douglass, the end of the Jim Crow laws, Martin Luther King Jr. But I had not felt the magnitude and weight of this history as powerfully ever before as I did standing on the University of Virginia’s campus.
Three weeks ago, I did not feel compelled to wave back at a police officer for fear of what could happen had I not done so
Some months later, late on Monday afternoon, in the sticky North Carolina heat, I am on Duke University’s campus. I decided ultimately not to enrol at the University of Virginia and this is the institution I now attend. I overhear murmurs of discussions about the events that occurred over the weekend in Charlottesville. When asked by new friends and peers what my thoughts are, I shrug, give short, vague responses and disengage entirely from the conversation. It is not that I have no opinions about the recent protests. The UK has its own insidious problems with race and racism, and while it manifests in different ways in the US, I am well-versed to engage in political debates. But I am still grappling with the fact that Charlottesville is only a few hours away and that I had almost enrolled at the University of Virginia. I can not believe that just minutes away in Durham, a town I now live in, a town I explored on Saturday morning as I looked for quarters to do my laundry, there are protesters toppling a Confederate statue.
Up until three weeks ago, I still lived in West London. Up until three weeks ago, white supremacist and racist happenings in the United States felt close enough for me to be angry at, but far enough for me to engage freely in conversation. Three weeks ago, I did not feel compelled to wave back at a police officer for fear of what could happen had I not done so.
What happened in Charlottesville and at the University of Virginia over the weekend is not surprising. What America has failed to learn since the start of the presidential election campaign, and before, is that racism and white supremacy is as rife as ever. Navigating the American South as a black British woman has only opened my eyes more. The racism is everywhere and in your face: Confederate flags, Confederate statues, segregated areas in the city. For now, I am happy and feel safe, but I am learning how quickly the trauma can seep in and settle in a black body.