Back to School: Lessons After #Charlottesville
Letter from the Director
I greet you at the beginning of a new semester, ecstatic to announce that this past June, after decades of petitioning, the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies finally became a department! Such was the welcome news of June. That which followed two months later was none so bright, thanks to the “Unite the Right” rally, and the protests and counter-protests it provoked. The violence, terror, and brutality witnessed over August 11th and 12th, thrust Charlottesville into the headlines globally, leaving us with the unenviable task of reckoning with the fallout and plotting our way forward. These have not been easy times, not least because what happened to this city cum hashtag has punctured its much vaunted image as one of the nation’s “best places,” winning distinction in multiple categories. Previously, it had been dubbed one of the “15 Best Places to live in the U. S;” one of the “Top 10 Best Places to Retire;” one of the “Top Five Destinations” in the country; and the “Best College Town in America.” In the shocking aftermath of those two days in August, it became crystal clear that many Charlottesville residents viewed the city in this very light, and were thus quick to claim, “This is not us!” “This is not Charlottesville!” But just as readily others rejoined, “This is not new.” As a Charlottesville native responded to one of the many reporters who flocked to the city for the Alt-Right rally, “Our ancestors been through this before.”
Not surprisingly, as with so many crises our country has witnessed historically, these instantaneous responses were polarized, though not neatly, along the perennial fault lines of race and class, of status and location, of privilege and privation. What both sides held in common, however, was the mutual recognition that we must all go back to school. We must all become students again. Having been “mis-educated,” to riff on The Miseducation of the Negro, written by our namesake, Carter G. Woodson, we must now open ourselves to re-education. We must all become students of history, most especially: the history of the United States, of Charlottesville, and the broader Commonwealth of Virginia. And for those of us who teach, study, and lead at the University of Virginia, we must first be students of our institution, looking its history squarely in the face.
In a recent address to the students enrolled in the newly instituted College Fellows Program, Woodson Institute Faculty Affiliate Robert Fatton posed the critical question, “What . . . can we do as faculty and students in the aftermath of Heather Heyer’s tragic death and the chilling and frightening presence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in our midst?” He answered his question with a challenge to us all: “We need to do much more than walk down the Lawn to ‘take back our University.’ In my view, the point is not so much to reclaim our University, but to change it.” That change, he went on to say, must “begin by acknowledging the university’s complicity in the creation and preservation of white supremacy.”
This history, which begins properly with the labor extracted from black captives, who built the famed “academical village,” has been reflected across the years in the professors it has hired, the ideas and ideologies some have propounded from the lectern and the pages of their publications; in the policies of exclusion once decreed by its Board of Visitors, which have, in turn, shaped and determined the demographics of its faculty and student body, past and present, as well as circumscribed the possibilities of advancement for so many of its workers. Like so many of its his peer institutions, UVA has owned up to its origins in slavery, but far more self-assessment is in order.
As is often the case, students in our universities are often the goads and harbingers of change, and many young people at UVA have taken up this mantle. The demands issued by the Black Student Alliance and undersigned organizations are but one example of the position our students have taken on the front lines of change. Among the growing list of documents circulating around the country— including, “the Charlottesville Syllabus”, which is the product of the UVA Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation— the work of students, fellows and alumni of the Carter G. Woodson Institute is well represented. I am pleased to refer you to a selection of their responses to the events of August 11th and 12th; let’s call it “Selections from the Woodson Institute’s Syllabus on Charlottesville and the University of Virginia.”
“The Illusion of Progress: Charlottesville’s Roots in White Supremacy,” produced by the Institute’s “Citizen Justice Initiative,” between May and July 2017, had already helped to lay much of the foundation for a university self-study, perhaps knowing uncannily that a survey of the roots of white supremacy in Charlottesville, as well as in the university, would be needed barely two months hence.
Although neither could have foreseen what ultimately came to pass, Aryn Frazier, a Rhodes Scholar, who graduated as an African American Studies Major just this past May, wrote wisely with fellow student and alumus, Martese Johnson, to caution us against “a society duped by [the] distractions” created by the organizers of “Unite the Right.” In “Why the Upcoming Alt-Right Rally in Charlottesville May be Less Important than We Think,” they argued that the KKK and its ilk are but “a spawn of that real, quiet, but deadly injustice” of white supremacy—in other words, the invisible "monuments" not cast in bronze or installed in parks and squares, or lining boulevards and thoroughfares.
In the wake of the August crisis, Woodson Institute Pre-Doctoral Fellow, Lindsey Jones, wrote to remind us that “Just Calling the White Nationalists at Charlottesville ‘Nazis’ Erases America's Own Racism.” In answer to those who would argue that the members of the alt-right should be termed “Nazis,” and thus deemed “not us,” she counters, “I call them white supremacists, domestic terrorists, Virginian neighbors, and fellow Americans."
Finally, perhaps we can all say “Amen” to the response of J. T. Roane, another graduate of the Carter G. Woodson Institute, recently awarded a Columbia PhD in history. In the thick of the turmoil, he chose to focus, not on white supremacist terror in Charlottesville, but instead, on Black love and the community of students and faculty who sustained him in his years at UVA.
Each of these pieces is shaped by and steeped in the intellectual assumptions and canons of African American and African Studies. At no time has the work of this field been needed more urgently than now amid the din and chaos unleashed by the racist clamoring of those determined, by any means necessary, to “take [their] country back.” It is fitting that I leave you to ponder, not only how longstanding are these references to “my country,” but also how one of the giants of African American Studies challenged them in The Souls of Black Folk (1903):
Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit.
Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right.
Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation,—we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse.
Perhaps, if only on the lower frequencies, DuBois speaks for you—speaks for us all.
Deborah E. McDowell
The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies,
College and Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences
University of Virginia