The Carter G. Woodson Institute, U.Va.

The Carter G. Woodson Institute

for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia

Faculty Affiliate Robert Fatton's Address on the Events of August 11th and 12th

Faculty Affiliate Robert Fatton's Address on the Events of August 11th and 12th

I was asked by some of my colleagues to say something personal about the ugly and violent events of the past two weeks. The invasion of our community by neo-Nazis and white supremacists armed with guns and blazing torches has left me with a very mixed sense of anger, outrage, bewilderment, and sadness. This sadness was compounded by the devastating loss of Heather Heyer who was killed when a Nazi terrorist drove his car into a crowd of protesters. Heather was a brave and forthright individual, who, as I learned at her memorial service last Wednesday, was not afraid of uncomfortable conversations and of calling people out on their prejudices. Heather exemplified human decency, she simply told us that we should not put up with ugliness and injustice. 


We should celebrate her simple and brave form of resistance. In fact, Heather was not alone; a multiplicity of organizations, clergy of all denominations, and individuals of different ideologies and faiths confronted the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis with fierce determination. I found this anti-supremacist and anti-fascist movement empowering.  It embodied human decency and it compelled the racists to retreat.


And yet, the question remains: what else can we do as faculty and students in the aftermath of both Heather Heyer’s tragic death and the chilling and frightening presence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in our midst? 


While I appreciated last Wednesday’s candlelight march, it seems to me that we need to do much more than walking 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. 


Let me explain. In my view, change must begin by acknowledging the university's complicity in the creation and preservation of white supremacy.  For starters, Thomas Jefferson’s “academical village” was built by slave labor. As a native of Haiti, I am all too familiar with the views of UVA’s slave-owning founder. Many students are not aware that Haiti was the world’s first independent black nation, the result of a slave revolution against French colonialism.  Thomas Jefferson feared that the example of the Haitian revolution might embolden blacks in the United Sates to rise up. As President, he refused to recognize Haiti making it an outcast, a position it has struggled to overcome.


It is not just Jefferson’s slave-holding past with which we must contend. At the turn of the 20th century Dr. Paul Barringer, who served as Chairman of the Faculty—the last to hold that office before the University started having Presidents—promoted eugenics—a racist pseudo-science. In 1921, UVA President, E. A. Alderman welcomed and thanked the KKK for a large donation. We thus need to acknowledge the role of racist donors in the growth of our university. We also need to remember that African-Americans and women were not even admitted to the college until the late 1960s and early1970s.


It is only when we know this history, that we can understand how the torch-bearing white supremacists who invaded the Lawn on August 11, saw themselves as “reclaiming” the University.  In other words, if we do not forcefully confront and condemn this racist legacy, we cannot truly claim the University as a place that is welcoming to all.


I do not mean to dismiss recent efforts to uncover the hidden and ugly parts of our University, but only to say that more work must be done. Our current moment provides an excellent opportunity to raise awareness and create a genuine community.  We need a University that is not only culturally and ethnically diverse, but also economically inclusive. For whether we like to admit it or not, most of us at UVA are privileged. We need to reflect on how as an institution, and as individuals, we treat and reward those who are neither faculty nor students. I am talking about the custodial staff, grounds keepers, office staff and hospital workers, people whom we often ignore, but whose work is indispensable for our own flourishing. 


Most universities and colleges like to think of themselves as special places. And indeed, they are. We are. UVA is a special place where, if we faculty do our jobs well, you will grow into thoughtful and perceptive citizens. But UVA is also part of a wider world and reflects the problems of our times. You are entering adulthood in an epoch when the global economy has produced massive wealth and obscene inequalities that feed social insecurities and xenophobic sentiments. To paraphrase the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, we are living in times when “the old is dying, and the beautiful has yet to be born.”


Resolve to be part of that new birth!  Mobilize, organize, and work for the beautiful.  In the process, take a frank look at the past in order to better grasp the present. Study hard, debate vigorously, and think critically about how best to advance the common good. And then move forward with conviction and humility.


Thank you and welcome to UVA and Charlottesville.

                                                                                 August 24, 2017