Colin Dickey | Longreads | August 2017 | 14 minutes | 3380 words
We had come to a place muted of light. Every day felt like a potential backsliding, the news unrelenting, as though the nation had finally given up pushing back against its own savagery — and every day felt like the held breath before the fall. I thought increasingly of Stefan Lux, a Jewish journalist from Slovakia: Aghast at the rise of anti-Semitism during the 1930s, and at the inability of Europe’s bureaucratic governments to respond, Lux walked into the General Assembly of the League of Nations and, before the gathered diplomats, fatally shot himself. His last words were “C’est le dernier coup.” This is the final blow. It was only July 3, 1936; the blows would keep coming long after Lux’s death.
The center was not holding; there hadn’t been any center for decades. It was a country of bankrupt politicians, of killings by police so commonplace they barely made the news. It was a country in which families were routinely broken up by early morning immigration raids, where men abducted for traffic violations and women arrested for misdemeanors were sent off to countries they hadn’t known for decades. It was a nation where young white men found solace drifting through rage and irony, and felt alive only by terrorizing others. It was not a country in open revolution, but more and more its people felt revolution would at least be the exhalation they’d been waiting for. It was a country waiting for the final blow.
Whatever rough beast Yeats had seen had already slouched its way out of the desert, laying waste to everything that fell under its pitiless, blank gaze. The body of a lion and the head of a man, the indignant desert birds circling around its slow thighs, it has laid waste to the veneer of civility and decorum that had once been papered over the country.
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I had no idea about the University of Virginia. I knew I wanted to go away for college, and from about the time I was 10 years old, my mind was set on attending the University of Michigan. If it weren’t for my father constantly checking college rankings in magazines and taking me on college tours my junior and senior years of high school, UVA wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. But soon I got to see how beautiful the campus and city of Charlottesville were. Everything on the grounds has an historical aura to it — the neoclassical architecture, the Amphitheatre, Edgar Allen Poe’s room, the Rotunda designed by founder Thomas Jefferson, a man who at that point I knew little more about than what they teach you in grade school. I didn’t research UVA’s acceptance rates, tuition, majors, alumni success rates, or any of that stuff, because after I saw the alluring Central Grounds, I was sold.
That fall, my family and I drove to Virginia from Illinois, and I settled into the Kent building of what are known as “Old Dorms.”
The first year transition into UVA was rough. I was battling recurring bouts of colds and flus, and felt socially isolated as an out-of-state student and the only Black male from Chicago. I felt like I was falling through the cracks, and didn’t know who to reach out to. But by my second year, my health improved, I felt more comfortable in my surroundings, and I found my niche within African American Studies and English classes. Add the immeasurable warmth of folks like legendary dining hall cashier Mrs. Kathy McGruder, long lunch and dinner dates in Newcomb with groups of friends, and the hilarity of “Adventures of Cavman” at home football games, and C-Ville and UVA became my second home.
I will always have enormous affection for Charlottesville. In reflective moments, I look back and feel blessed to have called it home for four crucial, formative years of my college life. Charlottesville has figured into my professional life, too. My first ever print feature story as a journalist was with its local paper, C-VILLE Weekly.
Last weekend, I found myself glued to the television as the“Unite the Right” rallies unfolded. Alumni all over the country took to social media to give updates about what was going on. The footage of white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. driving into counter-protesters left me speechless. Charlottesville being in the national headlines for domestic terrorism might not have seemed predictable for that quaint and quiet college town. However, as positive as my feelings are towards the place, I can’t say I was entirely surprised about this attack. It was undoubtedly tragic, but I think we’d be dishonoring the memory of Heather Heyer and what she stood for to see it as unprecedented.