At Catapult, Black UVA alum Taylor Harris writes about explaining the racist violence on the Charlottesville campus to her six-year-old daughter, who hadn’t yet personally encountered racism or ever learned about racist violence.
Only a day before the “Unite the Right” protest that led to white supremacists beating Dre Harris and killing Heather Heyer, her daughter and husband had been right there, buying ice cream. Harris wrestles with informing her daughter, because she doesn’t want to rob her of her innocence.
We’ve talked about her beautiful brown skin and thick, curly hair, and she has a sense for why Rosa sat and Dr. King died. But we’ve never discussed anything this present, this evil, this close to home.
Did I tell you she calls this city beautiful? She, gorgeous with her huge brown eyes and tight curls. She is proud that her daddy teaches at the university, the one she has no idea was built by her people. We don’t start there, though. We start with that day and what happened on 4th Street on the downtown mall and why those white people were rallying in her hometown in the first place. We use the word racism.
And what happens next isn’t fair. What happens is that burden folds itself over her shoulders, a mantle I don’t want her to carry, and she says:
“Uh oh. We’re black people.”
I cannot bring her back.
“Is this gonna happen every day in Charlottesville?” she asks.
Which part? I want to ask. The racism, the destruction of black neighborhoods, the hidden pockets of public housing among great wealth? Yes. But a racist rally and a car crash? No.
Here she is, learning norms, feeling her way through fear, wondering if she’s next. She’s 6, you know. Her school supply list still calls for blunt-tip scissors. I heard the terrorists hid weapons in bushes.
We have dinner plans that night, and as we get into the minivan, she murmurs, “I just can’t believe what happened in Charlottesville.” She still conjugates some of her verbs incorrectly, and this time I don’t fix it when she says, “Is Mimi white or brown? Would they have foughted Mimi?” She wants to know if her light-skinned grandmother would have been in harm’s way. Look at the world opening like a pop-up book before her.
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.