Art’s role: Black Lives Matter’s protest alternative

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“Art in Action” participant Alissa Ujie Diamond made a series entitled “Entanglement” after the violence unfolded on August 12. Photo courtesy of the artist. “Art in Action” participant Alissa Ujie Diamond made a series entitled “Entanglement” after the violence unfolded on August 12. Photo courtesy of the artist.

On August 12, when hundreds of white supremacists gathered here for the Unite the Right rally, ostensibly to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, our city suffered terrible loss.

Just a few blocks away from the destruction, Black Lives Matter held an Art in Action event at Champion Brewing Company. Organizer Leslie Scott-Jones says it was “for people who didn’t want to march and stand, but people who wanted to stand in a different way.” The idea was to open the stage and engage residents in the positive experience of creativity. A large sheet of paper covered one table where children could draw. Musician David Tewksbury performed, as well as Keith Morris, among other singers, musicians and poets. Scott-Jones laughs as she remembers the moment two little girls asked to dance on the stage, the improvised sound system consisting of a mic pressed up to their parents’ phone while their chosen song played.

Scott-Jones says that art has a huge role to play in combating white supremacy. “There is nothing that can move people the way that art can. …It is supposed to tell the absolute truth,” she says. “It is supposed to show someone a perspective of life that they could never have, to promote understanding. And that has always been art’s role.” Scott-Jones says, for black artists especially, art can be an avenue for activism.

The problem, then, with the Lee statue is that it does not tell the absolute truth, “because it is ‘art,’” Scott-Jones says, making air quotes with her hands. “I don’t know if it should be destroyed. I think it should be put into some sort of museum that can put it in its proper place in history. Because I think the mistake that we make is putting our Founding Fathers up on a pedestal as if they weren’t fallible human beings.”

We do owe a lot to them, she adds, because “they created this country, they created a series of laws that still governs us today. But they were also slave owners. They also were rapists. They also killed people. And I’m not talking about war. They stole land from indigenous people. They were fallible. They were whole human beings, and to deny all parts of them is the whitewashing of history. And that’s why we have this problem. Because we haven’t been telling the whole truth.”

Scott-Jones is still processing what happened on August 12. She describes the uncertainty of walking among white people without knowing their intentions. “That’s a kind of terror that is indescribable and it’s not something that goes away just because those people left town,” she says. “Because as all of Charlottesville knows now—I don’t think the black community was under any illusions about it—not all of them were from out of town. So, yeah, it has changed the way I think about my home.”

As for moving forward, Scott-Jones says, “If you are righteously appalled at what took place in our town, then use your anger to fight against it. It doesn’t have to be you standing in a protest screaming at a white supremacist. …It can be something as simple as hearing someone make a racist or homophobic or misogynistic remark and not allowing that to happen in front of you, just stopping that person and saying, ‘Whoa, whoa, that’s not okay. We don’t do that here.’”

Scott-Jones also suggests donating your time, or “your talent, your treasure to organizations that are doing this work. …There are things you can do that don’t involve you putting your body on the line. …And I think people get daunted by not knowing, or not knowing who to ask what those things are. But not asking that question and not acting on that is no longer an option.”

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