By Darnell Lamont Walker
My black mother, a fairly consistent church-goer and wedding and funeral attendee, raised a black and happy heathen in Charlottesville through the ’80s and ’90s, not realizing how political that was or she is.
On August 12, just before the terrorist drove his car through the wall of people, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring many, a white girl wrote on Facebook, “My father is a Charlottesville resident, and what those racists are doing in that town is not what Charlottesville is about. It’s a beautiful place, full of diversity and love.”
I imagine her face while she typed those half-lies, her lips curling up at the ends, waiting on “Likes” like she spoke the most obvious truths. I imagine her hands moving swiftly across the keyboard as to not lose much more time because there was a brunch to which she was already three minutes late.
I told her, “My black father is a Charlottesville resident, too, and has fallen victim to almost every part of Charlottesville’s racist system, including education and justice, and now the city has developed plans to oust him and thousands of others from their homes to ensure the photos look good when another magazine or the Washington Post comes to town to write another ‘greatest city’ article. Thanks for reminding me to once again watch Chimamanda’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ Ted Talk.”
My sister’s new white neighbors called the police on her last week because there was “too much noise coming from her house.” My sister lives in a house that once existed in a neighborhood where black folk rejoiced loudly no matter rain, sleet or police patrolling. The house has not moved, but it now sits in a neighborhood that brings memories of cancer wards in the nearby UVA Hospital; so sterile, so quiet, so white.
My mother calls me, sometimes too often because she’s a mother, and because she needs to make sure I’m safe wherever I am in the world. Isn’t that the politics of it? Isn’t it important to check on your black son often when he’s run far from the plantation Thomas Jefferson built, quite literally?
When she calls, we laugh. Like me, she was born in Charlottesville, and still finds reasons to laugh. My mother calls me and I’m happy. I’m happy she called, I’m happy I made it out of Charlottesville, and I’m happy to be free and black, then simultaneously sad that my happiness is political.
We know the one good cop in the city by first and last name because he’s fed us and played cards at my grandma’s house. We know the hundreds of other bad cops by last name, and we know where we aren’t wanted.
The truth is none of my white friends in Charlottesville believe me when I tell them how the city has attempted to kill blackness since long before we’ve come, and if it weren’t for their need to feel superior to someone, they’d be a little more intentional about it.
“They” being Charlottesville City Council, Charlottesville Police, Charlottesville school teachers and administrators and white women in yoga pants. Like Lucille Clifton, I celebrate “that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.”
In the name of “urban renewal,” Vinegar Hill, a black safe space in a time when black folks in Charlottesville and everywhere else weren’t safe, was destroyed by the city and left to fester until the cancerous, gentrifying folk came along. McDonald’s now sits on the land where my great-grandmother’s house once sat.
When I go home now, I can’t find my friends, or their parents. Where their homes used to be are now filled with yoga mats, string bean casseroles and tanning salon receipts. I try to call them, but their area codes have changed. They’ve been pushed out into the counties in which we said we’d never live.
To grow up black in Charlottesville and smile often is an act of revolution. I refused to let the police look at the serial number on my bike when I rode through the University of Virginia, because they weren’t going to take the joy the sun and the breeze brought while I rode down that hill fast, my feet in the air, not knowing they were following me. The smile on my face when I told them no was rebellious. When I called the one good cop and told him what happened, he made them call me and apologize. Their voices were monotone and their apologies were empty, but they called a 12-year-old black boy to apologize for attempting to kill his joy. The rarity.
The heathen I wasn’t quite raised to be, but have successfully maintained, wants to return home and knock on the doors of the homes that were stolen from our black grandparents and ask the sympathetic owners if they care enough about equality and morality to give back the stolen property. I want to ask the city if they have plans to look at how zoning could save black laughter and maintain joy. I want to ask the black residents who remain to join me.
I miss the laughter. I miss congregating on porches, merry-go-rounds and in intersections and storefronts and parks. We will have it all again and we will laugh a loud, deep, black laugh.
Darnell Lamont Walker lives in South Africa and is a filmmaker who is collecting stories and working on a documentary.