February is Black History Month, when the media dutifully searches for stories about African-American history that depart from the usual refrain of poverty, crime, and pity with which it covers the black community and aims for something more uplifting. Let’s remember how far we’ve come. Then let’s get back to our separate corners.
After a year putting together stories for a C-VILLE series of alternative histories called “The Past is Present,” I got assigned black history. But I didn’t want to talk about Jefferson and slavery, or Vinegar Hill, or the struggles of the Civil Rights era. I wanted to talk instead about the generation born after the ’60s, the kids weaned on hip-hop and Boyz n the Hood. Instead of black history, I want to talk about black now, because that’s what matters most to me as someone who grew up here. I can’t remember Jim Crow or desegregation, but I feel acutely how skin color still serves to separate us in this town.
The assignment really began over breakfast at the Tip Top, when two white guys (Giles Morris and myself) slid somewhat awkwardly into a booth across from three black guys (Wes Bellamy, Quinton Harrell, and Corbin Hargraves), and began trying to figure out how C-VILLE Weekly could better cover news and culture in Charlottesville’s African-American community. We are all roughly the same age, and there was a shared desire to get past the mistrust that holds us back. After some pleasantries and introductions, the conversation quickly turned to their frustration with the clichéd and one dimensional articles the media seems to replicate endlessly. In response, my editor explained the trouble he has finding sources, other than the same four or five people, willing to address African-American issues.
Harrell, whose round head, large eyes, and stoic expression make him look sleepy, is anything but. Always direct, he exuded intensity as he expressed his disappointment with C-VILLE’s last attempt at a story on race, which he called a “missed opportunity” and a “setback.” A fragile bridge was built over pancakes and bacon because it had to start somewhere. Trust us, we’ll do this differently, we said. O.K., they said, we’ll see.
It’s easy to fit my subjects into archetypes: Wes Bellamy, 26, the star athlete from the hood turned leader of men; Quinton Harrell, 42, the street smart hustler who saw the light; Corbin Hargraves, 32, the middle class financier who lives to crunch numbers; and Sarad Davenport, 33, the preacher without a church, or, as Harrell put it, “the Golden Child.” But that’s exactly what they don’t want, and the ease with which journalists fall into that trap, especially when white people write about black people, is a big part of why there’s not a lot of trust among the black community when it comes to the largely white media.
Throughout our conversations there was often a tension between the subjects’ natural generosity and desire to work on this project, and their concern that someone would once again get the story wrong. I felt it too. Fear of getting this story wrong kept me up at night. But hopefully, even if I get it wrong, the four people who helped me, and the community they represent, will forgive me, because if this story is meant to be anything, it’s meant to be a beginning. We may not get it right the first time, but we promise to keep trying.
Already I can anticipate two very good questions that will likely be asked, and unfortunately I don’t have good answers to either one. First, why is this story only about black men? And second, why isn’t this story written by an African-American? The answer to both questions is I don’t know, which is a lie, because I do know, but my answers aren’t satisfying. So let me just say again that this is hopefully a beginning, and that there are many other stories to be written.
There were a lot of job offers waiting for Bellamy when he graduated from historically black South Carolina State University. The most promising was in Virginia, at NGIC, in a city he’d never heard of called Charlottesville. When Bellamy arrived, he thought maybe this job offer had been some kind of joke. The world where he grew up in Atlanta was almost all African-American. His college experience was the same. Walking around Charlottesville, all he could think was, “Where are all the black people?”
So he started stopping the few he did see on the street and asking them. He got strange looks, but also invitations. To Mel’s Diner, where he ate almost exclusively, and into the homes of people like Joy Johnson, an outspoken activist with Jamaican roots whom Bellamy still calls “Aunty.”
Bellamy also found that the black community faced the same problems here as everywhere else: a lack of resources where they’re needed most, families trapped in cycles of poverty, and a dearth of role models for children to look up to. But it also seemed to him that in Charlottesville the problems could be fixed. The wealth in the town is great, in money, ideas and good will, and the scope of the problem relatively small. A little bit of effort here, he felt, could make a big difference.
“I honestly believe in five years, [maybe] 10 years, we can solve a lot of the major issues that are in Charlottesville,” Bellamy said. “There’s a great group of people right now who are committed to making a change around here.”
This is, Bellamy feels, his destiny. It was God’s plan that he would meet Harrell at his store, and then for Davenport to come back to town and for Harrell to say, “Yo, you gotta meet Sarad,” then for him and Hargraves to link up, and for Bellamy to bring him into the crew. It is, Bellamy believes, their collective destiny.
“We can actually change it,” he said, leaning over his words and tilting his head to look me in the eye. “I say that a lot. I get excited every time I think about it. We can actually do it!”
And I want to believe him.