Bellamy asked me one evening what I thought Charlottesville’s problems were when it came to race, and I said that I thought the city needed to let go of its myths before it could contend with its realities. We need to stop believing that Thomas Jefferson and UVA define the city. The image Charlottesville presents to the world and to itself isn’t one that includes the kids that Bellamy works with, and so it’s just too easy for the rest of us to ignore them, or feel O.K. that they don’t have the same access to earning a living that the rest of us do.
When the African-American writer James Baldwin moved to Paris, he found that no longer being seen as black or gay made him able to become what he really was, a writer. Davenport felt the same thing when he traveled abroad, that whatever it is in this country that makes otherwise smart people believe that other people can label them was gone. The scales had fallen from his eyes.
When I asked the guys what needed to change, one continuing, if less dire, problem came up: the lack of social and cultural opportunities for blacks in Charlottesville. It’s hard to keep local talent in town, or attract it from outside, if there are no clubs or restaurants, or music venues where they can participate in black culture. As Hargraves pointed out, Charlottesville is only 19 percent African-American, a far cry from cities like Richmond, whose population is over 50 percent black. If you look at the numbers, it simply doesn’t make sense to rely on such a small population for revenue. When he first moved here, Hargraves found himself doing what a lot of young African-Americans do: heading out of town every weekend, to D.C., or New York, or Atlanta.
“But then one day one of my clients invited me out to one of the vineyards here,” he recalled. “I had been to a vineyard before, but as far as a client taking me out and kind of giving me the whole tour effect, it just opened up my eyes.”
Although he wouldn’t put it this way, as someone working in the worlds of finance and real estate, Hargraves spends a lot of his life in a stereotypically white world, and seems to fit in fine. It’s less true of the others, but ultimately, all four of them love living here for the same reasons that anybody else you ask does.
“I love the quaintness, that it’s not too big,” Harrell said. “You can live just outside of town, but still be close. I like the surroundings, I like how you can just take a quick ride out this way and you’ve got these vineyards, you got mountains.”
One thing that surprised me during the course of our conversations was that none of them talked about overt incidences of racism until I prodded them, and even then, they didn’t want to focus on them. They can all tell you those stories, but they’d rather talk about issues like poverty and education, which aren’t color-specific, and about their own lives, which are pretty great. And maybe that’s one difference between our generation and our parents’. It’s not so much that racism doesn’t exist, or that race doesn’t matter anymore, but that it’s no longer the single defining topic of conversation. Maybe having a black president is significant because it frees us to step outside of the color boundary and talk about culture, which is where we interact with each other.
“Some people can look out and see a desert,” Davenport said, in one of his preacher’s moments. “And people will call it a desert, and say, ‘That’s the desert. Always has been a desert, ain’t nothing ever came out the desert, it’s dry.’… [But] that’s not true. In fact it’s not a desert. In fact it’s an oasis. You need to change the lenses that you see through.”
In the Summer of 2012, City of Promise volunteers conducted a detailed survey of the people living in Westhaven, 10th and Page, and Starr Hill. Afterwards, the results were discussed at three community meetings and residents were asked what solutions they felt were needed for the area’s many problems. Among the items on their list: more classes in technology and finance, specifically debt reduction and credit; more minority teachers, and more teachers who truly believe that their children are going to college. They want their kids exposed to different careers, and to successful people from similar backgrounds. Their children need mentors, the parents said, mentors from the community with the same life experience, role models who believe in them.
And the parents must be heard, not just in February, and not just within the framework that we impose. Bellamy, Harrell, Hargraves, and Davenport may not be the answer to all our problems, but they are driven, and committed, and pure where it matters most, and what they are trying to accomplish must be accomplished, or our city will never live up to its promise.