Controlling the narrative: Panel looks at black Charlottesville’s stories

Claudrena Harold, Tanesha Hudson, and  Zyahna Bryant discuss how white supremacy was in Charlottesville long before August 12 at a UVA panel moderated by UVA vice-provost Louis Nelson.
staff photo Claudrena Harold, Tanesha Hudson, and  Zyahna Bryant discuss how white supremacy was in Charlottesville long before August 12 at a UVA panel moderated by UVA vice-provost Louis Nelson. staff photo

Why Charlottesville was targeted by a white supremacist rally, ostensibly to protest the removal of a Confederate statue, has led to several theories. That was the starting point for a panel sponsored by the UVA library August 12, two years after the Unite the Right rally.

“Beyond the statues: The invisibility of black Charlottesville” began in the Harrison/Small auditorium with a moment of silence—then a discussion on whether Charlottesville became a target for white supremacists because of the absence of a counternarrative of truth telling on white supremacy and black activism.

It was a premise moderator Louis Nelson, a UVA vice-provost, admitted he didn’t necessarily buy. But he also questioned the “prevailing mythology” that white supremacy came from outside, and Charlottesville really wasn’t like that..

Charlottesville native and soon-to-be UVA first-year Zyahna Bryant challenged the out-of-towners narrative of August 12 and reminded that the man who organized the Unite the Right rally was a graduate of UVA. “Really, people just came out of their houses and came out from their basements into the street and started displaying their ideology,” she said.

In Charlottesville, black people have always had stories about building community, she said. “They just haven’t had those same platforms as white people.”

Activist Tanesha Hudson said, “When narratives are controlled by masses that have the power and the resources, you’re never going to get the truth. You can’t tell our truths if we’re not in the room.”

She’s making a documentary on black Charlottesville, “mainly because the story hadn’t really been told from a black perspective.”

Negative stories about black people perpetuate a system of racism, she said. “You never see the people rising up against white supremacy.” For instance, the story of Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion, was one she did not learn in Charlottesville schools, she said.

“One thing I loved about separate but equal,” said Hudson, were the black newspapers like the Reflector and the Tribune, which did provide news about what was going on in the black community.

Bryant pointed out how African Americans like Toni Morrison have contributed to American culture. “She was writing to and for black women,” said Bryant. “We created our own culture. I’m fascinated with how we can be so oppressed and so great at the same time. It fills me up.”

Claudrena Harold is a UVA history professor who co-edited Charlottesville 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequity with Nelson and has made films on the history of black student activism at UVA. “I wanted to capture the beauty and texture of everyday life,” and how black students in the ‘60s and ‘70s created a culture, she said. “I wanted to visually tell that.”

Nelson asked the panelists about the most pressing systems and structures that need to be addressed.

A living wage and union representation, said Harold. “When people talk about the university as a plantation, they’re not talking about its architectural design.”

Hudson listed health care and justice, while Bryant said public education. She described how her guidance counselor tried to steer her away from applying to UVA and she realized she was the only one of 30 black students at Charlottesville High who applied. 

“UVA is not actually accessible to black students in Charlottesville,” said Bryant. “Most of their parents have worked for the university.” 

Bryant also warned about “the dangers of free speech,” which shut down city schools for two days when a teenager made a threat on social media. In school during conversations about history, she said, “Young white boys feel emboldened to be like, ‘I don’t like black people,’ and feel the classroom is a safe space to say that, and then we wonder who’s doing the mass shootings in school. Do we not see any level of connectedness there?”




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