CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — Startled by blazing white light just behind my eyelids I sat up, heart pounding; it was 2 am. I’m not sure what I thought the light could have been, but almost reflexively reached for my phone and opened my news folder. Something else must have happened; more horror. More marching. More fighting.
But no. The headlines remained as they’d been at 11 pm when I shut everything down and went to bed: white nationalists, counter-protestors, car crashes into crowd, Nazis, the KKK, Antifa, helicopter down, death. Death in Charlottesville.
August 12, 2017, will undoubtedly go down as a dark day in American history. The invasion really began the night before with the torchlit parade of Nazis taking the hallowed ground of the University of Virginia as its stage to remind Americans and the world of its presence and intent. Of the dark desire for a white world. But it was on August 12th that three people died. That our state government perched snipers on the roofs of Charlottesville buildings, including a stately brick funeral home, in a failed attempt to maintain order. It was on August 12th that Donald Trump refused to name our country’s oldest demon: white supremacy.
It was August 12th that beautiful Charlottesville re-entered the history American historians will, or at least should, teach our children.
I’ve lived in the South most of my adult life—Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and back to Virginia, following a two-year sojourn out west. When I arrived in Charlottesville to complete graduate school at the storied University of Virginia my work was inwardly focused. What did it mean to be a Jew? What was ethnicity, really? What helped really make sense of the structures of race in the American South?
Reveling in the pleasures of being surrounded by minds so capacious, I studied and wrote and soaked in every minute. Grad school was the gift of studying all the big questions with wonderful mentors. My first two were, themselves, newcomers here in the US, one West Indian and one Indian and British. It’s embarrassing to say that I never thought about how much that mattered until years down the road.
I read and wrote about Jewishness (complicated, ask my non-Jewish husband), about ethnic conflict, and finally about hate and genocides—in the Balkans, in Germany, in Turkey. It all felt important but far away as I read books with titles like The Fires of Hatred. I wrote as a sociologist, but condemned these historical atrocities as a human. These historic tragedies compelled my work, but my own position in society allowed me to keep distance, even from my studies of neo-Nazism in Germany. The neo-Nazis here in the US were pariahs who lived on compounds in Idaho, right?
It was later that my gaze turned back home in a new way, to working to understand what it meant to be American. Five years I spent studying American national identity. Five years I read and re-read the stories we’ve been told over the course of the 20th century about what it means to be American. But even then I saw the US as a case to help us better understand nationalism the world over.
“I know I am revealing my privilege and naïveté as a white woman. I know progress on these forms of social inequality has been bumpy and uneven and there have been setbacks and inequality remains. But when I was ten, my daughter’s age, Nazis and the KKK were indisputably the bad guys. Period.”
The story we saw play out on August 12th is hardly new. In the 1910s, American nativists were writing about race-mixing and race-suicide, and calling for eugenics and a halt to immigration to save the Anglo-Saxon/Nordic race. That rhetoric returned at the turn of the 21st century as the new demographic reality of a non-white US looked more and more like destiny. We’ve all seen the anti-immigrant movement grow as white fear and discontent grow. The confederate flag’s cultural cache has expanded and grabbed our attention, its carriers as bold as its bars.
And still I didn’t expect it; what happened in Charlottesville. I’m a Gen-Xer, born in 1972. In my lifetime—at least the part from consciousness on—our trajectory here in the US has been toward expansion and inclusion in terms of race, religion, sex, gender, sexuality, and more. Yes, it’s always been clear to me that there were still bad-guy racists.
Yes, I absolutely know about the devastating effects of institutional racism. Yes, I’ve seen anti-Semitism, occasionally up-close-and-personal; and its rise on college campuses today has been painful. I know I am revealing my privilege and naïveté as a white woman. I know progress on these forms of social inequality has been bumpy and uneven and there have been setbacks and inequality remains. But when I was ten, my daughter’s age, Nazis and the KKK were indisputably the bad guys. Period.
They still are.
Seeing that march of torchbearers Friday night, August 11th, I knew this weekend was going to be bad. The intention was to incite violence as an emotional response to hate. I’d already seen images on Twitter of David Duke and Richard Spencer at the Boar’s Head Inn, a lovely country club just outside of Charlottesville, and knew the confrontation was coming. But that fiery parade was new in my lifetime. And to encircle and perpetrate violence on those who stood to protect a statue of Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville’s own far-from-perfect but brilliant hero and paterfamilias, was new and horrifying. I sat on my bed in tears with my husband and kids coming in and out of the room.
Because not only is this a horror on a societal level, but it is a deeply personal tragedy. This place of beauty and history and the pursuit of something better. This place where I shared a home with my new husband and our babies when they were babies. This place where I literally wrote a book that I foolishly thought wasn’t even really about the US, but about quelling nationalist movements the world over. This place is Charlottesville and it is now where Heather Heyer was murdered by an American terrorist from Ohio. Where Lt H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates fell from the sky in the line of duty as they monitored a day of white hate.
It is also personal because as a person others would label a liberal or a progressive or leftist, I’ve sometimes allowed “the right” to claim the symbols of the US for themselves. In everyday life it has been conservatives who have, for example, owned the flag—on their cars, on their clothing, on their homes. Who have most loudly “supported our troops.” The (incorrect) implication has been that liberals don’t love this country or don’t support those who have fought for our rights. We can love the US and know that the very dream of America is the reason we must keep working for her to be better.
The values I saw this weekend were not the values Americans have fought for over the last three centuries. Our experiment is ongoing and still requires work, but that does not mean we should cede it to those who would say we need to go backward to be great. There is no going back, only forward. We desperately need a leader who can help us envision a positive, inclusive future. Democracy, as a friend said to me yesterday, is hard, but worth the work. We do not have that leader, we have a coward who knows not of what he speaks.
Charlottesville’s tragedy lays at the feet of this coward, our president.