News & Politics

The UVA Class the White Supremacists Didn’t Take

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In 2001 Richard Spencer received his B.A. from the University of Virginia. Jason Kessler graduated in 2009. My cousin Julian Bond, the erudite, firebrand civil rights icon, taught at the school from 1992 through 2012. He traveled from D.C. to Charlottesville for twenty years, educated nearly five thousand students.

Julian’s class, The History of the Civil Rights Movement, was an elective. It seems almost a certainty that neither Spencer nor Kessler would have taken it.

Perhaps back then Kessler, the organizer of Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally, and Spencer, at the time not yet a Nazi, were already steeping hate like tea and crafting a new society on the Lawn. Or dreaming of a purely white nation as they passed UVA’s Rotunda — all while Julian opened volume after volume of his life and the lives of others he had known.

Julian would have spoken about SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he helped organize. The sit-ins at the whites-only lunch counter. The Freedom Rides, the group of armed white men who met his car on the road one night. He would have discussed co-founding the Southern Poverty Law Center and chairing the NAACP, although I’m quite certain he would never have mentioned how the Library of Congress named him a Living Legend in 2008.

Kessler and Spencer may have passed Julian and his wife, Pam, on the grounds, may have eaten one table over at Christian’s Pizza. Maybe Jason liked the same kind of bottled root beer my cousin Julian did or, less likely, anchovies with pepperoni on his pizza. One of them may have stood behind Julian at the New Dominion Bookshop.

I have been thinking of Julian. His strengths, what he fought for and against. The weight of fear that lives on in the soil of the South. The bodies of young boys hanging from ropes.

My mother and my father, and their parents, too, who knew that a healthy fear of white men and women might save their lives. Even when it is mixed with an uncanny bravery, the fear is present. This fear whispers that the world is not safe. Anyone can be taken from me at any time. The brown of my skin is a target. For rape, for violence, for death. Standing up can mean being slain. Hide. Bide your time. Wait; wait until it’s safe.

Of late I have been hiding in the sinkhole of my black leather sofa. Red CNN banners splatter behind the glass like blood: “Unite the Right March…” “Terror in Virginia: Car Strikes Woman at White Nationalist Rally…” “Woman in Crash Identified as 32-Year-Old Heather Heyer.” Neo-Nazis, a Dodge Charger. KKK. Images of twisting swastikas, dead-eyed men in khakis and red hats, slack-jawed killers, a vacant hatred born of ignorance.

I didn’t know I was hiding until now — till twenty minutes ago, when I sat down to write.

The Trump-emboldened thugs walking with torches near the new Emancipation Park, chanting “Blood and soil,” hoping to resurrect the name Lee Park, fighting for the greenish-bronze equestrian statue of their hero and his horse, Traveller, that has stood there since 1924.

A slave owner (an inheritance from his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis), Lee held a personal belief in “firmness” in his dealings with slaves — fifty lashes, in one case, washed in saltwater after the beating. In The Making of Robert E. Lee, Michael Fellman illustrates how after the war, Lee argued that blacks should not be given the right to vote. “My own opinion is, that at this time they cannot vote intelligently, and that giving them the right of suffrage” — my italics — “would open the door to a good deal of demagogism, and lead to embarrassments in various ways.

No, we cannot have that in America.

Robert E. Lee was commemorated throughout the South. In addition to the statues, the government buildings, the counties, and the schools (elementary through high school) named after him, there are two holidays, Robert E. Lee Day — a public holiday celebrated, unsurprisingly, mostly in the South — and Lee-Jackson Day, honoring the birthdays of Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson, celebrated only in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Although Lee was the general-in-chief of the Confederate army, he was never prosecuted for treason, was never imprisoned, and was posthumously pardoned. The fact that he’d fought to keep, according to the 1860 U.S. census, 3,953,761 humans in bondage — and that he’d taken up arms against the government — was rarely spoken.

But perhaps it was often thought. Perhaps this secret belief is exactly why statues of him were put up. Perhaps it was because of some deep-seated memory of this that the neo-Nazis, the Klansmen, and their supporters descended upon Charlottesville.

I can imagine the clump of their feet, the excitement of sweat under their arms. I can almost feel the bulge of metal pressing against their skin. The patchwork arsenal littering their bodies.

The mouthwatering satisfaction as they walked slowly past Saint Paul’s Memorial Church during a community prayer meeting led by, among others, Cornel West, trapping its members inside for hours. Raising the pungent scent of fear. When three men bearing semiautomatic rifles stood across the street from the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, raising their arms and shouting Nazi slogans, the rallying crowd, I imagine, took note of how easy it was to inspire terror. How gratifying.

I have watched on iPhone video the murder of black men and women by the police and have known, have seen these insurrections, this constant Confederate rebellion, this war waged against our skin.

But now, now I am told that these are fine people. Now there is a man who allows it, who sanctions and inspires it. Now an apparition that has haunted me has taken on shape and form. Life was breathed into it by a bloated white man with squinting eyes. Some backdoor magic, some homeland secret spell has brought my ghost to life.

I grew up on college campuses. My sister and I were tenure brats. At Kansas University, where we all landed in 1966, I watched the rising wave of protests — anti-war, post–MLK/civil rights. Barely missing being teargassed, one young black man being shot, a dozen or so young black students hiding from the police on the floor of our home with the lights out when police were out hunting. We went to learn about black history at the Afro House, where we were told never to trust a white person, which was hard since my sister and I were the only two black children in our school.

During that time Julian visited us on campus. He had a beauty and an eloquence that made my sister and me fall deeply in love with him, even though we were under ten years old. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers had been murdered. Hundreds of thousands of black men and women had fallen, had been buried, and he held a torch — not the only one, for then there were many, but he held one.

Julian died on August 15, 2015. The last time I saw him, he and Pam had come to Los Angeles and my girlfriend and I had dinner with a group of his friends. I could never get over his reminding me so much of my father. But then the Bond men all have the same cut of jaw and overbite. At the time of his death Julian still held the title of professor emeritus at UVA. There is an endowment there in his name, the Julian Bond Professorship of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

Julian, who had lived through so much, who was, I am sure, haunted by his own memories, his regrets and pains, could not have known that he was looking into a resurrection of a battle he had fought — not won, for there is no winning, but fought hard.

I often think of Julian, the first black man nominated to be vice president at the Democratic National Convention, though unable to accept the nomination because he was too young, not yet thirty-five — a fact, I would guess, the DNC knew before making the nomination. I often think of the eyes of black men and women who wept in 2008 when they actually saw a black man elected president.

I imagine the looks on their faces as the ghosts of everything I had been taught to fear, these Klansmen and -women, the militia and Nazis, march down these streets. Coming back to life. I do not know what to burn, what to pray over, whom to ask for. I know that these men are walking, are barreling down streets and killing, murdering.

I know that an exorcism must take place in America.

But I also know that there are firebrands, elegant and wise, who have walked here, and that more will follow.

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