I can’t stop thinking about what happened in Charlottesville, and I don’t think I am alone. I have been shocked and saddened by some of the interviews I’ve heard, and shocked and saddened by some things I’ve heard come out of people’s mouths and through their keyboards-people that I thought I knew. It’s like a huge pressure cooker has exploded, with tightly held emotions now released with a fury. I am in no way a political person, but this goes far beyond politics; it truly is about who we are as a country, who we want to be. My heart aches that there are so many people filled with hate and anger toward people they don’t even know, have never even met. I will never understand it. It is frightening beyond belief.
I grew up in the South, and except for a brief period to complete my Master’s degree in Texas (its own world), I have always lived in the South. I remember the first year that my elementary school was integrated, seeing people that looked different from me in person for the first time ever. I remember stories that my mother told me of huge racial divides during her own childhood. I heard family throw around the ‘N’ word, justifying it with, “We grew up saying it in Tennessee”. We learned in elementary school what was appropriate to say or not say concerning race, and I went on a mission to eradicate that word I found so offensive from the vocabulary of several people I loved.
I tried to bring my best friend Daffney home in the second grade. I adored her, and she happened to be black. Mom told me that it wasn’t safe to bring her to our neighborhood and I cried. The first boy I fell in ‘love’ with in the fourth grade was Marcus Williams, a beautiful and bright black boy whose mother was a teacher at our school. I didn’t understand why people got so upset. I learned later that a close family member had been involved briefly with the KKK, and I felt sickened, as if somehow by sharing their blood I must share their ignorance and hate.
Years later, teaching in a mostly white private college in the mountains of North Carolina, one of my black students told me he never drove through the neighboring town after sundown. I didn’t understand what he meant at first, and then he explained he’d been warned that bad things would happen to any black person who came through that town once the sun set. I felt a surge of fear for my bright and talented student, and a protectiveness begin to crystallize and grow like wildfire in my heart.
Now I work at one of the most culturally diverse universities in the country in the middle of a city famous for its role in the Civil Rights Movement…and still there is unrest, a simmering anger and fear that stays neatly disguised under southern politeness and platitudes. I have gay and lesbian students who come out to me in tears, often before telling their parents, afraid that they will be shunned yet again. I have dear gay friends who have been partners for almost thirty years who can’t walk down the sidewalk holding the hand of their love, fearing reprisals from hate-filled people quick to judge those different from them. I have Jewish friends and colleagues who wonder if they will be the victims of hate crimes next, and the wonderful Jewish Community Center in town that has so many great programs for all has to be guarded at all times because of the threats they receive.
We have come so far, but Charlottesville proves that we have so very far still to go. I am only one person, and a person who is typically soft spoken and avoids conflict at all costs. However, this time I can’t be quiet. I won’t. I will stand by my brothers and sisters of different races, religions, and sexual orientations. I will look them in the eye and talk with them, treat them as I hope to be treated. This is a time when silence is not golden. If we don’t speak out against hate and stand up for what we believe, then we are just as guilty as those who openly expose their hate. My voice may be soft, but added to a chorus of others it can make a difference.