August in Charlottesville: Excavating Memory, Truth, and Hope

I was always amazed by the way my late father could read rocks.

Dad taught history and loved geology. When I found a piece of igneous Basalt on the beach one day, he read in it a lesson for me about volcanic eruptions and the creation of mountains. Similarly, the sand contained for him the story about glaciers creating our town on Long Island, NY, about 20,000 years ago. As our station wagon would snake along mountain roads, he pointed out the parallel lines within the rocky walls, explaining the layers of sedimentary history and tectonic forces that shaped the terrain — reading the earth’s autobiography of perpetual change for millions of years.

No doubt, Dad’s lessons inspired my own respect for history. Human history is but the blink of an eye. If we map the 13.8 billion years of our universe onto an ordinary 12-month calendar, starting with the Big Bang on January 1, it would take eight calendar months (representing more than nine billion years) for our solar system to form sometime in September around Labor Day; dinosaurs would roam the earth for a few days starting at Christmas, and human life would finally arrive after 10 PM on New Year’s Eve.

It is within this humbling hair’s breadth of human history that we find ourselves, negotiating between the past and the future, seeking meaning and purpose and guidance for our lives.

This week marked the third anniversary of the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, VA. Ms. Heyer was a young woman peacefully demonstrating against crowds of white supremacists who had come to this college town with firearms and Nazi slogans to intimidate people, incite violence and, according to some participants, foment a race war. Ms. Heyer’s life ended when a 21-year-old white supremacist rammed his car through a group of people. His violent attack injured dozens of people and ultimately earned the driver a sentence of life in prison. Two state policemen, monitoring the extremists’ rally, also lost their lives that day in a helicopter crash.

To commemorate these tragic events, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia hosted virtual dialogues in our community this week. We heard from Malcolm, a Batten undergraduate student at the time of the attack, who was there when marchers wielding Tiki torches stormed up the UVA Lawn chanting, “You will not replace us; Jews will not replace us.” Malcolm tried desperately to help his classmates, who were surrounded and outnumbered. He recalled shocking images of bigotry recorded on his phone that evening, the smell of burning torches, and searing memories of fear and chaos.

Another student, Alice, was among the first rescue workers on the downtown scene after the attack on Ms. Heyer. Alice, a volunteer EMT, was scheduled to begin her graduate public policy studies at Batten the following week. That day, people didn’t know if additional attacks were imminent or if the violence would spread. After providing critical assistance, Alice was instructed to hide in the wheel well of an ambulance until the situation stabilized. Today Alice is earning a second graduate degree, in nursing leadership.

Dr. Williams, who served on the Batten health policy faculty, was a trauma surgeon who treated the wounded bodies that arrived at the Medical Center that day. He described how he tended to the immediate physical injuries right away, even while lamenting the systemic racial disparities in health care and the psychological scars that existed long before and stubbornly persist.

These human stories and many others settle over time, layer upon layer, to form the bedrock of our history. We tell them and retell them because they help define our community, our values, and our collective memory. It matters what stories we tell and how we tell them, what meanings we give to events, and how we remember them. Our narratives of upheavals of the past — and the force and character of our responses — shape our understandings of today and our visions for tomorrow.

Also this past week, colleagues and I submitted the final report of UVA’s Racial Equity Task Force, convened by President Jim Ryan during the groundswell of Black Lives Matter protests this spring. Over a period of 10 weeks, our Task Force met via Zoom with more than 300 individuals to ask questions, explore ideas, and most importantly, listen. We held a virtual town hall with more than 500 participants and ultimately received feedback from more than 1,000 people. While looking forward, imagining an audacious and equitable future, we reflected on more than 50 years of earlier voices — proposals, requests, and demands — for diversity, inclusion, and change at UVA.

Through our report, we sought to honor the 19th century uncompensated toils and contributions of enslaved people who built and sustained the University, and the lives of the Monacan Indian Nation ancestors who lived on this land previously, for many thousands of years. These stories have long been excluded from the dominant narratives about the University, though recent scholarship has begun to excavate the truth and unrecorded names. There is now a Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA that affirms the humanity of Black sons and daughters — many of them still children — who worked in the basements or in the yards behind the serpentine walls, inventoried on the tax rolls as property, alongside horses and Confederate War bonds. Most were buried in the soil of unmarked graves and sometimes their bodies were dug up to be exploited once again for anatomical research on cadavers.

The layers of our history run deep, and there is more to uncover. We benefit from a truthful and complete narrative — one that helps us transcend the enduring racist mythologies that fueled the 2017 Charlottesville rally and continue to exert seismic pressures in our politics. Perhaps the humility invited by considering the cosmic brevity of our lives will encourage all of us to be a little more compassionate and generous towards each other, a little more curious, and a little more attentive to the precious moments we get to spend together.

My Dad often told me that the best way to predict the future is to create it. Of course, we do not get to make it up just as we please. We inherit the sediments of those who came before and the forces they bequeathed. Together we navigate between the constraints imposed by our fossilized past and the ever-shifting uncertainty of our future. That, indeed, is the challenge of leadership.

Amid the grief and anger and contradictions, I find hope in the resilience and resourcefulness of our students and people like Malcolm, Alice, and Dr. Williams. Through their passions for equity, justice, and repair — matched with judgment, skills and courageous action, they will help us build a beloved community.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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