The white supremacist and white nationalist violence that erupted in Charlottesville last weekend made visible, with terrifying clarity, a truth at the heart of US history: white power, when confronted with threats, real or imagined, reacts with violence and death. As scholars who study the history and culture of African Americans, we recognize that black life is far richer and far more beautiful than a litany of abuses. We choose to frame black life beyond the reach of what Toni Morrison called “the white gaze,” but the fury of a white mob in 2017, wielding torches, brandishing pipes and assault rifles, spewing hate-filled rhetoric, and ramming a car into a peaceful anti-racist march threatens to impinge upon life beyond the white gaze. With images of that furious mob flooding our televisions and news feeds, we could not help but see in those faces a hatred tinged with arrogance reminiscent of the smiling white faces gazing out of lynching photographs from the Jim Crow era. This family resemblance reminds us that what happened in Charlottesville is as American as that small college town’s favorite son, Thomas Jefferson, which is to say, what happened in Charlottesville is as American as enslavement and lynching and convict leasing and debt peonage and mass incarceration.
The African American Studies Program condemns the white supremacist, neo-Confederate, and neo-Nazi ideologies harbored by the mob in Charlottesville as well as the violence these ideologies breed. We mourn the dead, and we wish healing to those anti-racist protesters who have suffered injuries of all stripes. We also recognize that what happened in Charlottesville was not exceptional or unique, after all, we remember all too well the massacre that happened just blocks from our offices two summers ago. Our students have already begun to return to campus in advance of the fall semester, and as much as recent events have shaken and disgusted us, we are deeply concerned for our students who are grappling with these acts of violence and their political aftershocks. In moments like these, the value of African American Studies as a discipline cannot be overstated. We, as educators, remain steadfast in our responsibility to provide the analytical tools, conceptual frameworks, and historical contexts to make our contemporary moment legible, if not comprehensible. We also remain committed to supporting our students, most especially those students of color for whom the violence in Charlottesville is no mere abstraction but a threat to their very existence. This violence may be a harbinger of even more terrifying things to come, but the tradition of radical protest that undergirds so much of African American history and culture keeps us pushing back and pressing forward.