You have to say something. Your son sees that you’re not taking him to violin, and he knows you are supposed to go. He asked to take lessons, wanting to learn to play like Yo-Yo Ma or Eric Stanley. Your son is eleven with golden skin, and you are his mother, but your skin is dark brown.
Your husband, whose skin runs pale to pink, who has shaggy hair and a sloped English nose, has gone to his studio this Saturday morning to take photographs. His studio sits in downtown Charlottesville, a few blocks from Emancipation Park, where the Unite the Right! protest is slated to take place in the afternoon. At the center of the park, Robert E. Lee’s stone effigy sits high on a horse, no more than a mile from your home.
The protestors began to arrive yesterday from all over the country. They announced themselves with a spectacle of guns, swastikas, Confederate flags mashed up with Klan iconography, and makeshift military garb. At nightfall, they poured onto the University of Virginia campus, an orchestrated pre-demonstration. The images flooded your Facebook feed: droves of angry-looking men held up Tiki torches, their collars arched, their angular faces shiny by that flickering light. They chanted, Jews will not replace us! They chanted, White lives matter! to which you thought, They do. In videos, when counter-protesters arrived, skirmishes broke out. Those fiery poles were brought down with alarming force.
Today, protests are not scheduled to start for hours, but violence is already mounting again. Groups of armed alt-righters parade past stores and restaurants that your family knows well. These men are uniformly white, or rather: pale, and tan, and ruddy. They cover themselves in Klan robes, Nazi regalia, camo, business casual. They carry shields and flags and sticks and canisters of Mace. Too many hold up assault rifles: United, they say. Chests wide with pride, they raise flags that glorify the murder, enslavement, and genocide of bodies marked as Other. That’s what they claim your body is.
The counter-protesters have come early, too: black and white, and brown, and pink, and bronze. Many are from out of town, but you recognize some faces. They hold signs, shields, pepper spray, or nothing at all. They look massively outnumbered and woefully out-weaponed. If this is a battle, the word asymmetrical comes to mind. A group of religious leaders kneels along the park’s perimeter, men and women with arms looped together, their faiths visible on their robes, singing hymns and lowering their heads in front of all that fury.
You’ve braced since winter for these men and their movement. You watched the video of Richard Spencer, the UVA graduate who popularized the term “alt-right.” In footage he offers a strident Hail Trump! and sets off a series of arcing Hitler salutes from the fervent crowd. More intimately, you’ve seen a local provocateur, Jason Kessler, position himself at the center of your public square. One Friday evening, walking out of a movie theater, you watched a crowd of locals encircle him. At the center, Kessler smirked and performed. You’d worried over the crowd’s righteous anger—that somehow, Kessler fed on it. You watched Kessler on YouTube, too, calling anyone who opposed him “Antifa,” singling out the one black guy in the crowd to ask about the one black city council member. He veiled his message of white supremacy with the right to free speech.
Sure, speak, you’d said, then challenged yourself to listen to his specious claims of white genocide, delivered like shouting Fire! in a crowded theater. You kept listening through the alt-right’s stated remedy: to disappear brown and olive-skinned bodies, to create an all-white nation atop the graves of slaves and in the place where you stood. You received their vision of a great and terrible America as sharp jabs to the hollow of your throat.
All morning, your phone has been buzzing, an urgent, endless string of texts from a group of people you know, most of them women. Months ago, you joined this informal group in an attempt to prepare for and oppose these men. The group met on Sundays, sitting in cramped circles in rotating living rooms. At the last meeting, people took turns saying what they planned to do on the day of the march. You’d remained ambivalent about whether or not to attend at all: Would your presence show resistance? Or would your righteous anger be appropriated by the other side? Would you be safe? Now you worry about those group members who text from side streets and parking lots, asking for the number for legal aid, or for medical assistance, like a renegade triage of saints.
A helicopter has been circling for hours, its constant drone vibrating in your skull. When you step outside, you can see its anxious silhouette circle above the trees. Your phone trembles again: the governor has declared a state of emergency. Uneasy, you text your husband. Your son looks up and registers the worry on your face.
Now every shade of white supremacist—the swastika-yielding ones, and the torch-wielding Polo-shirted ones, and the armed, our-government-is-illegitimate ones—have all been let loose on your small college town. All that adrenaline and rage is radiating out from Lee’s statue and toward your tree-lined streets. Some men, you hear, are getting into cars and driving to traditionally black neighborhoods, like the one where you live. You hear that some have physically assaulted the line of clergy, or are trading blows with counter-protestors.
So, no, you’re not going to violin.
You’re not going anywhere today.
You hear the sound of your husband’s bicycle falling on the front porch, the screen door rattling closed behind him. He’s still breathless when he finds you in the kitchen. It’s crazy over there, he says. He tells you he saw hundreds of men marching toward the park under a haze of tear gas. He tells you he saw dozens of fights, breaking out all at once, and long lines of police, seemingly guarding buildings, doing nothing to intervene. He watched bands of grizzled men dressed in camo and helmets, holding guns muzzle-up or across their chests, at the ready. He saw a black man, in his fifties, scrubbing at his eyes, white liquid and tears running down his face. He saw a white man, in his twenties, holding a bandana to his head, trying to stop blood from flowing. Your husband recognized photographer friends weaving in and out of the crowd, their eyes wide with shock. As he biked back home, he passed a man shouting, Race war! He passed a man shouting, Dylann Roof is a hero!
You feel seasick, like you’ve been forced to gulp saltwater.
The helicopter chop-chop-chops.
On your computer, on your phone, you watch as the story of the day grows darker. A friend posts pictures of grotesque propaganda: xeroxed flyers locked inside Ziploc baggies, weighted down with kitty litter, scattered overnight in his mostly black neighborhood. A protestor throws urine onto members of the press. Leading up to this day, you’d pictured contained horror, a rally rung around that long-dead Confederate general. Hateful signs, holstered handguns, and a crowd of counter-protestors circling with police in between. But this is chaos, spreading lawlessness. Here are fresh images of a group of white men chasing down and beating a black man, in daylight, in full public view. They strike his head with flagpoles, over and over, even though he has fallen to the ground. The man’s skin is the same color as your brother’s; his blood is bright red. This is happening, right now, in a parking garage that sits right next to the police station.
You feel your son behind you, so you swiftly scroll down, though his eyes linger on the screen. You wonder how much he saw, though you can’t bear to ask yet. You’ve been telling him, for weeks now, that these men were coming. But you couldn’t have known what their arrival would mean.
They’re why we aren’t going to violin, he says.
You nod and close your computer. It’s Saturday, and normally you’d go to the store, to the park. Let’s go outside and shoot a few baskets, you say.
You open the screen door and step out. Your yard is set far back from the road and sheltered in a grove of walnut trees. Your son turtles his head behind you.
We’re gonna die! he shrieks, mockingly. His octave betrays a kernel of fear, but mostly he’s trying to make you laugh.
But not today, you answer, half guilty, half relieved.
So what, you tell yourself, if you didn’t join the counter-protestors downtown today? So what if you didn’t even make it to violin? You’re still resisting, just by playing ball in the yard in your brown skin with your gold boy. You’ve resisted in the stories you’ve written, in the votes you’ve made. You resist with the kindness you extend to all your students, in all the skins in which they arrive. Resistance teems in your blood, inherited from your parents who plotted their own escape from the segregated South, and managed to preserve warm and generous hearts. You will resist with your reedy compassion for even those men who would demean and defile you.
The two of you four-square the basketball in the driveway. Mid-August and it’s warm out, humid. The towering magnolia under which you were married is slowly being overrun by vines. The helicopter blades still thrum overhead, sounding like Vietnam in a movie.
You palm the ball to your eleven-year-old and really look at him. This is a kid who became a vegetarian at the age of eight, because he loves animals, even though, he acknowledges, bacon tastes delicious. This is a kid who raps to Kendrick Lamar and Hamilton with equal zeal, bleeping out the curse words in both. This is a child who donated several months of allowance when he learned that this nominal amount could provide a lifetime of clean drinking water to a stranger somewhere in the world. This is a boy who can watch shrill YouTube videos for hours, and hold a grudge for years.
The basketball goes back and forth between you.
It’s really bad, your son says.
You look at your phone.
It’s really bad, you answer.
He’s only eleven but you’ve already explained the concept of prejudice to him. He understands that people hold biases, even when they don’t want to, even when they don’t realize. You’ve calmly described histories of racial oppression—in schooling, in housing, in jobs, in pay. You’ve tried to steel him against the disdain for brown bodies by offering these anecdotes, like vaccinations. You’ve warned him that someone may well look at his skin tone and imbue it with some false disease, or mock it with distorted accolades. It’s painful to tell these things to your child, but the alternative is worse: What if, for example, he had the audacity to move his hands quickly during a traffic stop, the way his own father might? So you’ve cautioned your son to move very s-l-o-w-l-y, and explained that even slowness might not be enough. For some bodies, misdemeanors can hold a death sentence, and even good behavior may be met with hostility. You’ve told him like your own parents tried to tell you.
When you were a child, your parents hedged their stories of growing up under sanctioned Jim Crow racism against the hope that things would be different for you. You were born in the suburbs of northern Virginia; your childhood was so starkly different from theirs. And so, they handed you a heavy, battered shield, hoping you’d never need to lift it. They understood that convincing you of the need to shield yourself at all was its own kind of injury.
Your son has the ball; he is dribbling, dabbing.
You look at your phone yet again.
Oh fuck! A car has barreled into a crowd of people. Bodies thrown, bodies crushed. Oh god.
What’s wrong, what happened now? your son asks.
You realize you’re cradling the ball.
You’ll have to tell him soon.
Let’s go back inside, you say.
Earlier this summer, you had lunch with a friend you don’t see as often as you’d like. She is an art person, in her forties, like you; her skin is brown like yours. At the end of lunch, she shared a story as if confessing, her shame swaddled in a kind of pride, because the shame shouldn’t have even been hers to carry.
This past winter in Charlottesville, she and another mutual friend—a guy you know, brown too, who air-kisses you on both checks when you see him—were walking downtown. They passed a venue just as a concert was letting out. A small group of people hurried behind them, talking loudly.
This friend of yours was not afraid—she often walked downtown at night. But at once it became clear that the strangers from the concert, who were white or tan or sunburned, were taunting your friends. One of the strangers shook liquid from a water bottle onto them. When your friends turned to ask what was going on, the group called your friends niggers. One of the strangers punched your male friend, another punched your female friend, so hard that she fell and blood ran from her nose. As you listened to your friend tell this story, your throat tightened, your hand flew to your chest.
She told you that the police showed up right away, but the officers could not hear her story. They only understood the story offered by the strangers: So, you all were fighting each other? the police concluded.
One officer gestured to the young woman who’d assaulted your friend. She says she lost an earring, he explained. While your friend remained bleeding on the ground, he stooped and shone his light to help her look for her jewelry.
It’s almost dinnertime, though no one in your family is hungry. You find yourself watching a video of the car that plowed into the crowd: the car rushes into a collection of bodies and then screeches back out at the same frenetic speed. You recognize the narrow one-way road, a corridor barely fifty feet from your husband’s office door. There are screams, bodies fly, limbs torque at odd angles. Nineteen human bodies broken. A town of souls battered. One young woman, dead.
Did you just watch it, too? your husband asks.
You feel heartsick, lost.
So, someone drove their car right into a crowd of people? your son says. You don’t show him the video.
You all notice the helicopter sound has stopped. You peer across the table at your husband, both of you sighing at the reprieve. Maybe things are quieting down, ending. Moments later, you learn the helicopter crashed.
Phone calls and messages pour in from friends and family. Charlottesville, they exclaim, unbelieving.
As night closes in, you look back and forth between screens and the faces of your child and husband. Your thoughts loop around as you scroll through posts and tweets, searching for answers, trying to figure out what it all means. People you know are outraged, horrified, heartbroken at the chaos, the devastation. But when you read those men’s responses, you feel like you’ve been knocked to the ground. You taste copper, like blood, at the back of your throat.
We will be back! the men say, triumphantly. This is our town now!
Days later, when you pick up your kid from his summer day camp, he tells you his group hiked up to Humpback Rock. From there he could see all of Charlottesville: the university, the towers of the hospital, the downtown mall. You turn up the radio as another national news story about August 12 comes on. Many sides, the president says, and you twist under your seat belt as if he’d said, So, you all were fighting each other? A spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police suggests that there hasn’t been much of a problem with protestors openly carrying guns, as if your town hadn’t watched the police cede their authority to armed and angry men. In nearly the same breath, the spokesman seems to admonish the counter-protestors: Why bring sticks to a peaceful demonstration?
Meanwhile, communities all over the world hold vigils. They mourn Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed. They mourn a sense of safety, of decency, and the dream of what America claims it wants to be. They are losing sleep, like you have. They hold shame in the cave of their chests for the brazen hate those men displayed—maybe even for the systems of oppression that harm so many but feel nearly impossible to dismantle, and are sometimes hard to even speak of out loud.
When you put your kid to sleep that night, you perch at the edge of his mattress. At the foot of his bed, his violin lays silent in its case. Earlier, you listened to him play: a series of impatient shrieks, then a long yearning note like someone singing. He is still only practicing for the person he will become.
You think of those men who came to march on your town, to intimidate, to oppress, to injure, to stoke fear. You think of Iraq, of Syria. You think of desperate unaccompanied minors crossing borders, and of those murdered boys in Mexico, restless in unmarked graves. You think of the riots in Ferguson, and of the brown boys in your own Jeffersonian town, just a few years older than your son. Too many of them already feel marginalized, their grievances ignored or dismissed. Too many suffer silently, with burning guts, with clenched jaws and bruised fists. You think of all this and feel ashamed, for all the beautiful places you’ve been in your life, for the comfort of your home and the shelter of your yard. It feels newly fragile in your chest.
Explaining to your biracial child why white supremacists are marching feels like asking him to try to hold battery acid in his bare hands. How do you tell him and still protect him? How do you keep him safe but preserve his warm and generous heart? He’s on the cusp of adolescence—a door is closing. You clear your throat.
You tell him: Those men are filled with rage, and they aimed that rage at black and brown bodies, at queer and Jewish bodies, at Muslim and female bodies, at anyone who would defend the dignity of those they called Other.
They think you are Other, you say, full of shame.
You tell him: They want America to heap all blame on black and brown bodies, set those bodies on fire, and call the ashes victory.
You tell him: Whatever their true grievances, those men falsely choose to believe that if bodies like yours and his could be disposed of, their own lives would be better somehow.
You tell him that there are so many other things to discover—in the world, in people—so much of it beautiful.
You lift the shield and pass it to your son, even though its protection is a kind of wound, too. You hate that this hurt has a job to do, that it feels so necessary. And you worry, still, that it won’t be enough.