Faceless Neighbors, Deep Problems: A Tour of VA’s Racial History

~By Alden Groves~

A Hopeful Journey

As I referenced in an interview, the horribly ironic timing of my move to Charlottesville, VA the weekend of August 12th, 2017 was part of what led me to get involved with the One America Movement, an organization that empowers people to build relationships across divides to strive together against toxic polarization in their communities.

I’ve lived in Virginia for nearly two years now. But I didn’t grow up in VA, so when I was presented with the opportunity to accompany a group of clergy on a tour of racially significant sites throughout the state as a One America representative, I jumped at the chance. Twenty-three of us*—old and young, black and white, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—embarked on a three day pilgrimage to bear witness to the pain of the past and hear stories that are mostly not told in the classroom.

*Click here to read the reflection of One America Movement board member Rev. Dr. Leslie Copeland-Tune who also participated in this tour.

The trip came into being after the Ralph Northam and Mark Herring blackface scandals led some clergy in Northern Virginia to decide they needed to better understand the racial history of their state.

Our goal was to see first-hand some of the sites of pain and atrocity in order to better understand the context surrounding these issues. That first morning, each of us looked around at the new faces surrounding us and hoped that this trip would be different. That it might be the beginning of a conversation that would lead to a more hopeful future. And we each brought unique experiences and motivations to the table.

2 - Rotunda Group Pic II-min

*Photo of clergy tour group at UVA’s iconic Rotunda

As I met my fellow pilgrims, I considered  what it was that I brought. Quickly, I realized I was an outlier. I was the youngest member of the group. I was one of only a few non-clergy present. I was certainly the only evangelical among our number. And, though I was not in the minority in this way, I very much felt the fact that I was a white male. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed white male at that.

If you had to draw a composite caricature of what the historic oppressor in most of the stories we were about to hear looked like, I fit the bill better than anyone else on the trip.

Throughout my life, I’ve had various conversations about issues of race in America. I’ve taken classes on the subject. I’ve observed instances of out-and-out racism, and I’ve both kept my mouth shut and spoken up at different times. But my family, my friends, and my community at church are mostly white.

As we boarded the bus, therefore, I was both eager and nervous. I knew the others on the trip had spent far longer considering issues of race than I had, but I was ready to dive in and get to the heart of things and to learn from them and our upcoming shared experiences.

So it was with disappointment that I found the first leg of our trip, the portion spent touring the University of Virginia, didn’t strike me as dramatically as I’d expected. There is much to be said about UVA’s racial history and what happened in Charlottesville in August of ‘17, but  this tour felt more like history class—atrocity was glossed over with academic words and a dry tone. The whole thing felt faceless.

As we climbed back on the bus that first afternoon, I found myself worried that the trip might prove to be far less meaningful than I’d anticipated. Then we made the long drive to Danville (the “last Confederate capital”) for dinner and a conversation that brought the trip to life for me.

Faces Matter

We arrived at a cozy little restaurant in Danville near sundown and gathered around two large tables to debrief the day and to continue to get to know each other.

Slowly, small talk gave way to the deeper waters of our inner thoughts. Cautiously, we ventured into those depths together, knowing that to stay in the shallows might seem safe in the moment but would only leave us all dangerously isolated on our own little islands in the long run.

Before long, we were discussing the blackface scandals that had given birth to the whole trip in the first place. Someone made an offhand remark about these being “faceless” offenses. Wrong, to be sure, but “not directly hurting anyone.”

To this, one of the African American pastors at the table said, “Wait a minute. What those men did hurt me. And it hurt many people I love. This was not a ‘faceless’ offense. I cannot be faceless to you.”

His words seared into my mind at once: I cannot be faceless to you.

3 - Danville Dinner Table-min*Photo of Danville dinner group

Those around the table tensed, and I feared things were on the brink of falling apart on day one. It is a testament to the earnest heart that each member of the trip brought to the table, however, that this heated and heavy conversation resulted in a deeper desire to listen and learn from one another.

I found the initial remark about the governor’s offense being a “faceless” troubling, but I wasn’t sure quite why or what to think about it until I heard the deeply personal response.

I cannot be faceless to you.

In that moment, I realized that “faces”—real people and their stories—must play a huge role in this conversation.

As a white man, I can afford to let the issue of race be a faceless conversation if I want to. And it feels like so many of these conversations end up being intellectual and hypothetical only. Certainly, it’s important to talk about issues of race. Likewise, it’s important to debate good and evil, right and wrong in a Philosophy course. However, if you never put the concepts into practice in your life and relationships, what value is it to have a perfect definition of the terms on their own?

As I climbed into bed that night, I pondered what relationships were present in my life, and I kept hearing the pastor’s words ringing in my ears:

I cannot be faceless to you.

The Face of a Hero

The next morning, I woke lost in thought about what these words meant. They made me think back to one of our group’s recurring motifs as we prepared for the trip. We talked with each other about the blood of the wrongly slain “crying out from the earth” (a reference to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4). In that story, Cain, who has just spilled the blood of his brother, infamously responds to God by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

That morning, as I continued to hear, I cannot be faceless to you, in my mind, I began to hear a reworking of Cain’s question in my heart: “Are you your brother’s keeper, or his killer?”

Gray space is an important thing in life, but some things are absolute. I believe there is either love or hate. And I believe that indifference is not neutrality but lazy hate. This means that, if I am indifferent to the faces of the oppressed, I am my brother’s (and sister’s) killer, not their keeper.

These thoughts swirled in my mind as we drove to High Street Baptist, a historic African American church at which Martin Luther King Jr. spoke during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. There, we heard from various members of the community, and the two that stood out most were Bishop Lawrence G. Campbell and his wife, Gloria.

4 - Mrs Campbell-min
*Photo of Gloria Campbell speaking at High Street Baptist Church

Both were born and raised in Danville, and both experienced persecution and beatings at the hands of police during the ‘60s. The Bishop spoke with great conviction, but it was Mrs. Campbell, especially, whose stories compelled me.

I remembered stories of police brutality during the ’60s. Textbook photos of fire hoses, dogs, nightsticks. But here across the table was a woman describing the feeling of the water from the hoses striking her body, lifting her up off her feet, and throwing her backward into the side of a patrol car. It was her face and body that bore the blows of very real police officers on the same streets I’d ridden over that morning.

There was nothing surprising about her words, in one sense. They were so typical, in fact, that they would have been cliché if I’d heard them as simply another historical account. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

I cannot be faceless to you.

Here before me was the face of a warrior, a hero who’d stared down hate and now talked about it with both fire and grace, piercing me with her every word. It’s one thing to read of brutality. It’s another entirely to look into the eyes of one who felt the blows and continued to resist oppression.

Yet hers was not the last word. I wish it could have been.

Facing the Past

Our next stop was Drake’s Branch, VA and the site of the lynching of Richard Walker. This young man left behind no trace, no sign. Only a tree. He must have been close to the age I am now when the people of Charlotte County snatched his life from him. Surely he had family. Hopes. Disappointments. Triumphs.

As I knelt on the ground where Richard Walker was murdered, I felt a deep kinship with this man I’d never met. I tried to imagine what it would be like to watch a mob bearing down on me, knowing they meant to strip me not simply of my life but also my dignity, my humanity.

It was then that someone in our group handed out mason jars for us to collect soil from the site. As I filled mine and held it with a trembling hand, I couldn’t stop thinking how very, very red the earth was. At that moment, I thought of God’s words to Cain in Genesis 4:

Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground…which opened its mouth to receive [his] blood from your hand.”

5 - Red Earth from Drake's Branch-min*Photo of a jar of soil from Drake’s Branch, VA

It felt as though I held in my hands the blood of all the unjustly slain from Abel to Richard Walker and beyond. That little jar carried the weight of generations of anguish, betrayal, and injustice, and it was too much. I knelt, and I prayed, and I felt my heart break.

Am I a keeper or a killer?

And once more, I heard the words:

I cannot be faceless to you.

I didn’t know what to think, but in that specific valley of despair I was struck by the fact that I was a sojourner. Though I still have the jar of soil—it sits on a shelf over my computer even as I write this reflection—I no longer feel the immediacy of that moment. My white face affords me the opportunity for indifference to such pain if I choose it.

All humans suffer. Even the ones who seem to “have it made” bear scars. I too bear some, but my scars are in my skin, not because of it. That doesn’t make me any less valuable as a person. But I must be careful that I neither believe nor play into the lie that it makes me better.

We need to understand each other’s sufferings, and if we are to do that, we must know each other’s names, stories, faces. Certainly we must not stop at racial suffering (as though that were the only or ultimate suffering). But shame on us if we stop short of it either.

The Faces of Hate and Love

Our final stop was Richmond and the American Civil War Museum. As I contemplated the resounding theme of the importance of knowing the faces of the downtrodden, I was viscerally struck by one of the final exhibits.

Is there a clearer symbol of focused hatred in American history than the white hood and robe of the Klan? Consider, what a hood does. It hides the wearer’s face. It allows the wearer to be less than human and to treat their victim the same way. That’s what hate does. It hides. It terrorizes and tortures. But ultimately, it’s afraid to be seen, afraid to be truly known.

6 - Faceless Hate-min*Photo of KKK hood and robes from new exhibit at American Civil War Museum

Love, however, looks the other in the eye—whether ally or adversary—and allows itself to be fully seen. This makes the lover vulnerable. It opens them to scorn, abuse, and even death. Love is not easy. But it is beautiful and compelling as no other force on earth is.

One of my fellow travelers commented that he was overwhelmed by the depth of forgiveness he heard from the African Americans we met throughout the trip. These few do not represent the fullness of the African American experience. But their example of grace was compelling in the face of the horror they’d undergone, the injustice they still experience.

The Work Ahead

And that’s the final key. The hardship isn’t over.

If you’re white, I encourage you to sit down with someone you trust who isn’t and ask them what “normal” harassment they endure because of their skin color or culture. (If you’re a man, do the same with a woman you trust). It might surprise you to hear what some of your neighbors and friends put up with each day.

We need to know each other’s sufferings or we’ll grow cold and hard toward “others.” We cannot afford to do so. ALL of us are made in the image of God. Therefore, to know the faces of other brothers and sisters is to know more of God’s face.

I am better because of this trip, and not simply because of the seldom-told history I heard. I am better because I know the faces of some of those suffering these same evils today.

7 - Rob, Scott, Alden-min*Photo of Rev. Rob Cheeks, Rev. Scott Ramsey, and Alden Groves

As I think about what’s next, I look forward to continuing to grow in relationship with those I met so that it will be impossible for these issues to ever be faceless to me. When we come together across these deep divides, we more clearly display the face of God. When we keep apart, we are left with a god entirely in our own image, and we find ourselves questioning, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Don’t let your neighbor be faceless to you. Share your sufferings with each other, and hang up the hood of indifference.

I leave you with my prayer for all of those I met throughout this overwhelming and exceptional journey:

The Lord bless you
    and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.
Numbers 6:24-26

 

Alden Groves is the Virginia Coordinator for the One America Movement.

[Header Image] *Photo from new exhibit at American Civil War Museum

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