Charlottesville, Virginia: Where Myths Collide

"The president, like most Americans, knows who and what was responsible for the images Charlottesville gave us this past Saturday."

Before James Alex Fields, Jr plowed his grey Dodge Charger into the crowd of anti-fascist and anti-racist counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer; before the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of two Virginia troopers who were monitoring the rally, Charlottesville was bound to write its name in caps in the pages of this historical moment. After all, it is not every day that a city in the “old" south supports a reparations fund for its Black residents while committing to unmount General Robert E. Lee, both statue and symbol, from his pedestal in the city's emancipation park.

When the stars and bars flag waving, swastikas embracing and Tiki torch bearing faction of the resentful, and delusional strain of the white supremacist movement congregated in Charlottesville's emancipation park to protest the removal of the confederate general's statue, it was also meant to demonstrate that disparate bands of disgruntled white Americans could transcend their differences and forge a common front in their battle to defend a symbol that represents to their counter-protesters a vile aspect of the American experiment that died in Appomattox Court House when the said general surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, his union counterpart.

When torch-carrying Nazis surrounded and assaulted a small group of counter protestors at the base of the Robert E. Lee Statue in Charlottesville Photo via Flickr by Karla Cote

Nevertheless, the gathering in Charlottesville represented much more than a show of unity between Third Reich loving millennials, their ammo-carrying militia kin and advocates of the white supremacist confederacy; in essence it unfolded like a pilgrimage to the soon-to-be-removed shrine of the chief warrior in the lost cause of white supremacy to reaffirm their presence in the face of what they've designated as historical erasure.

“You will not replace us," one banner proclaimed.

Incensed by the recent drive by cities and towns across the short-lived former confederacy to rid themselves of symbols that represent values that are antithetical to tolerance and inclusiveness, yet emboldened by a political landscape that has proven fertile for their beliefs, Charlottesville also provided an opportunity for these white supremacists to fight back against the band of cosmopolitans, LGBTQ people, immigrants and people of color perpetuating their victimhood.

For these folks, the shiny city on the hill for which their ancestors braved the high tides of the seas to conquer, settle and subject others to servitude, must be restored to its original purpose, which for them is synonymous with the subjugation of the servile races by the master/mistress race.

To restore their utopia, for this occasion these preppy-looking defenders of white civilization came armed with urine, guns, mace, shields, sticks and cars; ready to brawl, shoot, spit, spray and if necessary run over the coalition of anti-fascists anti-racist counter-protesters including but not limited to Black Lives Matter groups, LGBTQ advocates, college students, union activists and townspeople among others who had descended upon the Virginia town that Saturday morning. If ditching their hoods and capes is the cost to resurrect their vision of America, one that once resided alongside more noble ideals in the founding of the nation, then it is worth the price.

Nazis and other "alt-right" groups flooded Charlottesville this weekend. Photo via Flickr by Karla Cote

Predictably, it did not take long after their encounter for these two groups representing different factions of the American myth to confront each other; turning the streets of this charming Virginia college town, which in 2014 was designated America's happiest city, into a snapshot of a nation in distress.

Later in the day, what became more distressing for some but did not surprise this writer was President Trump's response to the violence from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey:

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides," he said.

Yet “many sides" did not come carrying semi-automatic weapons, Nazi flags, and wearing t-shirts bearing Hitler quotes; “many sides" did not use poles to beat armless counter-protesters; “many sides" did not come giving “Heil Hitler" salutes.

Photo via Flickr by Michael Sessum

While the dog-whistle embedded in the president's condemnation of the “many sides" responsible for the day's violence is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with the encoded lexicon of white-supremacist-speak; it is unreasonable to think he would knowingly alienate a core constituency responsible for his electoral success.

The president, I believe, like most Americans, knows who and what was responsible for the images Charlottesville gave us this past Saturday. The president, I believe, like most in his inner circle, understand the roots of Charlottesville's carnage. But the president, I believe, like many white Americans, does not have the means, or the will to stop Charlottesville from replicating itself.

Kangsen Feka Wakai was born in Cameroon. He is a hip-hop and jazz head who worships in the shrine of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He is an imaginary god child of Nina Simone and Sun Ra. He is currently working on a memoir exploring father-son dynamics, family, identity, and displacement. He lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @KfWakai.

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"We should burn these girls!"

"No, let's take them with us!"

"Why not leave them here?"

The men were still arguing, dozens of them trading verbal blows while Saa and the other horrified girls looked on. None of the men seemed particularly troubled by the fact that the lives of almost three hundred schoolgirls hung in the balance. Amid all the yelling, the girls had been divided into groups. Each batch would burn in a different room in the school buildings that were aflame just a few feet away. Tensions were escalating when a slim man with outsize eyes suddenly appeared. Saa had never seen him before. Like many of the insurgents, he too looked young and was just as scruffy. But when he spoke, tempers seemed to cool for a moment.

"Ah! What are you trying to do?"

"We wanted to burn them!"

"Why not take them with us, since we have an empty vehicle?"

His suggestion triggered a fresh round of quarreling. The same positions were expressed, and the newcomer continued to calmly repeat his idea of taking the girls with them, till he finally got his way. The girls later discovered his name was Mallam Abba. He was a commander.

"Follow us!" the men shouted.

None of it made any sense to Saa. Why? To where? As the insurgents shuffled her out of the compound, she felt as if her whole life were on fire. All Saa could see was the ominous orange glow of flames consuming every one of her school buildings. With every step, the fears within her grew. She struggled to make sense of the competing thoughts throbbing in her head. This isn't supposed to be happening. The insurgents had asked about the boys and the brick-making machine; they'd systematically emptied the school store, carrying bag after bag of foodstuffs and loading all of it into the huge waiting truck. With everything now packed away, Saa had thought the insurgents would simply let the girls go home. After all, that's what had happened during their previous attacks on schools—they'd always let the schoolgirls go, after handing out a warning to abandon their education and strict instructions to get married. Saa had simply expected the same thing to happen once more, not this.

She scanned the crowd of faces surrounding her; the creased brows and startled expressions of the others made it clear that everyone was equally confused. Whatever the turmoil they were feeling, they kept it to themselves. No one said a word. Saa fell into a sort of orderly scrum with the men corralling and motioning her forward with their guns, each weapon held high and pointed straight at the girls.

Saa and Blessing moved in unison, along with the hundreds of others, snaking along in the dark through the open compound gate, past the small guard post usually occupied by Mr. Jida, which now sat empty. Yelling came from nearby Chibok town. Saa could smell burning, then heard the sound of gunshots and people running. It was bedlam.

Just beyond the compound walls sat a crowd of bushes. As she and the men moved out into the open, Saa felt their thorns spring forward, eager to pull at her clothing and scratch and pierce her body. Careful not to yell out in pain, she tried to keep her clothes beyond the reach of the grasping thicket with no time to pause and examine what might be broken skin.

Saa retreated into herself and turned to the faith that had anchored her entire life. Lord, am I going to die tonight, or will I survive? Desperate to live, unspoken prayers filled her mind and she pleaded, repeatedly, God save me.

She was still praying as they walked down the dirt path away from the flaming school. The shabby-looking men with their wild eyes gave no explanation or directions. They simply motioned with their heads and the sweep of their rifles, making it clear to keep moving. As the reality began to sink in, Saa felt her chest tightening. Her heart was going to beat its way out of her body. But she couldn't allow herself to cry or make any sound. Any kind of display would make her a target, and who knew what these men might do?

The insurgents walked alongside, behind, and in front of her; they were everywhere. Every time Saa looked around, their menacing forms filled her view. Initially, all the girls were steered away from the main road and onto a rambling path overgrown with bushes; the detour was likely made in an attempt to avoid detection.

Parents lining up for reunion with daughters (c) Adam Dobby


This excerpt was published with permission from the author. 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' is available now.

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