Emanuel Brown, a contracted University employee, died in a men’s restroom in the basement of New Cabell Hall two weeks ago. If you’re like me, you probably missed this event — and there have been only two short mentions in this newspaper since. We certainly do not need the burden of another tragedy at this point in the semester, but Mr. Brown’s death — one quite literally at the center of our University — deserves more attention. In light of recent events, we confront the question: who is included in our University community, and why hasn’t Mr. Brown’s death been given more attention?
First, I offer an excerpt from the 61-year-old’s obituary, as posted in The Daily Progress: “Emanuel was a very devoted member of Covenant Church where he has served as an Elder for 10 years. For the past three years, he served as the First Chair Elder or lay leader for the Elder body. He also served on the board for the Hope Community Center since its inception in 1998. A devout Christian, Emanuel was known for counseling and leading souls to the Lord, and providing comfort in their darkest hours. Emanuel touched a countless number of lives in the church as well as in the Charlottesville/Albemarle County community. In addition to his work in the church and community, Emanuel was the owner of Brown's Cleaning Service, a business he built and worked alongside with his wife Janice. He was well respected for his hard work by his customers and his employees. Prior to opening his own business, Emanuel worked at the University of Virginia Medical Center as a Transportation Supervisor for nine years. He was also an avid sports fan and supporter of the University of Virginia Athletics…”
This was a man who contributed to and cared for both our University community and the larger Charlottesville one — but, as a contracted employee, does he count as a member of our beloved “community?” The social theory scholar Paul James defines community broadly: “a group or network of persons who are connected (objectively) to each other by relatively durable social relations that extend beyond immediate genealogical ties, and who mutually define that relationship (subjectively) as important to their social identity and social practice.” Less formally, we might define a community as a group of individuals who are consistently engaged with the University in some capacity. In a similar vein, perhaps simply being either a student, volunteer, or someone hired by this university makes you a member. I do not know how Mr. Brown personally felt about this University, but under any of these definitions, his history suggests he was indeed a member of the University of Virginia community.
Recently, there has been much talk about what constitutes our “community.” In response to tragedies involving students, we’ve held vigils and protests; we’ve written articles, chalked the sidewalks, and even spray-painted. A death of a University employee in New Cabell Hall sounds shocking, so why did no one notice?
There are several reasons that might explain the lack of attention, though they do not justify it. Was it the timing? In the wake of Hannah Graham’s murder and Connor Cormier’s suicide, Mr. Brown’s death occurred during a time of widespread emotional exhaustion. Much has taken place since Mr. Brown’s death, too, including the explosive reaction to Rolling Stone’s article on sexual assault at the University, as well as the suicide of Peter D’Agostino. Some might also say — in a futile task of ranking and comparing tragedies — that Mr. Brown’s death does not have the tragic impact of the other events this semester: he died of medical causes at the mature age of 61. Further, perhaps twenty-somethings might be less inclined to identify with someone old enough to be their grandfather. Still this doesn’t quite explain the lack of response either, for if a professor’s body were to be found in New Cabell, surely a different reaction would take place.
It seems most likely to be Mr. Brown’s role in this community — as a contracted worker who cleaned our facilities — that denies him our community’s attention. Last year’s homicide of Jarvis Brown, a 22 year-old O’Hill Dining Hall employee, comes to mind. His death received a largely mixed and muted reaction among students, and this newspaper’s editorial identified two reasons for this: a deficiency in student empathy and a perceived divide between students and workers. These same two problems, I believe, are responsible for the reaction to Emanuel Brown’s passing.
For as much as we talk about “community,” there are a number of conditions that come with receiving the social rites of a full mourning. We love to fawn over Ms. Kathy or crack a (mostly) good-humored joke about “Double Swipe” Dean, but the majority of University employees are nameless and faceless. Our attention betrays that, in a number of ways, we don’t really feel as though these essential members of our community are members at all. As we mourn the deaths of Hannah, Connor and Peter, and grapple with our responsibilities toward our community’s sexual assault survivors, we must also remember Emanuel Brown.
George Knaysi is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.