Nearly 200 community members gathered at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center for a sold-out discussion Sunday, moderated by University History Professor Brian Balogh, with a panel of prominent activists who discussed social justice organizing.
The event kicked off a week of programming that celebrates Charlottesville’s first official annual Liberation and Freedom Day, celebrated March 3. The Charlottesville City Council voted in July to remove Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as a paid holiday, instead commemorating the arrival of the Union troops who liberated Albemarle County’s enslaved people in 1865. A slave auction block vigil honoring the descendants of the humans who were sold as slaves in Court Square followed the event.
The panel focused on unity between different minority groups, but controversy arose when audience member Chelsea Higgs Wise raised concerns during the Q&A about the lack of African American panelists at a panel which was advertised on Facebook as “Racial Justice and Black Feminism: Activists Tell the Story.” The Richmond activist called on the speakers to examine how the event itself was upholding the very capitalist and patriarchal systems it was intending to dismantle.
“By organizing a panel focused on black feminism that chose to have a white male moderator and only two black feminist voices … How is this panel also protecting racist systems?” Higgs Wise said.
Higgs Wise critiqued the event for advertising first-year College student and renowned activist Zyahna Bryant as one of its headliners but not featuring her until late in the discussion.
“If you’re going to focus on racial justice and black feminism in your title, then you need to check from the beginning of organizing if you’re centering that,” Higgs Wise said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “I hope that they continue to do more work and have something that’s centered around black feminism by black feminists, for black feminists, encouraging black feminists to be in the room… There’s a way to organize and do this the right way for inclusivity.”
The question led to a verbal conflict between Higgs Wise and panelist Sherri Mitchell, an Indigenous rights activist who criticized Higgs Wise for not mentioning women from other minority groups in her statement about the panel’s handling of black feminism.
“An erasure just happened here,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell and the other panelists had just discussed the mechanisms that keep marginalized groups apart to uphold existing power structures — and the importance of overcoming those barriers.
“We are the others that all others have elevated themselves against,” Mitchell said. “There is so much healing that needs to be done between the native and the black populations, because the Cherokees kept slaves and slaves were given the right to earn their freedom by killing Indians. There is a purposeful divide created between us that still needs to be healed.”
The Jefferson School — and not the event’s organizers — were responsible for creating the event’s title and role of black feminism in the discussion, according to Aran Shetterly, one of the event’s organizers.
“The original title for this panel was ‘Activists Tell the Story,’” Shetterly said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “It had nothing to do with black feminism specifically. That was going to be represented, and then that [title] got tagged on [by the event’s space coordinators] after we had invited the panelists. If that had been our title, it would have been a completely different panel.”
But Mitchell and Higgs Wise’s exchange highlighted the challenges of overcoming the divisions between minority groups, and complicated the rest of the panel’s calls for unity.
Panelist Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Jr. warned against participating in “oppression Olympics” that weaken rights movements by encouraging activists to only work with other members of their marginalized community.
“We are not here to be a symbol of oppression. We are here because we actually want to live,” Yearwood said.
Activist Bree Newsome, who scaled a flagpole to strike a Confederate flag from the South Carolina State Capitol in 2015, agreed that marginalized groups must collaborate to fight all forms of oppression.
“Tackling and dismantling systems of oppression cannot just be the work of the oppressed,” said Newsome, who said she worked with different minority groups and white anti-racist activists to organize her heist.
Zyahna Bryant told The Cavalier Daily that the University is far from achieving the kind of collaboration and representation that Yearwood and Newsome describe on Grounds.
“I hope that people are starting to not just recognize the fact that there’s underrepresentation, but using their position and their privilege to ‘pass the mic’ and center the experiences of the people who are not in the room,” Bryant said in an interview.
But Bryant cited African American women’s almost complete absence from the recent Student Council elections as evidence that the mic has not been passed enough at the University, and called for the “decolonization” of leadership in powerful organizations on Grounds.
“Trying to take down these systems of white supremacy and inequality takes removing yourself,” Bryant said. “I hope that white students and my white peers take heed of that.”
Bryant said University students can help expand representation of African American women by citing black scholars in the classroom, taking classes in the African-American and African Studies Department and involving themselves with the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American Studies.
“It’s really important that we continue to include black women as activists [and] as scholars in our intellectual conversations because, essentially, activism and grassroots organizing cannot be separated from the public scholarship work that intellectuals are doing at these elite universities,” Bryant said.
The panel used the occasion to unveil a portrait of Bryant by the artist Robert Shetterly, who was also on the panel. The portrait honors Bryant for writing the petition to rename Lee Park — which was renamed Market Street Park in 2018 — and remove the park’s controversial statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Bryant’s is the latest addition to Shetterly’s portrait series of social justice figures, “Americans Who Tell the Truth." Bryant’s portrait is temporarily displayed in a Heritage Center gallery alongside Shetterly’s portraits of other renowned African American women, including Ida B. Wells and Zora Neale Hurston.
“To be included [with those women] was something I wouldn’t have imagined,” Bryant said. “It’s wild.”
Some audience members echoed Yearwood, Newsome and Bryant’s appeals for unity between feminists of different groups after the discussion.
“We actually need to read black feminist work so that we can have responsible conversations about black feminism,” said Edward Scott, a second-year doctoral candidate at the University who studies student activism.
Scott declined to comment further, but strongly recommended a chapter on political solidarity from bell hooks’s seminal work on Black Feminism that he said reflected his thoughts.
“We are taught that our relationships with one another diminish rather than enrich our experience,” hooks wrote. “We must unlearn [this] if we are to build a sustained feminist movement. We must learn to live and work in solidarity. We must learn the true meaning and value of Sisterhood.”