Something's in the Water: A Requiem for Reckoning

February 7, 2019

A little over two weeks ago, Initiatives of Change USA launched a 2-day event entitled “Something’s in the Water”, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan 21) and National Day of Racial Healing (Jan 22). This event was the first of its kind - a collaboration with over 30 partners including artists, community leaders, nonprofits, and business innovators - in meditation on how far Virginia has come in 400 years.

1619 to 2019. In an explorative process to interpret and understand Virginia’s complex journey, “Something’s in the Water” blended art installations, conversations, interactive workshops, live music performances and dance mashups by and for intergenerational and multiracial participants. Twelve years after the founding of Virginia - the first colony - the earliest record of enslaved Africans arrived at the port of Jamestown in what would become the United States. Richmond is home to the second largest domestic trade and industry in enslaved persons where deep privilege and profits boomed for white settlers. Richmond is also the seat of the confederacy where markers of these violent legacies linger and haunt in monuments, Charlottesville, and names of highways, streets, and institutions. 

As local and national news ramps up on Virginia’s crisis of state leadership this week, it is clear that we are on a long road toward truth telling about the enduring legacies of racist inequity within our histories. Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring’s admissions of engaging in Blackface is not only disconcerting but traumatizing. Blackface and minstrelsy demonstrate  torturous traditions that mock people of African descent as inferior, one-dimensional, and subhuman caricatures. More detrimentally, minstrelsy captures Black people in narrow and false images as being inherently threatening, violent and malicious.

Blackface is not an inspired form of play or entertainment (i.e. dressing up as Michael Jackson or rapper Kurtis Blow as Northam and Herring claimed to do) but rather a dangerous ritual meant to strip political, personal and collective power from people of African descent. 

Minstrelsy is the surface of deeper historical systems of dehumanization that persistently attack African Americans.

Blackface went hand in hand with the institution of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, political disenfranchisement, redlining, police brutality, and separate and unequal resources. It is evident that there is much dank and murky matter lingering undertow. The crisis of leadership in Virginia’s capitol brings all of this to the surface. Denials of complicity with racist practices only deter processes of sincere trust building, restorative justice and equity building. A 400-year reckoning is taking place to unearth the ongoing brutal wounding that communities of African descent experience in their everyday lives. Something’s definitely in the Water.

It’s important to understand that from the very beginning, Virginia has created a precedent. Eight of the country’s presidents were born in Virginia; seven owned enslaved persons including James Madison who proposed the Three-Fifths Compromise, legislation that institutionalized people of African descent as sub-human and denied their full human rights. Woodrow Wilson, also Virginia-born, was a major supporter of D.W. Griffith’s racist film, Birth of a Nation (1915), and expanded Jim Crow laws during his presidency. Now more than ever, we are called to consider the full truth of our histories and how leaders we may revere are also embedded within systems of enslavement, repression, torture, and sexual violence. With the revelation of accusations of sexual violence against Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, we are also called to confront how sexual violence is embedded within racial violence and often goes unchallenged, creating intricate grooves of injustice and oppression for women, girls and persons within LGBTQIA communities.

As Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement declared during the 2018 Facing Race conference in Detroit, “It is important to expand the lens of our work to include a focus on ending sexual violence.” 

Therefore, we are called to recognize how what is happening in Virginia is not an isolated event but a microcosm of hidden histories coming to light across the United States. Not only is our state in turmoil - so is our nation - divided by social identity, privilege and resources, geography, language, religion, politics, gender and sex. A snapshot of the state of our union reveals the following: an increasing rate of racist national rhetoric inciting domestic terrorist attacks, particularly by white male supremacists, against communities of color and difference; Black people are 3x more likely to be killed by police than white people; amplified violence and political disenfranchisement of undocumented immigrant families especially within Latino communities and the brutal separation of nearly 3,000 children from their migrant parents; discriminatory travel bans and the rising number of African immigrants deported which also accounts for the largest number of overall deportees from the U.S.; a murder rate of LGBTQIA persons has skyrocketed more than 90% in the last two years; and our health system is in crisis leaving patients without sustainable means to regularly afford treatment and medications needed to lead healthy and flourishing lives.

Like a time loop, we keep arriving at the same revolving door.

As we move toward the 2020 elections, it is clear that what is shaping up in Virginia will come to bear for candidates and officials across the country.

Therefore, we call to community for greater honesty, truth telling, reflection, and accountability about who we have been and where we intend to go. We must address the hurt, harm and wounding before processes of healing and restorative justice can develop. 

IofC USA exists to act as a prospective broker of trust in conflictual contexts where trust has been wounded, dismantled, or perhaps has never before existed. We are not a politically-oriented organization. Through disciplined action, we aim not to shame or blame individuals, but rather to pursue what is right rather than who is right. Such an approach typically helps us lead people-centered decision making processes whereby conflict not only is mitigated, managed or resolved, but actually transformed for more enduring change. To see the manipulation and the non-accountability of the current situation, opens up new wounds, while exacerbating those inflicted in the past. This experience has diminished trust in the notion that Virginia is learning the hard lessons of its racial history and its unjust legacies. That fact, again so graphically and painfully exhibited now 400 years after the first Africans were enslaved and brought to Virginia, is too bitter a pill to swallow.

To stop the wounding and for a pathway towards cohesion and trust in Virginia to be reestablished, the leadership of Virginia must change and, at the very least, Governor Northam must step down.  

We remain committed, open and ready to engage and build with individuals, organizations and communities to create deep and sustaining connections across our differences, by doing the internal work for which we are all accountable, by building just and trustworthy relationships, and by dismantling the systems that continue to harm our communities.

In greater understanding and solidarity,

The staff of Initiatives of Change USA

About IofC USA:

Initiatives of Change USA possesses nearly 100 years of experience in building trust between global leaders and communities in over 60 countries. For the last 30 years in Richmond, we have been brokering trust across social divides through the work of Hope in the Cities. Our annual programs - the Caux Scholars Program (in Switzerland and India), the Community Trustbuilding Fellowship, and this year, the Narrative Change Collaborative, focuses on sincere relationship building across difference, historical accountability, personal transformation, narrative change, restorative justice and racial healing.

Sionne Neely