[Last week my sons and I returned to my hometown of Charlottesville, pretty much exactly a year after the white supremacist/neo-nazi rallies there last August (which took place on the day we arrived in town last summer, because apparently that’s just life as an AmericanStudier these days). So this week I wanted to AmericanStudy a few contexts for this exemplary American city’s unfolding histories, leading up to a special weekend post reflecting on where we are in August 2018.]
[NB. I wrote this post back in 2014, but it feels so damn prophetic of 2018 that I had to share it as part of this week’s series.]
On nostalgia, fear, and the divisions that threaten our communities, and our nation.
A few years back, I got back in touch with one of my favorite elementary school teachers (who shall remain nameless for what will be obvious reasons), and he/she connected me to a Facebook group named “You Know You’re From Charlottesville.” At first I was very excited to join the group, and to see the memories, stories, and historic photos of the city that its members shared and commented on. But it quickly became apparent that the group (led by that former teacher of mine) spent at least as much time doing two distinct but deeply interconnected things: expressing pro-Confederate versions of the Civil War and related histories; and waxing nostalgic about what had once been the case in Charlottesville, before “carpetbagger” recent politicians, immigration and diversification, and other late 20th and early 21st century trends had irrevocably changed the place. Way too much “I want my country back!” for me; I regretfully left the group and my former teacher behind.
Some of those narratives—the fears about carpetbaggers, the worries that some sort of “authentic” South is slipping away and must be reclaimed—go way back in regional and American history, of course. But I would nonetheless argue that these contemporary conversations reflect a significant and growing set of 21st century American fears, ones that I would have to connect to (among other things) both the Tea Party and the resurgence of racism in our communal debates. To cite another anecdotal observation from Facebook, I’ve been struck by how many of the white Charlottesvillians with whom I went to school frequently post stories about crimes committed (or allegedly committed) by African Americans; the debacle over a so-called “knockout game” attack on the city’s Downtown Mall a few years back is a case in point. These pseudo-racist posts are almost always linked both to nostalgia (“How did our city turn into this?”) and other contemporary political narratives (“This is what happens when we create a class of irresponsible people dependent on the government,” for example). And they appear with striking regularity.
Charlottesville has indeed changed demographically, as I wrote in yesterday’s post—although the changes in communities like Cville have to my mind (and as I’ve argued extensively) only better reflected throughout the country our overarching, foundational national histories of diversity and multiculturalism. Moreover, it’s this other kind of change that bothers me—the change toward a more overtly divided and antagonist communal identity, one in which even many younger folks express nostalgia for racially or culturally regressive (and often mythological) identities. Racism and xenophobia and fear aren’t new on the American landscape, of course—but I’ve seen them reemerge in conversations around and about my hometown in ways that at once belie and yet are directly tied to 21st century progress. If we don’t find ways to bridge these gaps, to remind all Americans of the histories and stories—in places like Charlottesville as much as anywhere—that we share, it’s hard to feel that our cities and our nation can move toward a better and more unified future.
Next Cville contexts tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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