[For this year’s annual post-Charlottesville-trip series, I wanted to share tributes to various folks who were important influences during my Cville years. Leading up to a special weekend post on a peer of mine who’s aiming to become a Cville influence in 2019!]
On the quiet influence of diversity, and its potently loud effects.
As I noted in this post on another influential Cville figure, Dave Matthews, the Charlottesville in which I grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s was in terms of ethnicity/culture a relatively non-diverse place. Certainly there were sizable white and African American populations, but beyond those two communities there were very few other visible cultures, or at least very small numbers of inhabitants from those cultures. The city’s culinary landscape offers one overt illustration of that demography—I remember distinctly when the first authentically Mexican (rather than the Tex-Mex of my childhood favorite, La Hacienda) restaurant opened in the late 1980s (or perhaps early 1990s; “distinctly” is still somewhat fuzzy when it comes to my 40-something brain, natch); and likewise remember the one and only (as far as I know) Asian restaurant throughout that era, a Szechuan Chinese restaurant of course. Similarly, while my classes and grades at school were generally evenly divided between white and African American students, I can remember only one or two Hispanic or Asian American peers from throughout my time in the Charlottesville Public Schools.
One exception to that overall trend, particularly when it came to communal visibility, was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh American immigrant from India (and then a US citizen, as he was naturalized in a July 4, 1987 ceremony at Monticello) who throughout my childhood was Charlottesville’s Director of City Planning and Community Development (before becoming a two-term City Council member and then the city’s Mayor in the early 2000s). I can remember two particular childhood encounters with Mr. Huja—one when I had to interview him as part of a school project on some aspect of Charlottesville’s development; and one when he was simply riding in the same City Hall parking garage elevator with me and my parents. Interestingly, it’s the latter encounter that stands out much more sharply in my memory, I believe because we did not speak and so the encounter emphasized an element of Mr. Huja’s visual identity: he was the only Charlottesville resident I had ever seen (or to my recollection would ever see throughout my childhood) wearing a turban.
I don’t want to overstate the significance of that single encounter, not for me (it’s not as if I thought much about it, then or since, until thinking back in order to write this post) and of course not for Mr. Huja (for whom it was just an elevator ride, likely one of many on that day as most days for a city employee). But I suppose that’s really my point—diversity in a community isn’t mostly about dramatic scenes or grand gestures, but about the day to day experience of living around and with distinct cultures and communities from one’s own and from whatever the mainstream/majority is in that place. To take this to a much darker place for a moment, I can’t imagine that the horrific series of hate crimes targeting Sikh Americans that we’ve seen in the last few years would have taken place if more Americans grew up around Sikh individuals and communities, recognized them (in every sense) as part of their own communities and worlds. Speaking for myself, anyway, that simple but crucial aspect of presence made Mr. Huja a very influential Cville community member indeed.
Special post this weekend,
PS. Influential people you’d highlight?
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