by Katherine Karr-Cornejo
The phases of my life have offered many opportunities and challenges, and when I think of my years in graduate school, I remember a time of my life that I value, but that I’m also glad I’ve completed. The intense and all-encompassing focus on my professional training and development, to the exclusion of so many other parts of life, shaped who I am both personally and professionally. But I am glad to live my post-graduate life, with a different rhythm and in a different place.
Place and space have profound effects on my intellectual and spiritual development, as I know from my experience moving around as a child. The sense of being from or of a place was never one that I felt I could put on with any sort of authenticity, because my roots are in people and experiences and places in particular times that no longer are. Even in my thirties, when I’m asked where I’m from I’m never sure what to say, or what people mean by it.
I have strong roots. They’re just not linked to a place that exists anywhere outside of me.
Places where one might think I could say I’m from – my parents’ cities of origins – are places that I’ve only visited or lived in as a college student. The different cities and towns that we lived in while I was growing up all left their mark on me, but none of them are today what they were then, which is as it should be. I have always treasured the advice that my mother gave me: always value a place for what it is. It is impossible to recreate an experience from another time or another place, and to expend my energy doing so only brings pain and disappointment.
This brings me to the odd fact that Charlottesville, where I lived for six years while completing my MA and PhD in Spanish, is the place that I have lived longest in my life. But when I think of Charlottesville today, the people with whom I had the closest relationships living there have moved elsewhere, and I find myself thinking of Charlottesville not as people but as experiences and places that no longer are.
The first few years I lived in Charlottesville I had a very limited experience of the city and region. I depended on public transportation. I was trying to sort out getting married to someone living overseas. I had very short personal funds. I spent all of my time teaching or studying. The 45-minute winding (but free!) bus ride one way to the grocery store was time I could use to make a dent in the pile of grading. My only additional activity was attending church, and I ended up at my parish, St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal, because I could walk there in a half hour from my apartment. I lived my life in an area of less than a square mile.
I did not find myself downtown often, as I had to take the trolley, and I didn’t have much money to spend once I got there. It wasn’t until I had lived in Charlottesville for 3 years that I found myself taking the downtown walking tour that the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society offered. To my surprise, an older woman who I recognized from church was our guide, though she did not recognize me. Of the tour itself, I remember enjoying going inside different houses of worship and hearing about their architectural histories, and the oppressive humidity of being outside in Charlottesville in the summer, even though it was early in the day. We stopped in both Emancipation Park (at the time, Lee Park) and Justice Park (at the time, Jackson Park), and in both our guide drew our attention to the statues of Confederate leaders. She said, at the foot of the Stonewall Jackson statue next to the courthouse, “I just think equestrian statues are right pretty.”
I have that quote written down in a small journal, a few pages after my notes about my spouse’s immigration paperwork and others about 19th century Anglican attitudes towards candles in worship. The statue to which she referred was next to the courthouse that I had to go to in order to get a court order to hyphenate my name when I married, because the Virginia DMV would not accept my marriage license as proof of marriage. In my gut I still remember standing in that room, shaking, as a clerk called the authenticity of my marriage into question, and my anxiety having to go through the paperwork in the courthouse.
Much to my shame, I have a picture from the end of that tour of downtown, grinning with two friends in front of the Stonewall Jackson statue. Much to my shame, I didn’t understand much about who he was or what he meant to people in Virginia, especially to African-Americans. Much to my shame, I didn’t recognize the problem of my lack of knowledge, and went back to my square mile of academic life, focused on my own area of interest, and didn’t realize until years later what exactly it was that I had seen. Our guide’s comment about equestrian statues seemed off to me, but I just chuckled to myself as I wrote it in my journal, thinking of it as an eccentricity.
It’s not. Reducing Lost Cause propaganda—the statue was installed in the park in 1922, and was the focal point of the first major white supremacist rally this summer in Charlottesville—to eccentricity is denying its connection to the systemic racism that pervades our country and popular memory of its past. We (white people) need to look at the narratives we tell ourselves about history with a critical eye. We (white people) want to be the exception, the person who hasn’t benefitted unfairly from the oppression of others. I still remember my own attitude during 8th grade social studies in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, and my sense of smug superiority of being a Northerner whose side “won” the Civil War when we were taught North Carolina history. I had no idea that racist attitudes and policies were also prevalent throughout the north, even after the abolition of chattel slavery. How many times have you heard someone say, “my ancestors never owned slaves”? How many times have you said it yourself?
Whether or not your ancestors participated actively in the Atlantic slave trade is beside the point. We cannot control the actions of the past. We can, however, work to understand those actions and their impact and, where appropriate, dismantle the systems that perpetuate the inequalities and dehumanization that have resulted from those actions.
Every white person in the United States benefits from the ideology of white supremacy, even those of us who recognize its harm and desire its destruction. The content of your character doesn’t depend on the actions of your ancestors, but rather, on how you react to your own ignorance about those actions writ large. Our roots can intertwine with others, and in the process they can lift us up, together and stronger, as a wonderful and diverse community. Or they can drag us down into cycles of exploitation, inequality, and pain.
Katherine Karr-Cornejo lived in Charlottesville, Virginia between 2005 and 2011. She currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where she teaches Spanish and Latin American literature and culture at Whitworth University. She misses the fried chicken and Alderman Library, but not the humidity.