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Black Women Like Me Beat Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville

Last Saturday, I was sitting in a packed restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, next to two couples who were on a double date. I overheard their conversation reach the topic of Confederate statues and monuments when one of them questioned whether there was a better way to spend time and resources.

As I sat there, I wanted so badly to ask them, “Did you know that a 15-year-old Black girl sparked the debate over the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, which was pivotal in sparking the movement to reconsider and remove Confederate monuments and statues across the State of Virginia and beyond?”

That Black girl is me, except I’m 20 now. In the five years since I started my push to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville with a petition, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the concept of erasure, often feeling like I’m part of a pattern for Black women who look, sound, and act like me. As the Charlottesville city council finally voted to remove the Lee statue, allocated the funding for the project, and scheduled its removal amid concerns about the fourth anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in our town, I find myself wondering if I’ll be recognized as the catalyst for this moment or forgotten by history.

I spend a lot of time questioning whether I should become a more palatable, marketable version of myself to put others at ease when telling my story or crediting me for my work. That feeling is in constant tension with continuing to stick to my own values and showing up as my unedited, authentic self. I feel that a lot of Black women like me have been conditioned to approach conversations with a level of humility that is not expected of others. But even when we are humble, we are still talked over, pushed to the side, and dismissed.

Since writing the petition, I have read book after book and watched countless documentaries about the political implications of the fall of these monuments. Too many of them never mention the names of the Black women who were essential in making it all happen. It is morally bankrupt and intellectually dishonest to tell a story that leaves Black women like myself out of the narrative, which is often rewarded under systems that uphold patriarchy and misogyny as the normative and that is the most unfortunate part of it all.

I find myself honored to stand on the shoulders of true giants, Black women who have created much of the contemporary political theory that serves as the context and background for a lot of my work. They built a great deal of the organizing infrastructure and praxis that has produced wins in the racial justice movement, even as their work has been co-opted at times. I honor women like Claudette Colvin, who was also a 15-year-old Black girl when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in 1955.

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I also reflect on those we’ve lost due to burnout or direct violence, those who did the dangerous work that made them a target. My plea is this: Do not wait until we have passed or reached our breaking point to honor us or to give us our well-deserved flowers. Honor us while we are well. Honor us as we are doing the work that others choose not to do. Honor us in the rooms where we are not present.

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