Writing About Race in Richmond

Samantha Willis & Valley Haggard at the first #UnmaskingRVA Writing Workshop, 12/16.

Samantha Willis & Valley Haggard at the first #UnmaskingRVA Writing Workshop, 12/16.

I am white. I am Jewish. My mother has been asked if she's Chinese, Mexican, a Gypsy. I tan well but there's no denying the whiteness of my skin, the intactness of my privilege, the impossibility of understanding even a fraction of what it means or how it feels to experience racism against people of color in America. Which is why I continued to ignore the persistent interior call I felt to lead a writing workshop about race in Richmond.

And then I couldn't get the face of Richmond Magazine journalist Samantha Willis out of my head. We'd been friends on Facebook for years but had never met in person. Finally, I sent her a message proposing we lead a writing workshop on race together. She wrote back almost immediately explaining she was in the middle of an email to me proposing the exact same thing. And not only that, she was in the beginning stages of putting together a 3 part series called #UnmaskingRVA to talk specifically about issues of race in Richmond. 

Our ideas for the structure of our workshop came together quickly. Within two days of posting, it filled-- with a waiting list. Samantha and I showed up that Tuesday night in December wearing the exact same outfit: black pants and red sweaters, only my jewelry was silver, hers gold. When the room filled to capacity, half of the writers were white, half black. I was relieved but also terrified. I believed with all my heart in the power of writing to bring people together, to unite and to heal but how could I possibly be qualified to facilitate conversation around a topic I could never fully understand?

Sam gave her first prompt. "When was the first time in your life you realized race was an issue?" Everyone wrote and then read personal experiences from their childhoods directly connected to the biggest, ugliest tragedy of our nation: systemic racism, subtle and overt. I responded to the writing; Sam responded to the specific issues of race. The stories were moving, revelatory, revealing, heartbreaking and profound. But when it was suggested I read my piece too, I deflected. 

At last I realized I had to read. It wasn't fair to ask others to do what I myself would not. I had to face the terrifying vulnerability of exposing a time in my life of deep shame and early heartbreak. When I was in first or second grade at my predominantly African-American elementary school in the east end, a few of the kids accused me of starting slavery. Some of the kids threatened to beat me upside the head. Other kids shared their snacks with me at lunch, stood with me against the brick wall of the playground, were kind and generous and loving but I was scared and lonely much of the time. In other words, we were kids left to the jungle of the school yard, acting out in various ways what we knew. For decades, the old guilt and shame mixed with an intense longing to be loved and accepted by brown people and black people, by my classmates, had lodged itself in my heart like a silent thorn.

My story was lovingly and compassionately received by the group. My brief experience as "other" accepted without judgment or scorn. Reading my work out loud helped extract an ancient splinter. The openness and deep sharing from everyone else around the table that night as we continued to write and read and talk and share was a precious gift. At the end of the night others expressed their gratitude for the level of honesty and openness we achieved, but I can only hope others received a fraction of what I did. I know there are a million more conversations to be had, countless stories to be written, ancient, deep wounds to be healed. But I also know none of that will happen if we let silence or fear win. If we don't begin.


**This piece is written with deep gratitude to Samantha Willis for her bravery, compassion, activism and seemingly endless energy towards igniting a city-wide conversation that is both prescient and long overdue. Stay tuned for future writing workshops we plan to hold.**


Valley HaggardComment