I’m not the kind of person to get writer’s block. Ideas are never an issue. Part of what got me rolling on a daily writing habit was when someone on Twitter—probably Delilah S. Dawson—mentioned that delaying writing the thing you’re working on doesn’t just hold back that idea, but all the other ideas you have that will come after it. I’m paraphrasing, but the idea really struck me. I have ideas after ideas after ideas. My brain is constantly flipping around, working on several of them at once.
But there I was in Charlottesville, VA—a trip made possible in part by a Lambda Iota Tau (LIT) research grant from Sigma Tau Delta—walking through the intersection of 4th and Water for the sixth or seventh time, still unsure of what to write. This was the intersection where Heather Heyer was run down on August 12, 2017. Killed while protesting against neo-nazis. What words I could leave for Heather Heyer and the mourners and activists that traverse that intersection regularly?
After settling into my AirBnB in Charlottesville on August 9, 2019, I chatted with my host, put down my bags, and rested for a while. Then I drove downtown to get dinner. After a little Googling, I decided to park at the Water Street Garage. I came down the steps, and there it was, right in front of me. Writing and drawing in chalk covered the walls of the street, the street now renamed Heather Heyer Way. I took a deep breath, got out my camera phone, and approached. I stood in the middle of the street, which was blocked off from traffic, and took it all in. Flowers, ribbons, and signs adorned the east sidewalk. Epitaphs, love letters, loving slogans, and caring puns were scribbled up the walls on both sides of the street.
On both sides.
When I began work on this project, my working title was On Both Sides, after the president’s horrible remarks he made about the tragedy of August 12, 2017, when he said, “there were very fine people on both sides.” Mostly because I didn’t want to quote that man, I figured it would just be a working title, something I would change when the better title found me. But in this moment, standing in a field of chalk, I found a way to recontextualize the words. On that day in 2017, there were very fine people on only one side. Heather’s side. The side that promoted peace and diversity and love. Now, on the walls of Heather Heyer Way, there is love and hope and the will to fight hatred on both sides of the street.
I walked through it yet again today, August 12, 2019, on my way to my rental car. A local news cameraman was maneuvering his camera on its tripod. Various people, a few of which I’ve seen over the last few days, were milling about. Someone laid a sunflower down on the sidewalk. A woman who live-streamed the “Monticello to Main Street” tour I joined back on Saturday was scribbling on a wall in chalk. A young black man was hoisting a “Black Lives Matter” flag on his back like a cape.
What do I write? What do I say that will bring hope to those who read it? The writer in me, that little voice that has demanded I write and say clever things since I was five, wants me to think of something clever. Not too clever, though. Clever for the sake of clever comes off as phony. The poet in me wants to say something fresh, something with dynamic language, but then I know I shouldn’t overthink it. A stream of words blitz through my mind:
That moment of hate has sparked the fires of resistance.
But part of me worries that last line is a lie. The resistance has been going on in this country since its founding. Part of the nation was founded on religious freedom, but part was also founded on profit. Profit on the backs of slave labor, the fight against which has been going on since before this country was discovered by Europeans. That fight still rages hundreds of years later and two years after Heather’s death. Did it spark something? Was it more of a spark than the deaths of Michael Brown or Tamir Rice or Eric Garner? Did we need a white woman to die fighting for equality to get the nation’s attention? No. All of those deaths captured the nation’s attention, but only for the briefest moments. Then something else happens. Even as I began writing this from the AirBnB in Charlottesville, twin mass shootings in El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH, were hovering over the nation, increasing police presence and vigilance. But that will pass. They always pass. Charlottesville has done well to make sure Heather Heyer is not forgotten, but we hear her name so rarely on the news nationally. I regularly mention her name in conversation, talking about my work, and most people need me to explain who she was. In Charlottesville, however, her death has become a touchstone. As I’ve wandered this college town for four days, I’ve overheard many talking about their experiences two years ago. They each remember where they were and what they were doing, not unlike those of us who were adults when 9/11 occurred. Heather doesn’t leave the collective consciousness of Charlottesville, but she’s a footnote for the rest of the country, just another casualty in this divided country.
So it comes back to my central question: What do I write? Today is the two-year anniversary of her death, so I need to mark the occasion. I need to pick up that chalk and write something. The pressure of being a writer weighs on me. I claim it with my choice of MFA and my Twitter bio, so I’m a writer. So when I write, it has to be profound, right? Better than those who don’t claim “writer” as a basic part of their identity? I know I’m putting too much pressure on this. I could have written something on those walls three days ago, but they need to be the right words.
I looked back through the pictures I took on August 9, 2019. There are more scribbles and drawings and words written today, but those are the pictures I had with me in the moment. There’s one theme I saw repeated more than any: Love.
LOVE NOT HATE ONE HUMAN RACE
PEACE LOVE CREATIVITY
LOVE EACH OTHER = ??
LOVE IS THE BRIDGE
LOVE + ACTION = CHANGE
LOVE WILL WIN
VOTE LOVE 2020
LOVE IS A CHOICE
TEACH LOVE NOT HATE
MAKE LOVE NOT WAR
LOVE IS A BLESSING
Too often, I feel like that’s what the right (far or otherwise) doesn’t understand: what drives us on the left is just love. Why do we want paths to citizenship and to get those families out of cages? Love. Why do we want medicare for all and free college? Love. Why do we support equal pay for equal work, anti-discrimination laws, and try to tear down the patriarchy? Love. To the greedy, fearful mind, love and altruism are concepts that boggle. Minds like those cannot fathom why anyone would do something without getting something out of it themselves. But we do. We just love. And that love will win. Not today. Probably not tomorrow. Maybe not in my lifetime, but I know it will. And so finally, I know what I must write.
I wander down to Heather Heyer Way one last time. I pick up the chalk, rolling it around in my fingers, letting the dust mix freely with my sweat. I find a spot not quite as crowded as some others, up a little high, squeezed under a hand-drawn UVA logo, and I write the words that will certainly wash away long before this book ever goes to print, before your eyes have a chance to read this.
Our Love Will Win.
Lambda Iota Tau (LIT) Research Grants
LIT Research Grants are designed to support individual members at the undergraduate or graduate level as they complete original research that furthers the goals of the Society. Grant money of up to $1,000, with up to $500 for runners-up, will support travel to and use of archives or collections important to their research. The winning applicants will demonstrate the relevance of the research to English and English-related fields and may also describe the effect on current coursework, future research, or career pursuits. Each applicant will identify goals, propose outcomes, and estimate specific costs for the research travel. Students may not request grant money for research supported by a previous LIT Research Grant. Any members interested in support for summer or study abroad programs would apply for those scholarships rather than for a LIT Research Grant.
All research travel and the resulting written or presented outcome must be completed before May 2021.
The deadline for 2020 applications will be April 6, 2020, 11:59 p.m. CDT. Awards will be made by May 18, 2020.