Community Perspective: African-American women will lead us


(From left) Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, Virginia’s three highest elected officials, are each facing their own scandals.

A contributed Perspectives piece by Steven Thomas

At the entrance to the gift shop at Jamestown Settlement can be found an interactive touchscreen program that lists approximately forty events of special significance in the history of the state of Virginia. Recently installed at the museum as part of the American Evolution initiative, the timeline of events covered in the module begins with the landing of Virginia Company settlers and ends with the first woman appointed Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. Citing 1619 as the start of the “entrepreneurial and innovative spirit” of colonists asserting themselves on the North American continent, the installation does not name the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in that same year. Despite the mission statement of 2019 commemoration to observe this milestone the visual program also does not conclude with mentioning the 400th anniversary of that original trafficking of humans to the Commonwealth.

Historical erasure of the travails of Black people along with false propaganda about the extent of the brutality that African-Americans have always faced in this country is as old as the founding of the United States of America. This is one of many reasons the admitted wearing of blackface in college by both Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring is offensive and egregious. While the interactive teaching tool at Jamestown Settlement goes on to highlight other developments that impacted the lives of African-American Virginians, it is the founding of this nation and its current state of affairs that Black people were instrumental in shaping and remain disposable in respecting.

But now we are confronted with another challenge that compels us to grapple with our morals, values and principles. The allegations that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax sexually assaulted two women – one while he was also in college – has African-American communities across Virginia and indeed the country engaged in conversations that touch on the most personal and political aspects of our lives. Notorious for its disproportionate incarceration rates of Black people reflecting the racism that undergirds its criminal justice system, some Black leaders in Virginia have hesitated to call for the resignation of the lieutenant governor. Virginia Black Politicos released a statement regarding the three statewide elected officials that demanded accountability in nearly all related matters except in the case of Justin Fairfax.

At the intersection of the Me Too movement and “The Newest Jim Crow,” the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus has been consistent in its commitment to improve the economic, educational, political and social conditions of African-Americans while engaged in the 400th session of the General Assembly. The focus that these representatives have maintained on agenda items while also handling strained relationships with an embattled triumvirate of purported transgressors has helped maintain the confidence and support of most of its constituency. Putting forward its own statement that Lt. Gov. Fairfax can best address accusations of sexual assault out of office, the VLBC has demonstrated a unified front at every step of daily twists and turns. This alone has inspired hope and perseverance for many Black Virginians during this Black History Month.

Attempting to redeem what is left of his political career and potential time in the Governor’s Mansion, Ralph Northam has embarked on an attempt to display a level of “wokeness” that he certainly did not have while in medical school. His initial effort fell short when he referred to the aforementioned African captives of 1619 as “indentured servants.” I found it interesting to observe some white scholars and talking heads try to bring nuance to an episode in Virginia history that one professor at a historically Black college and university put simply yet profoundly when she pointed out, “either way, they were unfree.”

As a Black man born and raised in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I know that if similar charges like those confronting Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax were made about me that I would want an opportunity to tell my side of the story through a fair and impartial investigation. The denial of adequate due process is the reality for African-American men in a land that criminalizes us at birth.

However, none are more qualified than women to thoroughly understand the magnitude and most importantly the trauma of the sexual assaults detailed by the Fairfax accusers. As such, we must recommit to trusting the advisement of Black women in Virginia state and local government positions to continue to guide us forward and to protect the best interests of all who endeavor for a Commonwealth that stands for gender and racial equity and justice.

– Mr. Steven Thomas is an organizer with the Northeast Neighborhood Association and co-founder of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County chapter of Coming to the Table.

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