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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.
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.
Honor women like Tami Sawyer, who led the charge against Confederate monuments in Memphis; and Bree Newsome, who removed a Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina State capital. Here in Charlottesville, educators Jalane Schmidt and Andrea Douglas have done the work of exploring the history of our city’s monuments, helping to spread that knowledge to the public.
Five years ago, I wrote the petition to encourage my city councilors to take down Confederate monuments and I stood in the park by that Lee statue to introduce this effort to my neighbors. Since then, I’ve watched as the statues of Confederate generals and slave masters were removed all over the country. My work helped inspire this nationwide and now the original, local goal I set out to accomplish is happening. But it is bitter just as it is sweet.
I am proud and trying to force myself to do the hard thing: to feel and be present in the moment, living the same story as so many other Black women and femmes. It’s a story of being forced to feel guilty for celebrating the wins, no matter how big or small they are, a story of having those wins belittled or contextualized as only the beginning. Black women who have been invested in changing the physical landscapes of our communities are the same people investing time, energy, and resources into the longer strategic and systemic movements to dismantle the underlying systems that these monuments represent. We understand that the statues are not the end, because they were never our beginning.
I know this fight will continue, but I also know my spirit and body are not monuments. They may seem eternal and steadfast, but it’s not impossible to tear them down. My very existence is a challenge to white supremacy, which isn’t an impervious force. As these monuments come down, we are cracking the thin surface and trying to shake them further from their very foundations. That’s why every last monument to our country’s racist history must be removed. These statues represent the suffering bondage, both past and ongoing.
They also represent the act of keeping many of us hidden and erased from collective memory and history. That’s why we must go beyond simply stopping the celebrations of the United States’ racist past. We must say the names of Black women all over, the names of those who are lost to the many forms of violence that disproportionately affect us, the names of the Black girl freedom fighters we’ve lost, and the names of all the Black women who are creating a better world now. Say their names. Listen to them. Honor them in their presence and when they are not there.
In Charlottesville and everywhere, there is much work left to be done. My prayer is this: that Black women find the time and space to be human. To find rest. And to make pouring into their own cup a priority. This powerful moment in Charlottesville is a chance for me to do exactly that. It is one that we have worked hard for. After all, Black women are the blueprint and the follow-through. Well done to us. To ALL of us. And especially to those of us who are told that our efforts are never enough.
Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: Beyond the Hashtag: How to Take Anti-Racist Action in Your Life
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue