Can Dave Matthews Heal Charlottesville? Another Longtime Resident Ponders the Possibility

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Clashes between protestors occur during the "Unite the Right" rally on Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.

Sunday's Music and Unity benefit concert will be a testament to the unifying, inestimable, enduring power of music.

Unless you have been living under a clamshell for the last six weeks, or in the farthest reaches of Pago Pago without access to the news in any form, then you are aware -- at least on the surface -- of what tragically transpired in the no-longer-peaceful university town of Charlottesville, Virginia, on the second weekend of August.

Perhaps less widely known is that on Sunday night, Charlottesville homeboy Dave Matthews and DMB -- along with Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, Pharrell Williams, Chris Stapleton, and others -- will perform a free outdoor concert for an expected crowd of close to 70,000 people. It will be a long fall evening dedicated to “music and unity,” to taking a large step toward healing the community.

I will be there in spirit and solidarity and watching the live stream. I had lived in Charlottesville for 30 years (plus four more as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia) until I returned to New York City in the summer of 2016. And for all those years, if someone asked me where I lived and I said, “Charlottesville,” they were just as likely to truly think I was speaking about Charlotte, North Carolina. I wasn’t irritated by this so much as amused. 

For the first couple of weeks after what I have come to think of as a perfect and perfectly horrible storm, The New York Times dutifully added “Va.” after every mention of “Charlottesville,” but that is no longer the case, as the mere mention of the word has become a flashpoint for all that occurred that weekend, regardless of whether you fully understood all the layers of it. In the last six weeks, if you Googled “before Charlottesville,” “after Charlottesville,” “since Charlottesville,” “the Battle of Charlottesville,” no one would blame you for feeling you were reading about the Civil War, or worrying if a new incarnation of it was beginning.

William Faulkner lived in Charlottesville in the late '50s and taught at “Mr. Jefferson’s University,” as it is often referred to. Whenever he wasn’t in his office or at his home on Rugby Road, he could be found in a grocery store, sitting on a tree stump hard by the checkout register, eavesdropping, trying to understand how different, or not, Charlottesville was to his native Mississippi. Whenever I think about the past, as I often do, I think of Faulkner and his famous, deceptively simple, often misunderstood quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But I also think of James Baldwin, whose comment, “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history,” serves as a racial bookend of sorts.

When I wrote “at least on the surface” above, I did so because Charlottesville is an exceedingly complex, ever-changing place, a place that both demands and deserves to be understood, far better than it is. Part of that has to do with an unnerving, Southern politeness, a desire not to offend, and a tendency toward being indirect. One never quite knows where one stands. To the world outside, it presents itself as, emphatically prides itself on, being very progressive and a modern-day Garden of Eden. (Albemarle County, of which the city is a part, is much different politically, and that is important to know too.) When it was named the “happiest city in the country” in 2014, the news circulated quickly and there was a palpable air of self-congratulation wherever you went. I wince when the results of surveys like this are released, because the taproot truth and essence of a place -- any place really -- lies in the gray areas, which is where nuance resides, along with the murder of a white UVA student named Hannah Graham that same year, which gained national attention, and the disappearance of a young black transgender woman named Sage Smith, which did not. Charlottesville as Ideal is only one strand of a long and twisting narrative, a labyrinth really, that contains the contradictions of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and his belief in the inferiority of blacks (as written in his Notes on the State of Virginia); the University he created (two of whose graduates were key figures in the Unite the Right movement that led to that weekend); the stain of slavery and white supremacy, cornerstones of what the Lost Cause (of the Confederacy) embodies; a city that remains very segregated (one rarely sees blacks at the upscale restaurants on the Downtown Mall and along West Main Street); and, lest one forget, a winery emblazoned with the name Trump (who bragged that it was the largest winery in the United States when in fact it isn’t even the biggest vineyard in Virginia). This summer wasn’t the first time the KKK had paid a visit. In 1921, they pledged money to the University -- money that will now be used to help pay the medical bills for those who were injured that weekend.

Even though I am no longer living there, Charlottesville was my home for a significant period of time. I taught there, wrote books there (including my book on race, Long Way to Go: Black and White in America), forged close friendships there, married there, and raised a daughter there. It was not an easy decision to leave, not at all (especially Klöckner Stadium, where I spent many a day and evening following UVA soccer). But my daughter was gone and on her own and I missed urban life. Change is hard, but often it is good, revivifying. And yet on the night of Aug. 11, when I learned that white supremacists and Neo-Nazis had made an early appearance and were marching on the Grounds of the University with cheap Tiki torches meant to shock and awe, all of that was beside the point. I felt as awful and as guilty that I wasn’t there as I did on 9/11 when I wasn’t in New York. It’s not rational, I know that, but there you have it. I always will feel a deep-rooted part of Charlottesville. I could be gone for a century, and still be greeted at Riverside Lunch as if I were just there the day before and they would know what to bring me. One may physically move, but it doesn’t matter. You take your flawed, human self and that place with you wherever you go. I wrote an entire book, Exit the Rainmaker, about a Maryland college president who disappeared in order to change his life. He never regretted it, but he found out some universal truths. So much of who you are is where you lived and how that place shaped and affected you.  

On Sunday evening, when Dave Matthews and DMB take the stage at Scott Stadium, they will not be an unfamiliar sight, but a comforting one, comforting in their familiarity and the impossible-to-overestimate intangible of what they represent and mean to Charlottesville, a place with a rich musical history. The spirit of Indecision, Parachute, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Devon Sproule, even Jesse Winchester, will be on that stage too.  Even though this will not be the first time that DMB has given a concert with the express hope of helping to heal a place in dire need of it -- 10 years ago, they performed at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia, in the wake of the mass killing there the previous spring -- this evening, it is fair to say, will be more personal for Dave Matthews and violinist Boyd Tinsley and drummer Carter Beauford, will cut to the bone. Charlottesville is where they got their start, way back in 1991, Charlottesville is the town they love, and which, unconditionally, loves them back. DMB may have performed many, many times in Charlottesville, but this night will be different. This night will be about the unifying, inestimable, enduring power of music.

People in Charlottesville, who feel that they were invaded and assaulted and plundered and did what they could to defend their land, are not only looking to heal, they are angry and seeking answers -- from the city, from the police, and from the University. Why didn’t the police intervene? Why wasn’t the street where Heather Heyer was run over and lost her life and so many others were injured, why wasn’t it closed off as it was apparently supposed to be? Why was the permit to protest issued in the first place, when there was sufficient reason to believe it would not be a “peaceful assembly”? Whether those answers and others will ever be forthcoming and definitive and satisfactory remains to be seen. Just as it remains to be seen whether the promise by the white supremacists to return -- who saw that whole weekend as a success -- will come to pass.

A close friend of mine, whom I normally think of as an optimist -- a “hoper” as former Charlottesville resident, the late Sam Shepard,  wrote in “Buried Child” -- texted me the other night. She had been lucky enough to get tickets to the concert, and I had asked her if she thought it would help lessen the pain. Her reply was sobering.

I don’t think healing is possible for a lot of folks here. Hate runs through multiple rivers.

Summer has now yielded to autumn. And with the change of season, renewed hope -- not just for Charlottesville, but for all of us.

Jonathan Coleman is the best-selling author of five works of nonfiction, including Long Way to Go: Black and White in America.


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