The Builders 

Opinion: VCU continues to be a driving force in the city of Richmond. But Richmond is VCU’s home, not the other way around.

click to enlarge back41_vcu.jpg

At first, I wasn't sure I'd read the T-shirt right when it started appearing on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. The slogan, "We Built This City," undoubtedly a Jefferson Starship reference, combined with VCU near the bottom, rubbed me the wrong way — especially seeing it worn by white students.

Without a doubt, VCU is a cornerstone of Richmond, helping to boost the local economy by creating jobs, infrastructure projects and maintaining a student populace and its needs such as food and housing. While the people wearing the shirt may have intended it as a rallying cry, what they actually did was ignorant.

I saw it contributing to the plethora of microaggressions prevalent in our culture, the subtle and cryptic attacks against people of color, LGBTQIA, Muslims, women and the disabled. The attacks take form in racism, queerphobia, Islamophobia, sexism and ableism.

VCU didn't build this city. Slaves and a system of slavery did. To ignore that fact leads us to live in the kind of daze that allows wealthy interests to build parking lots over slave burial grounds and idolize Confederate military officers through statutes.

The city of Richmond has an ugly history of racism, discrimination, class-based oppression, gentrification and other ills. I would not wish for VCU to take on that same history by allying itself with the message that a collective "we" built this city.

This city, as well as this nation, was built on the genocide of Native Americans and the destruction and enslavement of blacks. Layered onto that is Richmond's time as the Capital of the Confederacy, an aggressive actor in the slave trade and a participant in disenfranchisement laws.

That's the foundation of the ground we walk on.

The achievements of black people in America, both past and modern-day, routinely are forgotten, especially by whites, as a matter of convenient ignorance. To live with eyes wide shut and to address issues of race by saying, "I'm colorblind," perpetuates a misinformed status quo. It ignores and undermines truth to help people feel better. History lives and acts upon us. Even though we can't see it, it influences us, changes us, exalts us, vilifies us and defines us.

Aside from the inhumane toil that created this country and city's foundation, a myriad of factors built this city, including but not limited to taxpayer money, honest labor, legislation, committees, grass-roots organizations and petitions.

It would behoove certain members of our community to educate themselves on the history of Richmond before asserting VCU's dominance in the role of the construction of the city. Without Richmond, there would be no VCU. Claiming that "we built this city" downplays the city as a municipality and implies that Richmond is lucky to have us, when we are the ones fortunate to have Richmond, a city underpinned by a shameful history, but working toward righting past wrongs and progressing itself into a thriving and truly diverse community.

As a black person and Richmond resident, I'm offended by the shirts because they embody the ethos of white historical negationists who make such claims as "slavery wasn't so bad" and "the Confederacy wanted to get rid of slavery." I take offense because it's factually and metaphorically inaccurate.

There's insurmountable evidence that enslaved blacks built this city. In "Built by Blacks: African-American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond," Selden Richardson and Maurice Duke, write: "Through their forced labor, African American slaves played a major role in shaping the physical appearance and moral structure of Richmond long before it was incorporate as a city in 1782. … [They] furnished much of the unskilled labor that dug Richmond's canals, constructed buildings and manned the growing number of heavy industries clustered along the banks of the James River."

To further emphasize the point on slavery's economic impact, professor Midori Takagi writes in her 1999 book, "Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865," that "slave labor that made tobacco manufacturing (the backbone of Richmond's antebellum economy) a multimillion­dollar industry by 1860 and greatly contributed to the growth of a range of other industries."

Takagi also found urban slaves in Richmond to be "craftsmen, ironmakers, blacksmiths, tailors, and tobacco processors," showing that they were not only the economic engineers and plantation hands that made the establishment of Richmond and the antebellum American economy functional, but also physically involved with the construction of the nation and the city.

Slaves made the city viable enough to incorporate as such and continued its immoral economic success, directly through forced labor and indirectly, by being an economic force and industry.

White Europeans enslaved, traded, murdered, mutilated, dehumanized and enacted a multigenerational genocide against persons of color and varying ethnicities throughout the globe for hundreds of years, the effects of which still reverberate. That's the subject of history and reality. To in any way temper, detract or diminish that history in favor of the oppressors is racist, offensive and inexcusable.

VCU continues to be a driving force in the city of Richmond. What it hasn't done is build or rebuild this city. This city has fostered the university's growth, given it a structure and provided a community to further the betterment of both university students and residents. Richmond is VCU's home, not the other way around.

To assert otherwise, as the message on the shirts does, is yuppie egocentrism. It glorifies the temporary residents that VCU students often are at the expense of misaligning the truth for the sake of attractiveness and profit. It's pseudo-revisionism, printed onto cloth.

"We helped revitalize this city" may not have the same ring to it, but at least it's honest. S

August Wade is a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, majoring in English. He first wrote about this subject in The Commonwealth Times, VCU's student-run newspaper.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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