When I worked at the Roanoke Times, I covered a few KKK marches in Radford and in Blacksburg, both Virginia college towns.
The hardest part, for me, was watching small kids marching alongside their parents. I remember, especially, a young girl with dark, brown hair and braids. She looked like I looked when I was 9. She was marching with her mother, who dressed in white but did not wear a mask.
The photographers at the paper weren’t able to find pictures of the pair, when I asked them, years later, to check their archives. (No photos ran after the event, per newspaper policy at the time; there was a small turnout on the KKK side and little conflict had erupted.) The picture has been in my mind ever since, though. The girl’s shirt was pink. She wore jeans. I couldn’t read her face. Her mother’s face was contorted because she was yelling, like the men carrying torches last week at the University of Virginia. But I’ll bet when she smiled, she looked completely different, like someone I would have talked to at Kroger.
I’ve wondered for years what happened to that girl and her mom. In my brain, I make up an ending: The girl went off to summer camp or maybe a school field trip, and had to share a room with a girl of another faith or race. They liked each other at once and became friends — best friends. In summer, they caught fireflies in mason jars and then let them go. In the winter, they went sledding behind the elementary school, sharing a sled, and falling off when they went over a ramp they’d built from packed snow. At first, Emmy (that’s what I’m calling the girl) hadn’t been allowed to have her new friend over to spend the night. She didn’t understand why. For her, whiteness was just about the snow. But when she was in middle school, her mom finally gave in. In high school, Emmy joined the debate team. She was good at it. So good, she won the regional tournament in Bluefield. So good, she somehow convinced her mother that they had been wrong to shout the things they had once shouted in the streets. They had been wrong about the things they whispered, too. Racism was wrong. That’s what Emmy started whispering. And then she got louder. She went to college and then law school and then started working for a civil rights organization. Her mom volunteers there sometimes, on weekends.
Because I don’t know what happened, I can make up my ending. But I can’t believe it. Though I’ve read news stories about real life changes, I know my story is a fantasy.
Speak up, people have said all week, after white nationalists and neo-Nazis invaded Charlottesville. Speak out.
I’ve tried, but I haven’t known what to say. That I’m heartbroken? Nauseous? Scared? That this isn’t what our country stands for? That we won’t let the racists win?
None of that seems to help. None of that seems enough.
I write a poem and scratch out the second line. Then I scratch out the whole damn thing. I do not have answers. I do not even have the poetry that comes from searching for one.
The writer in me is tempted to make up a new ending for every person who carried a torch last weekend in Charlottesville. But I know that I can’t just write a decent ending. I have to work for one. And we’re not even at that part of the story yet, are we? After all of these years, we are still at the beginning. And we have to work for that, too.