America’s Black politicians have a long history of calling out the nation’s racism. But few have taken to poetry and written that their city is “void of a moral compass” and “rapes you of your breaths.”
Nikuyah Walker, the first Black woman to be mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, has posted poetry on Twitter and Facebook that has drawn national attention for descriptions of a picturesque college town that is indelibly linked to a slave-owning U.S. president and a deadly white nationalist rally.
“Charlottesville: The beautiful-ugly it is,” Walker on Wednesday. “It rapes you, comforts you in its (expletive) stained sheet and tells you to keep its secrets.”
The mayor of the majority-white city in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills followed up with a longer and cleaner version. Charlottesville, she , “lynched you, hung the noose at city hall and pressed the souvenir that was once your finger against its lips.”
It ends by stating that the city of 47,000 “is anchored in white supremacy and rooted in racism. Charlottesville rapes you and covers you in sullied sheets.”
Walker’s words have resonated with some who said she captured the Black experience while communicating in the same way many people do these days: through artful expression on social media.
“This is a new era of Black electeds,” said Wes Bellamy, a friend of Walker’s, a former Charlottesville vice mayor and interim chair of Virginia State University’s political science department.
“We don’t follow the same playbook that individuals used before,” said Bellamy, who has for his own tweets in years past. “We emote in different ways. We utilize technology in different ways to get our points across.”
But others, including two of Walker’s fellow council members, said her rape metaphor was “hurtful to victims of sexual assault and rape, and deeply unfair in how it presents Charlottesville to the world.”
“We should not gloss over our difficult history of race relations,” City Council members Heather Hill and Lloyd Snook said in a joint statement. “But as elected officials, we must choose our words carefully.”
Hill and Snook, who are both white, said they were “appalled” at the threats Walker has received from the post. And they said they can “only dimly understand the present-day impact of America’s history of slavery, lynching and sexualized violence toward Black people in general, and toward Black women in particular.”
Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia. It's where Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, lived and owned Black Americans who were enslaved. They included Sally Hemings, who is widely believed by historians to have given birth to several of Jefferson’s children.
Walker did not respond to an email from The Associated Press requesting comment. But on Thursday night, she offered no apologies during a with Bellamy.
"It did exactly what I was hoping that it would do, besides the everybody-across-the-country-talking-about-it part,” she said of her social media posts. “But I wanted it to hit a nerve.”
Walker grew up in Charlottesville and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Virginia Commonwealth University, according to her bio on the city’s website.
The mother of three spent years working as a social justice advocate and held nonprofit jobs that included substance abuse clinician and HIV prevention educator. She was also employed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Walker ran for office as an independent and was elected to Charlottesville’s five-member City Council just a few months after the Unite the Right Rally in 2017.
Hundreds of white nationalists had descended on the city in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Violence prompted authorities to force the rally to disband. Afterward, a woman was killed and dozens were injured when a car driven by a self-avowed white supremacist plowed into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters.
Walker said on Facebook Live that she was clear about who she was from the beginning.
“You all said you wanted something different," she said. "You all said you were open to being challenged.”
Bellamy, who lives in Charlottesville, told the AP that the city has made a lot of improvements in recent years. But he said there are still many Black people who lack hope and feel they have no opportunities.
“I’ve had a lot of people say she told it exactly like it is,” he said of Walker. “And I’ve had some people say, ‘Help me understand why she used that language.’ But I haven’t heard a person I’ve spoken to, specifically a Black person, say that they did not agree with what she said.”
Nadia Brown, a political science professor at Purdue University, said her research has found that many black female leaders, especially within their own communities, are seen as relatable figures. And many have taken to social media to advance social justice causes, such as Black Lives Matter.
“And so in this way, Mayor Walker is 100% in line with Black women elected officials, not just mayors but those who are serving in Congress,” Brown said.
But, Brown added, Walker's words could also provide fuel to those pushing back against the nation's current reckoning with its past.
Some of Virginia's Republican gubernatorial candidates are already responding to Walker's posts. Among them is Peter Snyder, an entrepreneur and former Fox News contributor who lives in Charlottesville.
“Unfortunately, this insanity has become more common among our extremist leaders in Richmond and across Virginia,” Snyder said, adding that “woke liberals focus, foster, and coddle Critical Race Theory and this kind of extremism.”