[Diary] | Black Rebel Hug, by Amdé Mengistu | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.

Black Rebel Hug


Three days in Charlottesville

love Charlottesville, so I couldn’t miss the Nazi party. I grew up down by the beach, in Chesapeake, Virginia, and enrolled in the University of Virginia when I was seventeen years old. I spent a decade on the green hills of Charlottesville as a student, then a townie. I tended bar on the Corner, and learned to cook at the old Tea Room Cafe on Main Street. I was an actor downtown, did social work in the county jail down Avon Street, and I sold wine and led tours one blue ridge over at Jefferson Vineyards, riding a farm truck in the autumn with migrants hauling in grapes from the fields. I love visiting family and friends in C-Ville, so when my fellow UVa alumni, Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, planned to “Unite the Right” with a rally full of Nazis, racists, and rebel yellers, I wanted to go back to town and feel my old home place. I wanted to truly resist, not by fighting back, but by giving an alt-right marcher a warm, black hug. What on earth could make Spencer more uncomfortable than a long, heartfelt embrace with a black man like me?

august 11

5:30 p.m. Meatpacking District, Manhattan—I board the express bus to Charlottesville and wonder if any of my fellow passengers are heading south to join the Unite The Right rally. My only real plan, other than hugging a conservative, is to remain alive all weekend. I figure there will be two especially dangerous times when the violence would be most chaotic and toughest to avoid: first, whenever the rally ends and police force the crowd to disperse; and second, after nightfall, when darkness and booze and a muggy day of political frustration could add up to gunfire. Like most black Americans, reasonable fear of racists with guns is not new to me and the only novelty of this weekend was that white Americans felt threatened, too. Some of my best friends are white, and I text one of my very dearest, who I’d roomed with in C-Ville after we met at the old Tea Room Cafe. Will is an entrepreneur who thinks more of food than politics and has several restaurants on the leafy, pedestrian, Downtown Mall, all within a few block radius of tomorrow’s rally. We plan to meet at one of them in the morning.

8 p.m. A seat on the bus, along the Mason-Dixon Line—I see online that a Federal Judge has just issued an order that the City of Charlottesville cannot change the permitted site of the rally, at the old Lee Park, to a large field a mile away from all the pedestrians on the Downtown Mall.

10 p.m.—My bus is hurtling toward Charlottesville when the texts start coming in: “Holy Shit.” It’s starting. I watch live on Twitter as at least 150 white supremacists march onto UVa grounds holding lit tiki torches and chanting against Jews and for White Lives. I can’t see police anywhere and in two hours my bus is going to drop me off, a half mile from the torch mob. A hot flash of fear burns my stomach until I see, live on Twitter, some kid in khakis sprint to the top of The Rotunda steps and throw up a Nazi salute. My fear turns into revulsion, then anger. The Rotunda is not just a marvel of Neoclassical Architecture, designed as a love note to order and reason. It’s also the 3rd hole and 4th tee of our old frisbee golf course where a bunch of my college buds used to while away hours playing together. It’s not just whites that romanticize Thomas Jefferson. I know my college grounds hide buried slave bones, but that building is too beautiful for 21st Century, torch-lit hate. As the mob starts to beat students underneath a statue of Jefferson, I text my eighteen-year-old cousin whether he’s watching this mess and he writes: “Yo, it’s crazy. I’m gonna be there next Saturday.” He was born and raised in Virginia and starts his second year in the College next week.

august 12

12:30 a.m. The West Main Street bridge—The bus stops and I step out into the stuck, humid air of a summer night in C-ville. It’s just a five-minute walk to her house, but the old friend I’m crashing with demands to drive over and pick me up. “It’s felt like a powder-keg here all summer,” she says, and I think about my cousin who was killed by neo-Nazis almost thirty years ago. It was a baseball bat and steel-tipped boots to the head, late at night after a white-supremacist rally in Portland, Oregon. I look up and down Main Street for white folk in khakis and hop in my friend’s car. My host invites me to bed (we’ve always been platonic) and as we cuddle into sleep I quip: “If I had known all it took were 150 Nazis to get into your bed, I would have recruited them a decade ago.”

9:30 a.m. Starr Hill, a half mile west of the Robert E. Lee statue—Breakfast is coffee, nerves, and Tums. A lone helicopter moans in the sky above sleepy, downtown Charlottesville.

10:45 a.m. Three blocks from the site of the rally—I wave to a Virginia State Policeman as I jaywalk downtown. I’m wearing a UVa t-shirt and a LiveArts baseball cap, from the local community theatre. I’d like people to easily note that of the many sides converging today, I’m on Team Charlottesville. A friend texts me that she just saw “over a 100 in riot gear and guns just got out of vans in the market street garage headed downtown now.”

11:00 a.m. Downtown Mall, two blocks from the rally—A platoon of thirty state policeman are helping each other cinch up brand-new body armor under a leafy tree outside the Omni Hotel. I’ve never been more comfortable around heavily-armed cops, and today it feels mutual; there’s no reasonable fear between us. I thank one of them for working overtime and he says, “man, we’re just hoping for the best.” Twitter tells me that fighting at the rally site has already begun, though the rally doesn’t start until noon. A mom pushes a Bugaboo stroller with some kind of terrier leashed to it and I smile at the perfect little picture of Charlottesville this makes: as long as we stay two blocks away from race issues, our town is all peace, preppies, and puppies.

11:53 a.m.—I’m eating a flaky biscuit with Virginia ham when Will texts me: “Come out back if you wanna see some shit.” I put down the southern comfort food to go check out some Nazis. I take a last swig of Hendrick’s gin and ginger beer, for courage and stomach-settling. I ask one of Will’s waitresses, a nice blonde gal named Shannon, how to get out back and she leads me through the kitchen, past two guys cooking on the line, one black and one white. I couldn’t tell who was the sous-chef. We go out the back door, through the parking lot and up to a street full of screaming ralliers of the American Right. It feels strangely familiar, like a perverted version of a UVa football gameday. Filled with the energy of the crowd I start shouting: “Wahoo-wa, Wahoo-wa, Uni-V-Virginny-Yah!” From the middle of the street, a burly white guy in jeans and a hunting vest sees me and his eyes bulge out with glee. He begins aping a gorilla and making loud monkey sounds. His impression was fantastic. I walk up to my buddy Will and he advises me, “oh, man, don’t engage, just observe.”

This is a very white event, from the scores of marchers shouting past us, to their scattered onlookers on the curb. It is often hard to distinguish who was who. I see more whites in Black Lives Matter gear than I do black people altogether.

Marching for the Right there are, as one might expect, grizzled, bearded men with Confederate flags and muddy work boots. But there are also metrosexual dudes heiling Hitler in brown leather oxfords, as if Quentin Tarantino had drunkenly shot a J. Crew catalog. There are men in faux combat gear, with painted bike helmets, knee and elbow pads, broom handles and sticks, and goggles for the pepper spray. And there are men in real combat gear, with assault rifles, flak jackets and ammo belts. They have the outfits, if not the fitness, of actual soldiers—pot-bellied warriors of a generation raised on the American couch. Of the hundred white-supremacits marchers that pass us, maybe five are women. Will shakes his head and sighs, “I tell you what, this is not a place to pick up chicks.”

I look uphill at the rally site and see purple smoke wafting toward us, and the air begins to taste sharp and bitter. A young man in dark jeans and a white shirt grabs my shoulder with one hand, his other holding a rebel flag and a Plexigas shield.  “Hey”, he says, “I just wanna apologize for that guy there” and he points to the fellow still whooping like a primate. The young man is full of conflict; his eyes well up with tears and he glances at his flag and back at me and said, “I don’t believe in that stuff and that’s not why…” I grab his hand, thank him, and pull him into a hug. A Black Rebel hug. Behind him, someone yells “faggot,” and behind me someone scolds him, screaming that he has no right to apologize for his fellow marcher. The real minority in Charlottesville today are people with the ability to see their political opponents as fully human.

1:30 p.m. Back inside The Whiskey Jar—A young, white photographer with an excellent camera and a blond ponytail sits next to me at the bar. He scrolls through his footage taken moments ago and jumps up, hollering, “yes!” when he gets to a clip of a neo-Nazi getting pummeled. He notes my disgust and says, “I only like it when it’s them gettin’ hit, you know…”

I overhear two distraught women tell Will they just saw a car run over a person and I hear ambulances screaming outside. I walk toward the action and two white men are holding up a young woman with long black hair; she’s an Asian-American cradling her elbow, red with blood. She and at least two others must have been knocked off their feet, because she’s wearing two mismatched sneakers, neither of which fit her. I think, this is what it takes to walk in other Americans’ shoes.

Water Street is full of people and blood and sobbing and shock. Photographers are shooting a crying girl on a gurney and a woman yells at them, “Stop taking pictures! She’s just a child! You’re disgusting!”

2:30 p.m.—Writers and politicians tweet out their disapproval. Moral rot fells their party so low that conservatives claim moral high ground by denouncing Nazis. Many still struggle to distinguish between the hate of White Supremacy and the haters of White Supremacy.

6:30 p.m. Sundown Town—I walk back in a daze to the safety of Starr Hill. I don’t yet know how many people were killed and I can imagine one of the day’s gunmen scoping me as a potential conquest. I just hope Trump supporters are tired of all the winning. I ride out of town to Will’s farm before nightfall.

august 13

9:30 a.m. Albermarle County—Where do Nazis eat breakfast, I muse aloud? IHOP, someone answers. Will pulls a chair up to his stove and his four-year-old girl helps stir the grits and fry eggs and bacon in a cast-iron pan. My kids, two boys aged eight and six, are in the countryside on vacation, unaware I’ve come to town. I surprise them at the pool and jump in to splash around. They’re half-Jewish, half-black, and fully problematic for the American Right. They ask what I’m writing about and I begin to explain to them how Nazis fit into the Republican party, but they quickly decide the deep end of the pool is a dark, hidden forest and that we should all go exploring.  

2:00 p.m. Free Speech Monument, east end of the Downtown Mall—I hear that the main rally organizer, Jason Kessler, is giving a press conference and I catch a ride back to town to see. The Downtown Mall is full of guns, but this time it seems like just policemen and national guard. Kessler steps up to a thicket of microphones and, fifteen feet away, I can’t hear one word. The crowd is chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Their First Amendment right is louder than his.

3:00 p.m.—It’s easier to find Tibetan Prayer flags than Confederate Battle flags on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. It’s always been a blue dot in a red state and that’s partly why it’s a poignant ground for this battle in the American Conversation on Race. An old, white-haired man I’ve seen on the Mall before is standing alone, arms outstretched, wearing a black blindfold, next to a handwritten sign that read Free Hugs. I trust you, you trust me.  

I can’t wait to get back north to New York. But first, one more Black Rebel Hug.

More from