I have wrestled deeply over the subject matter of this speech today, but the last three weeks have prompted a significant amount of thought and reflection with family, friends, peers, and colleagues, and debate within myself.
Today I am speaking as an almost 30-year-old, lifelong resident of Virginia who happens to be a delegate with a platform. I speak for no one else but myself - no caucus or particular group within this body or around the state.
Over the several weeks, deep wounds have been opened within Virginia, sparking a conversation and examination of a topic that often brings about significant discomfort when brought up directly: race in Virginia.
Some people say race is used as a bogeyman, and others might try and use it to their advantage. I stand before you to simply tell it like it is.
Make no mistake - I have spent these few weeks alternating between anger, grief, angst, despair, and physical and emotional pain. For long stretches, I have remained silent - unable to summon the words to accurately describe how I have been feeling when people have called, texted, or emailed to see whether I was all right.
I decided to speak on this today because of another reaction I have heard personally and seen in the media. The reaction is one of surprise that things like blackface and other expressions of racism and white supremacy still occurred in our society as late as the 1980s or even today.
That surprise has been a luxury to many Virginians, most of them white.
For many of us in this chamber, and millions of people across this country, the events that have gripped Virginia aren’t an aberration, an abstraction, or an anachronism. They aren’t a unit in a history textbook.
To me, and many people like me, these events are a window into a struggle that defines daily life for black Americans from the day we are born until the day we die.
I have thought a lot about my experience as a black man in this commonwealth and the history of my family, the Joneses and the Simmonses. And they are my Black History Month spotlight today.
As the grandson and son of men and women who spent the entirety of their lives attempting to push back against the horrors of racism in Virginia, I have long been acquainted with the pain and suffering of people of color in this state.
As a child, my family made sure that I was aware that slaves were brought to Virginia against their will. That they were treated as inhuman, partial people who were not worthy of consideration as anything more than property.
They made sure I was aware that a bitter conflict erupted in this country, in large part because some folks believed that slaves should be free, and others did not. They made sure I knew that even after the war, blacks weren’t even close to being equal under the eyes of the law or in the eyes of white people.
That somewhere along the way, slaves from the American South had children who had children who ended up in Virginia. That those people became my grandparents and parents.
My grandparents, whose only option for higher education was a historically black college, chose Virginia State University in Petersburg. My grandfather, Hilary H. Jones, Jr., who wanted to be an attorney, could not attend law school in Virginia because blacks were not allowed at all white schools.
He had to borrow other students’ bar preparation books because the white law libraries would not lend them to him. And this was in the 1940s, after he had served his country and risked his life in the Italian Theater in World War II.
He passed the bar, and they returned to Norfolk, only to be shunned by the majority population as second-class citizens. So they dedicated themselves to righting wrongs. To fight for equality and justice. To make sure their children did not endure the same struggles as they did.
On the other side, my mother’s parents, Margaret and Charles Simmons, moved to Norfolk so that my grandfather could teach at Norfolk State University - because back then, a predominantly white institution wouldn’t dare hire him to teach.
They too got involved in the struggle for justice just like my other grandparents. They served as a test case for the YMCA Beach Club and were rejected because of the color of their skin. My grandparents took my mother and her siblings on a road trip across the country through the segregated South, their home, only to run into the same poor treatment all along the way. They used the Green Book that Delegate (Jeion) Ward (D-Hampton) spoke about so eloquently just days ago.
Despite my grandparents’ efforts to build a life for their children that was equal and just, my parents endured their fair share of racism throughout their journey.
My father and his two brothers integrated Ingleside Elementary School in Norfolk in 1960, when my dad was just 6, only to be greeted with chants of “nigger go home.”
Twenty years ago on this very same floor, my father spoke against the placement of the Confederate flag on a license plate. He recalled seeing a cross burning as a child with the Confederate flag waving alongside it.
Some of the members in this chamber were there for that speech and felt the raw emotion that he felt on that terrifying day in the 1960s. He was just a young boy, filled with fear and all that the burning cross connotated. To him and others, those symbols mean hate and vitriolic racism. I remember vividly the hate mail that we received at our home for months afterward.
But my family’s history of fighting for civil rights or enduring racism isn’t particularly unique. I share it because it illustrates the central point I hope to make today. It is part of Virginia’s history, whether we like it or not. And it is certainly part of black history that I believe must be shared.
For people like me, the dark history of Virginia and the fight to change it are not confined to history books or remembrances around Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. That struggle is as personal and intimate to me and my family as my grandmother’s recipe for succotash or my father’s love of jazz music.
And despite the generations of suffering and sacrifice, my own life has been impacted by the overt and covert racism that has haunted my ancestors for hundreds of years.
And it wasn't always racism overtly thrown in my face, but it was also the casual racism, the subtle comments, the jokes from white acquaintances who had the luxury of thinking about race as fodder for humor.
Indeed, I carry with me to this day a memory associated with this hallowed body. I vividly recall a moment from my childhood when I was at a General Assembly retreat, with both Democrats and Republicans in attendance, and I was playing with the other children of legislators.
As we played, our group was approached by a legislator’s significant other who looked at me and then told her little girl: “don’t play with him, he’s black.” Although as a young boy I may not have gotten it then, but I certainly get it now. And it still stays with me.
Even as a young black man in today’s world, which my forebears had hoped would be one of equality, I cannot stand here and say that my experience has been markedly different than the generations before me. The hurt, anguish, and pain remains the same.
But my family’s stories and my stories are but one small part of the lasting pain, anguish, fear, and despair that we have faced during our lifetimes. While our experiences have varied, I guarantee you that generations of black Virginians can tell you story after story that merges into a common theme.
All you have to do is ask them, and their stories will allow you to see a larger picture.
That history and experience brings us to the current moment in this commonwealth. I know we are all struggling together to grapple with the events of the past few weeks and what they say about who our leaders are. Who we are as Virginians.
And that picture, ultimately, is that of two Virginias. A White Virginia and a Black Virginia. Existing in parallel along the same arc of history, frequently intersecting, but never running together as one. Two different experiences, born from the same beginning four hundred years ago and still never merged into one shared story.
The White Virginia that has had the privilege to never deal with being treated as second class in public or had to face institutional and cultural barriers that are higher than any wall that could ever be imagined.
The Black Virginia that is acknowledged when convenient, that is viewed as monolithic with one black experience of poverty and lack of drive, who has suffered painful, visceral wounds that are often papered over, or paid attention for a moment and then forgotten.
The White Virginia that perpetuated segregation, Massive Resistance, glorification of the Confederacy via monuments and flags in public spaces, and other mechanisms which consciously or unconsciously attempted to demonstrate its power over black Virginians.
The Black Virginia that is still oppressed by vestiges of Jim Crow in our legal system, that fears law enforcement, is mocked in yearbooks and photos year after year after year, and looks skeptically at White Virginia because of the generations past.
I was born in 1989, just eight months before the election of L. Douglas Wilder as the first black governor of the Old Dominion, and the first black governor elected in the history of this country. The grandson of slaves, this was a watershed moment in the Virginia journey.
One would have thought, and indeed many of us hoped, that this election would have ushered in a Virginia that was not Black or White, but instead one Virginia. A united commonwealth.
However, it seems that we have not come far enough to understand the hurt and pain and the effect on those who grew up in the shadow of separate but not equal.
Thirty years on, throughout the duration of my life, we are still struggling mightily with race in our state.
Now, let me be abundantly clear - Black Virginia and White Virginia have no specific political party. The two Virginias have coexisted in inequality for four centuries, but we may now have finally reached a tipping point.
The lasting wounds of the two parallel journeys have been reopened of late. And now, we as Virginians, have a choice: to give these deep-seated issues the attention of a news cycle and suppress our differences yet again, or to address the longstanding issues head on and make real progress toward healing and reconciliation between Black Virginia and White Virginia.
I believe deeply in my bones that we can walk together shoulder to shoulder for the good of this commonwealth, but it will take a desire to address that which is uncomfortable and every ounce of compassion and understanding that we can summon from within ourselves.
In Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
It is time for us as Virginians to recognize that we are part of a single garment of destiny, whether we like it or not. We now have a chance to confront our demons head on, to realize that we are inextricably linked as one.
We can try to connect White Virginia and Black Virginia once and for all, to acknowledge, confront, and understand each other’s paths. No longer can we ignore or paper over our differences. For years we have opted for band aids when stitches have been necessary.
This is our shared Virginia journey, and the way that we march on together.
The arcs to this point have been different and must be acknowledged as such. But we are brothers and sisters, under God, roaming the vast expanses of this great commonwealth - from the streets of the Capital City to the suburbs of Northern Virginia, from the shores of Virginia Beach to the rolling hills of Southwest Virginia.
We must understand that our way toward the healing and reconciliation we have spoken about starts with us, as leaders of this state - those who are looked to for guidance and leadership.
That our words cannot ring empty in the ears of Black Virginia. That our deeds and aims in this body - as policy makers - must be reflected in our actions and our ideals.
It is my firm belief that once we accept that responsibility, we can begin to heal and reconcile with one another. To bring the two Virginias - Black Virginia and White Virginia - on to the same track. On to a shared Virginia journey that embodies what Dr. King wrote about in his letter - that as long as we are here we are tied together in mutuality, and what one does affects all.
We have our choice: to ignore what has happened and paper over yet another wound and continue on with the two Virginias. Or to face our challenges head on, acknowledge our incredibly difficult history with race in this state, and vow to move forward together on our shared journey.
A failure to address the chasm between Black Virginia and White Virginia is the acceptance of the status quo: a Virginia that is divided by race, whether overt or covert, that leads to further pain, hurt, and despair in the state that we all love.
Now I do not stand here to chastise or criticize the actions of every man or woman who have acted foolishly or even maliciously decades ago. Insensitivity to others also means that I must believe in chances and forgiveness. And that is what my family and faith have always taught me.
I feel strongly that the cure for the cancer of racism and discrimination is not gradualism. The need for change and justice is urgent and immediate. And the burden is on all of us to end this scourge of racism once and for all.
I have internalized the struggle that my family has suffered for generations, just as every other black Virginian has struggled as well, and I feel compelled to insert myself into this conversation so that I might be able to make a lasting difference in our state that has been moving in separate directions for far too long.
I have faith that we can make the tough choice - to tackle our history head on and move forward together to heal and reconcile. It is what my grandparents and parents have wished that we do for decades. As a young black man in this fractured commonwealth, I will do all I can to make sure that their dream - our dream - comes true.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.