The first time, I wasn’t sure I read the shirt right. Maybe it was a Jefferson Starship reference, and it could be just that. But context matters and seeing two white students wearing VCU shirts with the words “We built this city” is frustrating, to say the least.
Don’t misconstrue this as a direct attack of or on the student alumni association or individuals that choose to wear these shirts, but rather, an attack on the ethos, audacity and general historical ignorance permeating through some parts of VCU, both in reference to the institution and individuals. Undoubtedly, VCU functions as a strong addition to the city of Richmond, helping to boost the municipal economy by creating jobs, infrastructure projects and maintaining a student populace and their relevant needs (food, housing, etc.), but VCU didn’t build this city; slaves and a system of slavery did.
It’s crucial to remember that fact. Ignoring it allows us to live in an undeserved bliss, a kind of daze that allows wealthy interests to build parking lots over slave burial grounds and idolize Confederate military officers through numerous statutes.
The city of Richmond has an ugly history of racism, continued 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 metaphysical destruction and enslavement of blacks. Layered onto that is Richmond’s time as the capital of the Confederacy, an aggressive actor of 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 modern day and enslaved, are routinely 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” exclusively serves to perpetuate a status quo of misinformation. It is a sinful action that ignores and undermines truth to help people feel better. The past is not dead. History lives and acts upon us; even though we cannot see it, it influences us, changes us, exalts us, vilifies us and defines us.
Although it might be frustrating and difficult to accept, you didn’t build that. Aside from the inhuman toil that created this country’s structural foundation, a myriad of factors built this city, including but not limited to taxpayer money, honest labor, legislation, committees, grassroots 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, whether the comment is meant metaphorically or otherwise. The city is a separate entity from VCU, and without Richmond, there would be no VCU. The fraudulent claim that “we built this city” downplays the city as a municipality and implies that Richmond is lucky to have us, when, indeed, it is we who are fortunate to have Richmond, a city underpinned by a shameful history, but working toward righting past wrongs and progressing itself into a thriving, truly diverse community.
Read August Wade’s follow-up to this story here.