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#UnseenCville Public Art Installations Explore Race & History in Charlottesville - Photo by Eze Amos
#UnseenCville Public Art Installations Explore Race & History in Charlottesville - Photo by Eze Amos


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“Visible reality hides a deeper one…things unseen.” – James Baldwin, 1962

America is not “post-racial,” and neither is Charlottesville. Over the coming weeks, #UnseenCville is scrubbing away the dirt of our city’s sidewalks, revealing passages from The Fire This Time, a new reflection on James Baldwin’s 1963 essay The Fire Next Time.

Find the quotes, explore Charlottesville’s African American heritage, and consider the question: “Who owns the streets?”

Then at 4:00PM on Friday, March 23, join three writers from The Fire This Time at UVA’s Ruth Caplin Theater. Virginia Humanities’ Virginia Festival of the Book has arranged an afternoon of challenging and thoughtful conversation.

Instagram Contest

Instagram users can win a hardcover copy of The Fire This Time signed by the three writers and a handmade letterpressed quote poster produced at the Virginia Center for the Book.

Find 5 of the 10 #UnseenCville quote installations and post a photo of each to Instagram tagging @vabookfest and #UnseenCville.

The first two people to find and post all 5 quotes will receive the signed book and poster.

Other Ways You Can Participate

  • Find and read the quotes from The Fire This Time scrubbed into the sidewalk, streets, or on buildings in Charlottesville and on UVA Grounds
  • Post photos of what you find on Facebook, Twitter with the tag #UnseenCville (see above for a special Instagram contest)
  • Purchase and read The Fire This Time
  • Attend Things Unseen during the Virginia Festival of the Book

#UnseenCville is sponsored by a Faculty Research Grant for the Arts from the Office of the Provost and the Vice Provost for the Arts.

The Festival of the Book event is free, but tickets are required.

Tickets »

Quotes from The Fire This Time

Interpreted by University of Virginia students enrolled in AMST 3559: ‘Identity, Space & Public Art’ (Spring 2018), taught by Dr. Carmenita Higginbotham 

“be engaged or stepped over”
– Claudia Rankine, The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning

Location: Sidewalk corner by stairs leading to Emancipation Park (101 E Market St)

This politically charged location was selected precisely because the quote aims to encourage onlookers to engage with social change, lest they be left behind by history. Emancipation Park is fitting given the ongoing debate about the Park’s statue and renaming. Upon entering the Park, one will see this quote and be reminded of the importance of civic activism and engagement.

“for simply being black”
– Claudia Rankine, The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning

Location (UVA): Atop overpass/walkway connecting New Cabell Hall and Nau Hall (1540 Jefferson Park Ave)

The historical significance of this area – a once prosperous free black community, known as Canada, that was overwhelmed by the University – makes it a prime location to examine what it means to be black in the United States.  This open-ended quote encourages readers to engage in critical reflection. This area also sees high volumes of foot-traffic, both from Charlottesville residents as well as students of the University, thereby symbolically bridging a traditional divide between the two.

“The streets were never ours.”
– Edwidge Danticat, Message To My Daughters

Location: Tavern & Grocery crosswalk (333 W Main St)

The Tavern & Grocery represents the gentrification of Charlottesville, as this upscale bar and restaurant occupies the location of Inge’s Store, an African American small business that operated there for over one-hundred years. Though a small plaque remains on the brick next to the Tavern & Grocery, this monumental aspect of Charlottesville’s history is easily overlooked, leading to an erasure of Charlottesville’s history. This quote sheds light on the historic racial displacement in Charlottesville.

“These are all our causes”
– Edwidge Danticat, Message To My Daughters

Location: City Hall (605 E Main St)

Charlottesville is unique in that its citizens actively attend City Council meetings and participate in local government. By placing this quote outside of City Hall, a place where local causes are often expressed and addressed, it will serve as a reminder to the citizens of Charlottesville, and those who represent them, that any issue in Charlottesville, no matter how big or small, reflects on the City as a whole. All of these causes belong to Charlottesville. 

“more than just reform, more than just diversity”
– Daniel José Older, This Far: Notes On Love and Revolution

Location (UVA): Gibbons House (425 Tree House Dr)

Gibbons, the newest residential hall on UVA Grounds, is named for and dedicated to the memory and history of an enslaved couple. William and Isabella Gibbons lived at UVA as enslaved laborers in the mid-1800s. On the University website, President Teresa Sullivan is quoted saying, “This is part of a broad, ongoing effort to recognize the role of slavery in the University’s history and to educate the members of our community about the role of enslaved persons at U.Va. as we approach our bicentennial.” The construction and dedication of Gibbons House is a good step, but there is more to be done. The quote was placed in front of Gibbons as way to urge the University to continue “recogniz[ing] the role of slavery” and informing those who wish to ignore this history and its legacies.

“You can’t tiptoe toward justice.”
– Daniel José Older, This Far: Notes On Love and Revolution

Location: Sidewalk diamond near Omni Hotel/W Water St Bus Stop

The concrete diamond at the Omni bus stop underscores this particular quote. First, it is a central location frequented by many pedestrians entering the Downtown Mall via Water Street. Aesthetically, the diamond on the sidewalk is made of concrete, which contrasts the brick and draws the eye to look down and read the quote as one walks into the Mall. This quote is open to interpretation and accessible to all who cross it, but its placement may provoke a certain kind of interpretation. For instance, it is located right next to the Justice Building, perched atop the hill at the beginning of Water Street. Considering the events of August 11 and 12 on the Mall, the quote becomes particularly pertinent for activism against such violence, and also reminds us of the great sacrifice necessary to achieve justice.

“I came out as black as a teenager. Before then, I was simply a boy.”
– Kevin Young, Blacker Than Thou

Location: Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (201 E Market St)

A library is a center of knowledge, understanding, and growth. A library embodies the interplay between the innocence of youth and the maturation that accompanies learning. This quote highlights the coming into oneself, or understanding your place in the world as prescribed by others. This experience as African American, or a member of another minority group, is a powerful and sometimes painful maturation, or even a robbing of innocence not felt by the dominant members of society. Here, this profound epiphany is associated with the maturation from knowledge often obtained from a library. Its proximity to a second Kevin Young quote serves as a link between two facets of the African American experience—that of discovering one’s otherness and the fading of one’s oppressed history from memory.

“The beat is there always; doesn’t mean you can always hear it.”
– Kevin Young, Blacker Than Thou

Location: On Market St behind the Paramount Theater (215 East Main St)

The Paramount was born as a segregated theater, with a separate entrance on Third Street for African Americans. Selecting this site helps illuminate the “unseen” history of the building – a history people are either not aware of or choose to overlook. Drawing attention to this past brings the “beat” of the space’s continual history to the forefront of discussions about race, and emphasizes the interconnectedness of the past and present. The tonal juxtaposition of putting this quote under the “Friendly Paramount” sign is particularly poignant.

“Bricks and mobs at school doors were only the most obvious signs.”
– Carol Anderson, White Rage

Location (UVA): Central Grounds Amphitheater, above stairs

This passage is much more explicitly political and relevant to the UVA experience. The physical architecture of the Grounds seeks to create a space of respectability and academic enlightenment, signaled by the red-brick motif that covers the landscape. These bricks, however, also signal the invisible history of the enslaved individuals who built this institution “brick by brick,” and the weaponization of bricks used to threaten or injure the black body.  Moreover, this passage is in direct conversation with the events of August 11/12, where alt-right “mobs” flooded the Rotunda steps with torches lit in an explicit act of terror.  These mobs and bricks were/are literally at the University’s doorstep, and are only the most obvious signs of inequality and discrimination.  We must look beyond the aura of respectability that the University casts, in order to re-consider the less obvious signs and silenced histories. Placing this passage at the head of the amphitheater (a historically symbolic space for democratic voice and collectivity) generates a powerful visual, with an eye-line that passers-by are naturally drawn to.

“darkness magnifies the sight of joy.”
– Clint Smith, Queries of Unrest

Location: W Main St and 2nd St NW Bus Stop

This is an optimistic, but reflective passage, that can be read both figuratively and literally. The important work of raising the visibility of a vicious history also allows us to create new spaces that celebrate progress and inspire joy. The quote has subtle political undertones as well. In more literal terms, one must honor darkness, which can be read as the complexions of black people and people of color, and recognize their resilience despite oppressive structures that target them in Charlottesville and beyond. Moreover, there is a double entendre in the word ‘sight’ of joy, which can be read and heard as both sight, or ‘SITE’ in spatial terms. The latter signals a reclaimed physical space – new spaces of joy and festivity, where the misdeeds of the past no longer negate the present. This particular location is salient, as it is not only well-tread by both locals and tourists on the Downtown Mall, but it is a side street often used to promote socio-political art.


Here are some photos from #UnseenCville. View the whole gallery on Flickr.


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