Two days after Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker published a controversial poem about the city, two city councilors have released a joint statement condemning the language used.
Released Friday, the joint statement from Councilors Heather Hill and Lloyd Snook criticizes Walker’s use of a rape metaphor to describe Charlottesville.
The original post, which went live Wednesday morning, said: “Charlottesville: The beautiful-ugly it is. It rapes you, comforts you in its c** stained sheet and tells you to keep its secrets.”
The poem’s controversial language immediately elicited reaction from the community, spilling out onto Twitter and other social media sites and causing Charlottesville to trend nationally.
A few hours after the initial post, Walker posted a longer version that claimed the city is “void of a moral compass” and retained the rape metaphor.
“It suffocates your hopes and dreams. It liberates you by conveniently redefining liberation. It progressively chants while it conservatively acts,” part of the updated poem reads. “Charlottesville is anchored in white supremacy and rooted in racism. Charlottesville rapes you and covers you in sullied sheets.”
The response was mixed, with some social media users and locals lauding Walker’s comments as an indictment of Charlottesville’s culture and white supremacy while others took issue with the language used, which they claimed was inappropriate.
An online petition to remove Walker from office had 108 signatures as of Friday evening.
Walker, an independent in her first four-year term, is up for re-election this year and previously indicated she intends to run again. She has not recently clarified whether that is still the case.
Hill and Snook’s joint statement begins by clarifying that, as white individuals, 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.”
The councilors wrote that they are appalled by the threats Walker has received since her initial post, but also that it can never be appropriate for the mayor to use terms of sexual violence to characterize the city of Charlottesville.
“The ‘rape’ metaphor was salacious, but it was also jarring and hurtful to victims of sexual assault and rape, and deeply unfair in how it presents Charlottesville to the world,” the statement reads. “We should not gloss over our difficult history of race relations, but as elected officials, we must choose our words carefully.”
The statement goes on to lament how the city has been seen since the Summer of Hate in 2017. It points to “historic commitments to affordable and deeply affordable housing, to the redevelopment of our public housing through resident-led planning, to grassroots initiatives for mortgage and rent relief to prevent evictions and to a panoply of bold housing plans on par with much larger municipalities.”
Headlines about these initiatives and others should be what people are seeing in the national press, the councilors claim, and they remain committed to working toward a more equitable city.
“When Charlottesville has made progress on these issues, it has been with the support of people of all backgrounds. The funding for these initiatives has come from the tax dollars of people of all backgrounds,” Hill and Snook wrote. “Our future success depends on the good will and the desire for unity of people of all backgrounds. This poem did not help build that unity.”
In an interview Thursday, Councilor Michael Payne also took issue with Walker’s use of the rape metaphor, and said the post has distracted from policy change needed in the city. Councilor Sena Magill declined to comment on Walker’s post.
In response to an inquiry about the rape metaphor in Walker’s poems, Renee Branson, director of the Sexual Assault Resource Center, said, “it is not SARA’s practice to police or provide critique on anyone’s language, particularly expressions of harm and hurt.”
“We also acknowledge that explicit language and imagery involving rape can be triggering to survivors of sexual assault. Our 24-7 hotline is (434) 977-7273,” Branson said.
Walker has not responded to requests for comment but did address some of the issues during a Facebook Live chat with former Councilor Wes Bellamy on Thursday evening. The approximately 90-minute conversation touched on a variety of topics, including the poem and Walker’s experience as a Black woman working in city leadership.
People were too caught up in the emotions and the word choices, Walker said. She said that when she wrote the poem, she wanted to strike a nerve. Walker said she has always felt open about talking about sex-related and sexual health topics due to her background in health advocacy.
“The people who wear the Confederate flags and walk around with their guns, we know we have to monitor them,” Walker said. “But the people who don’t, who claim that they know the sacrifice, who claim that they are for the cause, that say they understand but then they get caught on word choice.”
The “beautiful-ugly city” part of the poems was the part that stuck with her most, Walker said, showing the duality of the beautiful aesthetics of Charlottesville and its ugly, racist history.
Addressing the use of the word “rape,” Walker said she chose the word because of its power and clarified that there are multiple definitions that go beyond what first comes to mind.
“If you move past the definition of rape, you get to two: an act of violation, and three: an act of intense robbing, taking possessions from a person,” she said. “It’s important for people to understand that’s what I’m talking about.”
So much of Charlottesville is tied to an adoration of Thomas Jefferson, Walker said, a man she said raped enslaved women and who is lauded as being an influential thinker who looked down on Black people.
When people get caught up on a word choice, they lose sight of the broader issue, she said.
“If it’s not right now, if it’s not immediate, then people are confused about how it’s important and so we’re not having those conversations here,” she said.