Sometimes discovering truths can be as simple as paying attention to the Grounds beneath our feet. That is the message behind #UnseenCville, a collaboration between Virginia Humanities and the UVA departments of Art History, Arts Administration, and American Studies and community historians. The project, designed around Virginia Humanities’ 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book, and funded by a Faculty Research Grant for the Arts by UVA’s Office of the Provost and the Vice Provost for the Arts, aimed to engage students and community members with African American history by power-washing literary text into sidewalks and other public spaces in downtown Charlottesville and on Grounds.
Students in a spring course taught by Associate Professor and now Chair of Art History Carmenita Higginbotham were tasked with identifying sites that, with power-washed text, have the power to comment on broader social and historical experiences. “The intersections of art, identity, and place is a key concern in contemporary culture, and was a guiding component of the student learning experience,” Higginbotham said. Students in the class also selected the quotes to be power-washed onto the ground. Each was excerpted from The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, the 2017 best-selling collection of essays and poems edited by two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward. On the steps of the UVA Amphitheatre were the words Bricks and Mobs at Schools Were Only the Most Obvious Signs. Near the Downtown Mall, a cross walk proclaimed These Are All Our Causes.
Three of the book’s essayists, Garnette Cadogan, Kevin Young, and Kima Jones, spoke as part of a Festival of the Book program moderated by Higginbotham and presented at UVA’s Ruth Caplin Theatre. “There is renewed interest in the work of writer-activist James Baldwin, especially in his 1963 classic The Fire Next Time, said Justin Reid, director of African American programs at Virginia Humanities. “The Fire This Time reflects this modern day reckoning,” he said. “This project also references Baldwin’s belief that to love is to help make others conscious of the things they do not see, what he called the ‘things unseen’ beneath our visible reality.” Maggie Guggenheimer, Director of External Relations at Virginia Humanities and Lecturer of Arts Marketing: Theory and Practice at UVA, said the project included students at every stage of its implementation, from historical analysis of sites to project marketing. “We hope that this continues to engage students and the broader community in discussion long after the quotes naturally fade away.”