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The girl who brought down a statue

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The day the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was lifted from its pedestal in Charlottesville and driven away, Zyahna Bryant stood near by, wearing pearls.

The adult adornment was telling. It showed she had grown up while waiting for that moment.

At 15, Zyahna was a girl when she created the petition to remove the statue in her home town.

Zyahna Bryant was 15 when she wrote a petition asking Charlottesville to take down a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee (Photograph by Norm Shafer/The Washington Post)

At 20, when that finally happened, she was a woman who had grown used to juggling homework with hate mail.

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before joining the Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism

She was a first-generation college student who had publicly called on people to “protect Black women”, even as she privately dealt with death threats. She was a seasoned organiser who had heard people argue that statues represent history and not hate, even as she received messages from statue-supporting strangers and neighbours that didn’t reflect that. They expressed hate for what she said and who she was and how she looked.

Go jump off a bridge . . .

Go eat another cow . . .

Come to Haiti. And see what the descendants of African slaves have achieved without White people.

Those are just a few publishable lines from the mail and messages she has received. She deletes without reading the ones that contain the n-word, and some of the scarier threats have come over the phone.

Zyahna recalls sitting in one of her high-school classes when her phone began buzzing so much she couldn’t ignore it. When she finally looked at it, she found out that a conservative media outlet had written an article that identified her by her full name, despite the petition including only her first name. The article began: “The perpetually offended are at the gate once again, trying to dismantle culture, education and the very fabric of history.”

Zyahna said: “That was my first time actually knowing White supremacists have no boundaries for kids. They didn't care that I was a tenth-grader or eleventh-grader in high school.”

People doxxed her, letting her know that they knew where she lived, what school she attended and her phone number. Others called the workplaces of her mother and grandmother, trying to get them fired.

And through it all, Zyahna kept organising, kept saying the uncomfortable — “You cannot say protect Black women if dark-skin fat Black women are not included” — and kept waiting for that statue to come down.

On July 10, that finally happened. After legal battles, heated public discussions and protests, including a deadly one, the 1,100-pound bronze statue was carted away. People who watched from the crowd cheered and spoke of it being “about time”. And afterward, people across the country shared photos through social medial of that moment, photos that no doubt will be included in any future telling of how a century-old statue was toppled in a Virginia community.

But focusing on a moment tells only part of what happened. This is what people should also know: Ii Charlottesville, the past five years saw not only the slow fall of a statue, but also the rapid rise of a young activist.

A crane may have taken that towering figure away, but Zyahna gave it the first shove and then, as other hands joined hers, kept pushing.

Zyahna worries that people will leave that part out of the narrative, that they will erase her. She has already seen that happen in some tellings, she says, and she knows too well how that has happened with other Black women in the past.

In a piece that ran in Teen Vogue on the same day that the statue came down, Zyahna wrote about that concern.

“I spend a lot of time questioning whether I should become a more palatable, marketable version of myself to put others at ease when telling my story or crediting me for my work,” she wrote. “That feeling is in constant tension with continuing to stick to my own values and showing up as my unedited, authentic self. I feel that a lot of Black women like me have been conditioned to approach conversations with a level of humility that is not expected of others. But even when we are humble, we are still talked over, pushed to the side and dismissed.”

She references Claudette Colvin, the Black 15-year-old who refused to give up her seat to a White passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus nine months before Rosa Parks. Never heard of her? That’s her point.

“My plea is this: do not wait until we have passed or reached our breaking point to honour us or to give us our well-deserved flowers,” Zyahna writes. “Honour us while we are well. Honour us as we are doing the work that others choose not to do. Honour us in the rooms where we are not present.”

Advocating for herself and other Black women isn’t about fame, she says. It’s about making sure they get recognition for their work and sacrifices, and that Black girls see that. The University of Virginia student was 12 when she organised her first rally after Trayvon Martin’s death.

Her younger twin sisters are now 15, and she knows they’re watching.

On the day the statue came down, they stood with her. So, too, did her mother, and her grandmother who gifted her those pearls.

“We were looking at it come down together,” Zyahna says. “No, it didn't end racism, it didn’t change much, but seeing that happen was so powerful.”

Zyahna recognises there is more work to do and that it goes beyond statues. She has been organising mutual aid, and has seen how the wealth gap has left many people unable to pay their rent, put food on the table or afford college tuition. She plans to keep connecting those who have resources to those who need them. She also hopes to speak more in classrooms and show young people they don’t have to look or be “a certain type of way” to make change.

On her Instagram page, Zyahna shares some of her hate mail. She also shares notes that reinforce the need for her activism. A recent one was written by a history teacher who assigned her students to think about a living person who is a hero. The teacher tagged Zyahna in a post that shows the response of a nine-year-old girl.

“A hero in my community is Zyahna Bryant,” it begins. “She lives in Virginia like me and started organising student protests when she was a tween.”

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before joining the Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism

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Published July 19, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated July 18, 2021 at 10:43 am)

The girl who brought down a statue

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