Contributed by Sam Heath | Photos by Derrick Waller & Marley Nichelle
It was July 8, 2016 when Dr. Wes Bellamy got married, just four months after Zyahna Bryant sent her letter to The Daily Progress and published her petition to remove the Robert E. Lee statue and rename Lee Park. This was Bellamy’s first year on the Charlottesville City Council, the council which would take up Bryant’s call and did indeed vote to remove the monument. July 8 was also, to the day, exactly one year before the Ku Klux Klan came to Charlottesville to protest the potential removal of the Lee statue. And, of course, that summer ended with the events of August 11-12 and local counter-protestor Heather Heyer’s murder.
To engage Wes Bellamy is to engage history. Not only has his work made a historical impact on the city; he views his work now as being part of a growing historical movement. He is striving to find his place in history, to make a mark on history, and to leverage that history to change the nation.
Bellamy and I recently spoke about his time on City Council, his family, his current work in the movement, and the significance of enclaves in Charlottesville like Tonsler Park.
Of the year 2016, Bellamy said, “It was hectic.” That statement might apply even more now, with Bellamy serving as co-chair of Our Black Party—which was just announced by P. Diddy—Political Science Department Chair at Virginia State University, and father of four daughters.
His youngest daughter, Stokely Grace, just turned one. Boy or girl, her name was going to be Stokely. She is named after one of Bellamy’s heroes—Stokely Carmichael, or, as he later renamed himself, Kwame Ture, co-author of Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. Bellamy admires Ture for “his resolve ensuring that…we have to be able to fight not just with our fists but with our minds” and how Ture “was unapologetic in his stance, but he was also wise enough to understand that he wasn’t for everyone.”
As a former elected official, Bellamy can identify with that language of standing firm in a belief for the sake of Black people: “I see myself kind of settling into that…. I have an affinity to ensure that Black folk have the level playing field and specifically are working towards equity.”
Bellamy also knows he’s “not for everyone,” that “not everyone quite understands my perspective, and it’s okay to own that…. That doesn’t mean you have to be ugly towards them.”
The middle part of his daughter’s name, Grace, is a holy reminder. “I consider myself to be a spiritual person,” he said, “and I firmly believe that the God that I serve has shown me an incredible amount of grace.”
It is a name that is rooted in meaning and history, self-consciously and intentionally so. Bellamy nodded, concluding, “Names matter. Names matter for sure.”
Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud
“I’m a proud Black man,” Bellamy told me, “and that doesn’t mean I hate anyone else.” He went on with resolve to say more of what being a proud, Black man means to him.
It’s one of the greatest things in the world. It is the greatest thing in the world. There’s pride in understanding that I come from a lineage of people who are determined, who have persevered through a wide variety of different hardships. I come from a lineage of people who have ruled, who have not taken ‘no’ for an answer and have still been able to overcome every obstacle and still love, protect, and build a place that hasn’t always loved and protected them. And within that I think that there’s beauty. Also as a Black man there’s a responsibility to be an individual who is not only a caretaker [but] a person who is responsible for ensuring that those who come behind him have opportunities that I didn’t have. And that was what was afforded to me.
Bellamy speaks over himself the label that he is a “proud Black man,” a label that he sees as heartening. He said,
I believe in affirmations. The more you say things, those things come to fruition. I just love being who I am–good, bad, ugly, but also I want to encourage other young brothers to understand that there is nothing wrong with you loving who you are…. And then getting to a point in which you can truly love yourself.
The civil rights activist and author James Baldwin agreed. One interviewer pointed out that being born Black, poor, and gay must have led Baldwin to ask, “How disadvantaged can I get?” Baldwin smiled and replied, “Oh no, I thought I hit the jackpot.” Then Baldwin laughed. “You had to find a way to use it.”
Baldwin and Bellamy both found a way to use their identities. Baldwin leaned into being Black, poor, and gay while Bellamy chose to embrace being opinionated, divisive, and public in his work, along with seeing the worth in being Black. While the category of Black was historically constructed to justify unpaid labor, that identity has grown to produce untold amounts of beauty, and Bellamy feels the joy of that.
I think that if we all had a sense of pride about ourselves, we would love others that much more. If I love myself enough to see the pride and value of myself, I can kind of see the value in the pride of who you are.
He is talking about self-knowledge and empathy, how the former is required before the latter, and how the latter is what leads to lasting, loving change.
Bellamy’s second book—When White Supremacy Knocks, Fight Back! How White People Can Use Their Privilege, and How Black People Can Use Their Power—emphasizes this idea of empathy as protest, empathy as transformative. Underlying the book is the notion that “if we really want to defeat white supremacy, we can do so. But it’s just about valuing each other. And when I value you, I can fight with you, however we choose to fight.” There are many enemies to fight, among them white supremacy. But, as Bellamy insisted, “we can’t fight white supremacy…until we understand who we are.”
The current Black Lives Matter movement is, at least in part, a national recognition of the continued influence of white supremacy over individuals and institutions. The movement calls for truth-telling and then for change, a national version of Bellamy’s arc going from self-knowledge to empathy.
A Role in the Movement
When I asked him to speak about “the movement” happening in our nation at least since Trayvon Martin and in a more impassioned way since George Floyd, he said, “There’s no one way to define it.” The trouble is that we “often run into labels…. I think that we have been conditioned to compare, which creates these situations in which we wind up creating negative tension for no reason.” So, whether this is the second or new civil rights movement, or something entirely different, matters less to him than finding one’s role within it, one’s place in history.
“When I think of the movement, it’s just multi-faceted, because Black folk are not a monolithic group, because our accomplices, our allies, are not monolithic.” He spoke of the movement being a datable event in recent history, but what makes the movement is the people. Here he referenced a saying of his that is also a variation of his email signature: “Be patient with people but impatient with progress.”
Historically, we have seen progress, yet we need to demand more, need to be dissatisfied with—while at the same time being grateful for—the current growth. But if movements are people, then the empathy that begins with knowing oneself results in recognizing that people are varied, complicated, difficult, and slow. This means that allies care for each other by making each other better, by challenging others to think deeper or broader. Zyahna Bryant is one example.
Bryant is now a Second Year at UVA and references her 2016 petition calling for the Lee statue’s removal as only a small part of her work now. Her dynamic with Bellamy has always been one of deep yet outspoken siblinghood, debating and weighing the merits of reform versus revolution. Of this Bellamy said, “I’m a firm believer at this point as well that systems…can be reformed…. What that looks like, I don’t know. But I’m willing to work with whomever.”
Bryant and Bellamy are just one alliance that sees the movement calling for collaboration rather than competition. To riff off Bellamy’s approach to the Black Lives Matter movement, ideas compete while people collaborate.
Rooted in History & Our City
Bellamy finds solace in history’s heroes like Kwame Ture, pride in Blackness, and energy from and within the movement. But I wanted to know how he balanced his local concerns with his national ones. He was honest in his assessment:
I have no idea…. That was part of the reason of why I wanted to get off the council….to get back to doing the things that I wanted to do, i.e. building with people, doing running clubs, or just going and hanging out in the neighborhoods and just being, you know, Wes.
The City Council period of his life gave him experience being in the public eye, forming and furthering policy, and managing crises from litigation to death threats. He does not have an answer to the secret of balancing his roles as much as a recognition of the complexity: “It’s tough to do both.”
He remains rooted in the Charlottesville community. His neighbors are his friends, his ProlyFyck Running Crew bridges disparate runners over a united cause, and he frequents spaces that hold meaning for him and the Black population of the city.
Tonsler Park is one of those special spaces, what Bellamy called “the Black park…one of the Black Meccas of the city.” The park is where he announced his candidacy in 2013 for City Council, at which he pledged, and certainly ended up fulfilling, to bring “intensity, passion, and dedication” to his work on the Council.
It was at Tonsler, Bellamy reminisced, where each Sunday saw pre-COVID basketball games of 200-300 people, with no fights, and all the people “having a good time.”
It was at Tonsler where he got his COVID test in the center of the basketball court, demonstrating the simplicity and necessity of the test for his community.
Though an Atlanta-born Southerner, Charlottesville did what it often does by taking hold of its visitors and turning them into willing residents. He is now an honorary Charlottesville native. This city, “this whole area is a place where I can just be Wes.” Bellamy is one of the city’s most prominent sons because of how he served the area as a teacher, a city councilor, and now a national champion for a Black Agenda with Our Black Party.
But in the Charlottesville neighborhoods, he is just Wes.
I could’ve done something completely stupid and it will be on the news. But when I’m up the street, they not going to judge me for it. Like, you just Wes, and we got love for you. And we got your back.
Bellamy, as he promised at Tonsler Park years ago, brings an intensity to his work, but that intensity comes from a place of love for his people and for his city.
Though his work has made and continues to make history, Bellamy leans into our city while stepping out onto an increasingly national stage. Ultimately he is hopeful, both for his work and the movement itself: “It’s just about being willing to be open, to evolve, and thinking. And dare yourself to see something differently.”