Charlottesville Anti-Racism Activist Zyahna Bryant Reimagines Race and Space
A conversation with one of the nation’s foremost young activists
My favorite image of Zyahna Bryant is one of her standing before Charlottesville, Virginia’s statue of Robert E. Lee. The 19-year-old activist seems to face it down as well as anyone who might oppose her demands to have it removed.
It began in 2016, when Bryant, then a freshman at Charlottesville High School, started a petition to remove the monument. Her work culminated in the city council voting for its removal, followed by the Unite the Right rally in the summer of 2017 that drew white supremacists to the city’s streets. A counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was murdered that day.
Three years later, the Lee statue still stands, though its time as part of the city’s central landscape may end soon. For Bryant, the figure is an important symbol of a false narrative that needs to come down, yet she tells me, “My personal work is bigger than just statues.”
The momentum of the moment
Bryant coordinates protests and events, appears on panels, has written a book, and was featured in Teen Vogue. She’s also a student at the University of Virginia, where she serves on the Virginia African American Advisory Board as the education subcommittee co-chair. Bryant is the youngest committee member, and that does not hold her back at all from making space for what she often calls “the work.”
She is willing to serve, but not as a puppet — eager to lend her expertise and voice but not to remain silent when people do not do the hard work of truth-telling. That’s evident by her resignation from the Council on UVA-Community Partnerships when the university president, James Ryan, had a muted first response following the death of George Floyd. He has since issued a second statement.
While Bryant is active and engaged, she is not overworked. “I’m more a less-is-more kind of person,” she says, and I believe her. She expresses such an awareness of the necessity of the fight for…