‘A Heart Issue’: How One UVA Family Is Handling Recent Events

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Sanford Williams considers himself a fairly private person. His Facebook posts are mostly about his children, or about attending the Final Four in Minneapolis last year.

But after George Floyd’s murder in that same city two weeks ago, friends and family kept asking him to write something. As director of an office at the Federal Communications Commission  and the chair of the Manassas City School Board, he wanted to speak out, and to share his experience as a black man in America.

So, he wrote.

Sitting down at his home in Manassas Thursday night after work, Williams, a 1996 University of Virginia School of Law graduate, wrote about his family – Hoos, all of them. His wife, Dr. Anastasia Williams, finished medical school at UVA two years after her husband finished law school, and their three children all attended UVA. Kiara Williams, who earned her undergraduate degree in 2011 and a law degree in 2015, is an attorney in California; Sanford Williams, a 2013 graduate, is a resident physician in New York City serving on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic; and Nia Williams, the youngest, is a rising fourth-year student and singer-songwriter who will live on the Lawn next year. Sanford and Anastasia are also co-chairs of the UVA Parents Committee, which they have served on for 13 years.

Williams wrote about the anger all five of them have felt and are feeling, and the despair that comes with each new instance of police brutality. He wrote about how it felt to see the younger Sanford, only in seventh grade at the time, being searched by the police for drugs at a football game when his white friends were not; or how he took his kids with him to the grocery store for years so that people would not see him, a black man, as a threat.

He also wrote about what he hopes we, as individuals and as a country, can do to make this time different and achieve lasting change: Listen, really listen. Educate ourselves about the history of race in America. “Learn about where we have been as a nation and where we are now,” as Williams writes. “Talk to friends of other races. Talk to people of all ages. And talk to children.”

He just kept writing, eventually publishing the essay on Medium, where it has been read and shared hundreds of times.

Across the country, staying with her sister in California, Nia Williams was writing, too. Her words, though, took the form of song, called “Home.”

“I had put a lot of energy into posting paragraphs on paragraphs about what is happening, but I also realized some people don’t receive information well that way,” Nia Williams said. “I kept thinking about how I could story-tell through my music, and maybe reach people who would not typically listen.”

Nia is an interdisciplinary studies major, with concentrations in arts administration, songwriting and African American studies. Her thesis project, which she has already started, analyzes blackness at UVA – “the ways that blackness has or hasn’t changed at the University,” specifically relating to the legacy of slavery on Grounds.

“UVA has such a raw history in slavery that a lot of people still don’t know about,” she said. “I want to talk about what it means to be a black student in this space that was not created for someone like me to attend.”

Part of the project will be an album, titled “The Journey.” One of Nia’s advisers, professor of hip-hop A.D. Carson, produced a 34-song rap album for his dissertation at Clemson University, the first dissertation of its kind at that school.   

“Songwriting has always been kind of like a diary to me,” Williams said. Writing “Home” after Floyd’s death helped her to sort through her own emotions and all of the information online and on television. Like her father, she just sat down in her room one night to write. And the words came flooding out.

“It really did help me center myself and try to figure out where do we go from here, where do I go from here,” she said.  

Nia’s lyrics, and her father’s words on Medium, are continuations of discussions the family has had for decades.

“Their mother is a pediatrician, so they always had lots of information about safety and medicine,” Sanford said. “Similarly, we wanted to make sure they knew who they were, knew the history of African Americans in America and history dating back to Africa, knowing that the history of black people did not begin with slavery.

“We also wanted them to be aware that they would face people who would look at them differently because of the color of their skin; that they might have to work harder, even twice as hard, to succeed; that police and others might look at them differently; that some will judge them fairly and some will not.”

“It’s always been a conversation in our family, about what it means to be black in America and how we can use our privilege to help,” Nia said. “It can be hard, it can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders at times like this, and you feel kind of helpless. But having a family that talks about this openly, and talks about how we can support each other, helps so much.”

“We need to be authentic, vulnerable and honest with ourselves. We have to be honest about race, even when it is uncomfortable. If we don’t do that, we are not going to be able to solve these problems.”

- Sanford Williams

UVA, Sanford said, has changed a lot from when he attended to when his children enrolled, and even from the time his oldest daughter graduated to when his youngest daughter enrolled. Still, he said, much remains to be done.

“Unfortunately, the events of Aug. 11-12, 2017, were a huge eye-opener for many,” he said. “One that has not changed, though, and not just at UVA, is the level of unconscious and conscious bias that exists.”

“Especially as a student, it is really easy to hide out in your own little bubble,” Nia said, noting that she is the currently the only African American in her a cappella group, The Virginia Sil’hooetttes. “We have had extensive conversations on race recently, but it is still easy, as a student, to not invest in the black community at UVA, or to forget that we are here.”

The University, she said, has worked to acknowledge the history of slavery on Grounds, including the opening of a new Memorial to Enslaved Laborers near the Rotunda. Now, she hopes students, faculty and staff can have equally frank conversations about what comes next.

“I think we have reached that first step of acknowledgement, and need to try to figure out where to go from here,” Nia said. “What can we do to move forward? How can we help now? What can we do now?”

Honesty, both father and daughter emphasized, is essential to all those conversations and to any form of change.

“I have been talking to my friends about the importance of listening and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Nia said. “As a black woman, a lot of experiences can feel uncomfortable, maybe being the only black person in a class or an a cappella group. I am asking people who might not have felt that to put in the effort to be uncomfortable, to put themselves in situations that may not be comfortable in order to learn more.”

“We need to be authentic, vulnerable and honest with ourselves,” Sanford Williams said. “We have to be honest about race, even when it is uncomfortable. If we don’t do that, we are not going to be able to solve these problems. … We talk a lot to our children and to our friends, and it helps immensely, and so I would encourage people to talk to their families, to their friends about race and racism. We have to discuss these things, otherwise they can eat us up from the inside.”

As Williams concludes in his Medium essay, “This is a heart issue.”

“You can’t legislate thought; you can’t legislate compassion; and you can’t legislate love,” he wrote. “We are having a moment. We are living through history. The future is now. If we are authentic, vulnerable and honest with ourselves and each other, we can really create a greater place, where we can all breathe. We can do this. Together, we go farther. Black Lives Matter.”

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

Associate Editor Office of University Communications