Sankofa Talk | More intensive antiracism work needed
- Published: March 9, 2023
Last July 4th weekend I had the privilege of attending my 50th high school reunion. My class has had several reunions over the years, and this time there were classmates who were attending for the first time — meaning we hadn’t seen each other in 50 years.
Our gatherings were rich. People seemed to really enjoy reconnecting, sharing memories, and getting caught up on what has been going on in each other’s lives. There was lots of laughter and smiles as we swapped memories of each other growing up in Yellow Springs, memories of our favorite (and not so favorite) teachers, and our 1972 district championship basketball team.
One special memory we had was that beginning in junior high school, our teachers began to expose us to current issues. We got involved with reading Franz Fanon, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Gordon Parks. We had intense and revealing discussions and debates about the Civil Rights Movement unfolding before us.
We became more sensitized to social issues during our high school years. We continued to read books by Black authors, including Ralph Ellison, Maya Angelou, and Claude Brown, and the poetry of Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, LeRoi Jones, Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka. One of the effects of our education is that as a student body and a school, we had a very low tolerance for racism. We lived in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the growing anti-racist development of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and other progressive organizations. Our conversations in classes reflected current events, and we examined our immediate environment.
During my senior year, several students, including myself, were chosen to attend a Black-white encounter session led by the late Dr. Charles King, a nationally known anti-racism trainer. Black-white encounter sessions were intensive interactive sessions led by Black facilitators by which white participants had to confront their own personal and systemic racism. They were popular in the late 1960s and 70s. The sessions were confrontational and intense, and we were charged with bringing them back to the school, which we did. There were efforts to institute a Black history class, which were successful but short-lived. Some of us were getting keen on identifying institutionalized racism, making changes in our immediate environment, and contemplating whether we would continue the efforts after graduating.
I wanted to ask what people were doing to fight the rising tide of white supremacy, but instead, I just listened and discovered no one had really exerted any energy in that direction. Most people had gone on to their careers, raising families, and pursuing what America defines as success. And after all, I didn’t want to distract from our joy of reconnecting after not seeing each other for so long.
Reflecting on our being sensitized to social issues, I couldn’t help but reflect on the racist issues reported by current high school students last spring. Students impacted put together a six-page list of incidents including racial slurs from teachers and white students. There were few or no consequences given after repeated complaints from students. Eventually, a few students organized a walkout in which over 100 students participated.
I’m hoping these issues are being resolved. My question though is, how did Yellow Springs come to foster such an environment that led to these incidents? Despite our touted reputation for social justice, and interracial harmony, has Yellow Springs secretly, silently, begun surfing the waves of racism and white supremacy that have been cascading across the county in recent years? I can’t imagine the incidents raised by students last spring happening during my time at Yellow Springs High School. The culture of the school would not have supported it. I’m not saying that there were no problems, but for the most part when issues came up, they were not allowed to linger and fester.
Recently, I have listened painfully to some Black women friends in town as they described incidents in which they were oppressed and shut down. Their experiences included being “shushed” during group discussions for challenging the course of discussion. White members responded by saying things like, “I don’t want to talk about that right now. Let’s just move on.” It’s the “Shut up and dribble response” to diversity and inclusion. In another instance, I know of a woman who was denied resources, funds requested to promote anti-racist programming in Yellow Springs from a prominent local institution. She was told that resources were not available when in fact, that was not the case. In yet another situation, a Black woman in a position of leadership was told by a white man that she was not wanted at her job, and that efforts were in motion to push her out of her position.
I know that there are anti-racist efforts in town that have attempted to address and limit these kinds of problems. It seems, though, that not enough people are being reached, or perhaps they refuse to engage in a process that brings the reality and depth of their racism to the surface.
This, of course, is nothing new. In “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” King wrote, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America think they have so little to learn.”
The theme of our most recent Dr. Martin Luther King Day program was “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” a phrase Dr. King used during his 1963 speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and again at his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at the Riverside Church in New York in 1967. It was our desire to bring attention to the burning social issues of today, especially locally.
I think that we have scratched the surface with the Courageous Conversations project sponsored by the 365 Project. There are several other projects around town, some spawned by the murder of George Floyd. Given these efforts, however, the question that arises is, “If we are truly to become an anti-racist community, how do we engage the vast majority of the community to make this a place where white supremacy, white domination and racism, including the skin-peeling anti-black microaggressions, have no room to breathe?”
I’m looking forward to this community coming together to formulate answers to this question.