Years ago, I penned a piece, “The N-Word Still Stings,” a day after having the word – rather, the dagger – hurled at me from beer guzzling cowards on the back of a pickup truck while I was out walking in the neighborhood. Which brings us back into the N-word conundrum in February 2020. It continues to raise its ugly head – during African American History Month 2020, mindyou. During “post racial America,” mindyou. During America “made great again,” mindyou.
You see, in a small city in the South, one still reeling from an acrimonious removal of the name of a Confederate general from the local school, a white kid called an African American classmate the “N-Word.” And the black kid’s mom went ballistic. When the local newspaper picked up on this controversy, it published it. Soon the small city deteriorated into a city-wide freak out along racial line.
In one of his legendary “folks, let’s not air our dirty laundry” features, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts began a recent column, “Blacks, too, judge each other by the color of their skin. How sick is that?” with this loaded old folk saying:
“If you’re white, you’re all right. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re black, get back.”
Now the funny – well, no, maybe not always so funny – thing is that every now and then someone will put something out that makes you reflect on your own experience relative to that issue. And that old saying from my past is one.
It was the hug felt and seen around the world. Depending upon their outlook on the situation at hand, different individuals responded differently to the gesture. I am referring to the hug that was delivered to murderer Amber Guyger by Brandt Jean, the brother of slain victim, Botham Jean. As most people who closely followed the case were aware of, Guyger, a Dallas police officer was found guilty by a multi-racial jury and sentenced to a decade in prison.
The fact that she even found guilt sent shock waves throughout much of the Black community and likely the larger society as well, if we are being honest about it. Generally speaking, police, in particular White police officers who shoot and murder Black people, even those Black men and women that are unarmed and pose no direct threat to the officer in question , are often given the benefit of the doubt and exonerated by many juries and the legal system at large. Thus, surprisingly and justifiably, there was a kernel of justice in the verdict that was rendered. The reason I state that some small degree of fairness occurred is due to the fact that in spite of being convicted Guyger’s sentence was considerably lenient given the crime. Moreover, she will be eligible for parole in 2024. A minute modicum of justice indeed.
Like those meddlesome spring dandelions in the front yard, the specter of race keeps coming up as a slap upside the head reminder of how far we’ve come yet how far we need to go. One step forward, two, three, four, five steps back.
Here’s the latest “what the heck was he thinking” moment; one, I add with disgust, broke in the headlines on the first day of African American History Month in a state where 400 years ago the first slaves were hauled off in chains onto the shores in Virginia.
When I arrived at Chattanooga’s Second Missionary Baptist Church, A true Southern gentleman, Pastor Paul McDaniel, met me personally met at the door. Born in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Pastor McDaniel has been part of the Southern landscape and its African American community for most of his life. After attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, he received a Masters of Divinity degree from Colgate-Rochester Divinity School and a Masters of Arts degree from the University of Rochester in New York. A Chattanooga resident since 1966, Rev. McDaniel stepped down from his post at the Second Missionary Baptist Church after almost 50 years of service. A larger-than-life figure in the community, I share our conversation in his honor.
I didn’t know Bill Nordmark. And I’m probably not alone. That is until his name appeared on the obituary page of a local newspaper. “Bill Nordmark fought polio as a child and racism as an adult, all the while believing that one person can make a difference,” the opening paragraph read. Two years ago he embarked on a mission to forge better race relations – two people at a time – through what became known as a “Friendship Initiative.”
You see, that line and the rest of the story about Bill Nordmark (I’ll get to some of it further down), conjured up for me a line from one of my favorite authors, William Faulkner. “You move a mountain one stone at a time!”
NOTE: In part one of this series, My Neighborhood, the author traced his experiences growing up in a small town in segregated America. Part two, The Powerful Voices of Momma Nem, replayed the voices of the black women who raised and held families together during those times. Those two narratives culminated in an idea for a block party. Here is part three of the story.
For us, the block party trek started on one corner and was interrupted along the way to a corner on the far end by surprised looks on faces, hugs, frequent pecks on cheeks and a bite to eat.
On July 4th this year nearly 100 of us participated in the first Baptist Street block party in historic Staunton, Virginia, where folks roamed the bristling street snapping pictures, looking over arts and crafts, chowing down on chicken wings and fried fish, playing games and reconnecting with family and friends they’d not seen in years, decades even. Tears meshed indistinguishably with perspiration as temperatures soared into the low nineties.
Dr. Elwood Watson is an expert on Race, Diversity and Inclusion in the classroom. He is a Professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. His areas of specialty are in 20th Century Post World War II U.S. History, African American History, African American Studies, Gender Studies, Popular Culture, and ethnographic studies. He is one of the editors of Mentoring Faculty of Color: Essays on Professional Development and Advancement in Colleges and Universities. He is the recipient of the Faculty Teaching Award and Faculty Distinguished Research Award from the College of Arts & Science.
Talking about race with people who are different from you can be awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s necessary and doable. Racism exists, racial conflict exists, and inequality still exists.
Even some people who work in the diversity and inclusion field stay in their comfort zone, and still almost only interact with people who are like them.
After facilitating conversations about race and other differences for over 25 years using our 3D Process, (Diversity, Difference and Dialogue.) we’ve found what works and what doesn’t. At the end of this newsletter, you’ll find a few of our best practices.