We began to talk about race, and sometimes it was hard

A dialogue on race between a small group from South Berwick and a small group from Tuskegee began in Alabama and continued six months later in Maine.

By Guy Trammell Jr.

The night I met our new friends from South Berwick, who soon became family, there was a dialogue inside the TuskMac Community Development Corporation. In an evening of introductions, much more than names and vocations were included. We discussed how the ugly monster of racism had wounded and ravaged us all in different ways.

During our incredible visit to South Berwick six months later, we gathered one night at the Library. I learned it was previously a church, and the high ceiling and choir loft confirmed its original purpose. I was quite moved by the “Common Ground” display near the entrance. “Tuskegee” was clearly visible, with Tuskegee books and information for check out.

We were seated, with our hosts and a few new faces, to talk openly about on racism. A South Berwick police officer shared how he had to learn that teaching an African American teen male to drive safely involves more than how to park a car. He needs preparation for being stopped, by police officers, for “Driving While Black”, which is common in Alabama and throughout the U.S.

Many incidents were shared and specific issues were raised, including Confederate flag displays, and the experience of having attended a newly segregated Tuskegee school. Rage was expressed by people from both towns. However, I observed something much more important and overriding: those gathered that night seemed to be looking for understanding of the problem, and — solutions.

Into post-Civil War Alabama came Reconstruction, when formerly enslaved people were building homes, starting businesses and entering government positions. This sudden progress produced a backlash by White Citizens Councils and Knights of the White Camelia, who terrorized these African Americans by night and passed laws to prevent them from gaining more power.

Instead of organizing a force to “pay them back” with more terrorism, Lewis Adams, with Booker T. Washington created a school that produced an army of teachers who developed communities, with opportunities for these former slaves to grow and develop. Instead of attacking the nay sayers, they created an alternative. They baked a better batch of cookies and said, “Here, taste and see!”.

Trying to attack or correct people who actively engage in racist actions will only weary us and wear us down. We should apply our minds in producing something better. I feel Stevie Wonder said it best at Aretha Franklin’s memorial service: “Let’s Make Love Great Again!”

By Amy Miller

How do you talk about race in 90 minutes? What do you say when today might be the only day, maybe in your whole life, that you, a white person, will sit in a room with nine black people and specifically address issues of race?

At the South Berwick library before the dialogue.

In just such a setting, a roomful of (white) people from South Berwick and nine (black) visitors from Tuskegee, Ala., set about to discuss what roles we might each play in issues of racial inequality in this country. I was there as an observer, not a participant. The “deliberative dialogue” at the South Berwick Pubic Library in May had been organized by a few of us on a committee that helped form a sister city relationship between South Berwick and Tuskegee.

Among the remarks I best remember were those of the generally reserved and soft-spoken Tuskegee mayor, who talked at length about what black people face – what he faces – when he is out in the white-dominated world – in other words when he leaves Tuskegee. One of many examples, he said he has been stopped by police more than once in just the next town over.

A Maine police officer made remarks complementing those of the mayor. He acknowledged the difficulty of his decision to attend the discussion, aware that police are often in the limelight when it comes to racial tensions. He indicated he only recently recognized the challenges facing black youth as they learn to drive and face a probability, at least in some communities, of being stopped and questioned more than white kids.

An African American woman asked why white people are so afraid of black people when we control almost all the power, money and media. The answers ranged from “I feel guilty” to “I actually am not afraid of black people.”

I came to the dialogue aware of how African Americans are treated differently – worse, – than me when they drive, not to mention shop, apply for jobs and basically be Americans. I believe the South Berwick folks at the dialogue also have a fairly profound understanding of the injustices faced by Black Americans.

And so there was a part of me that wished the conversation addressed how we might move forward. I wanted to know how people thought the Sister City relationship might work towards a better tomorrow. And I wanted to address the question of why it is so hard to discuss race outside a facilitated dialogue.

Ultimately, though, I came to see that listening might just be a first necessary step in healing. Reading statistics in the newspaper or seeing clips on TV is remote and intellectual. Listening to people who have become friends describe their reality lets us more viscerally understand our different experiences. Perhaps our African American guests were able to open up to us because of a growing trust between our communities and because they knew that afterwards we would drink wine, talk about children and plan our next visit.

As we get to know each other, it seems, this trust and our extensive common ground is what allows us to explore the also extensive divergence in our experience as human beings in America in 2018.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin