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Discussing “race” in Kalamazoo

Posted April 13th, 2010 by

I recently completed what is likely my last public presentation in connection with Inheriting the Trade for awhile. I don’t anticipate any speaking appearances until at least mid-September. When we schedule future appearances I hope that many of the organizers will follow the highly successful model that was employed last week in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Donna Odom is the president of the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society (SMBHS). I just mailed in my membership application. I’m hopeful that as a result of all the powerful encounters people in Kalamazoo had last week that SMBHS will now gain many more new members.

Donna contacted me last year through my publisher (Beacon Press) to discuss the possibility of my speaking in Kalamazoo as one part of a series of events designed to engage community members in serious discussions about “race” in advance of the “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibit that is coming to the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in October.

I’m blessed to have had many wonderful experiences working with colleges and community groups over the past two years. Working with Donna and her team provides another great example of how to put together a successful series of events that will hopefully move people to action. You can view photos from my two days in Kalamazoo here.

The SMBHS partnered with the Fetzer Institute, the Kalamazoo Race Exhibit Initiative, and many volunteers to plan several different events for community members to participate in. Over the course of two days (April 8-9) I stayed quite busy.

On Thursday afternoon I met for two hours with students in an anthropology class (African Cultures in the Context of Globalization) at Kalamazoo College to discuss my 2001 journey to Ghana that led to my writing Inheriting the Trade and some of the images and assumptions I had about Africa that were dismantled during that process. We also discussed the effects of the slave trade on Africa as I have come to understand them through my journey and subsequent research.

The Little Theater at Western Michigan University (WMU) was packed that evening for a screening of Traces of the Trade. The discussion that followed was rich and powerful as folks shared their stories about how their own lives are impacted by race and the legacy of enslavement in the United States as well as thoughts on healing.

On Friday morning I met with several members of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan regarding the work they are doing to dismantle racism in their lives and congregations. The luncheon held at The Fetzer Center at WMU sold out. Students from Phoenix High School, a highly regarded alternative school in Kalamazoo were among those in attendance at both the screening Thursday evening as well as the luncheon. We discussed Inheriting the Trade, how racism continues to impact all of us today, and more thoughts on healing and offering each other grace and respect. Each attendee received a signed copy of Inheriting the Trade. The students from Phoenix High will read it and then we will meet once again, via Skype, to discuss it. I can’t wait!

The final event was a reception for educators at the Kalamazoo YWCA at which we discussed some of the opportunities and difficulties teachers face in presenting challenging information in the classroom. I was particularly pleased that we met at the YWCA, whose mission is “eliminating racism, empowering women.”

I know one thing for certain. If the dedication and passion of the organizers transformed automatically into results then difficulties arising from racism in Kalamazoo, Michigan would be over. Of course, that is not the case. It will take continued commitment from the good folks who organized these events, people who attended, and those whose lives will be touched as a result.

Here are a few things I hope will result from our work together last week:

  1. Many new people will join Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society (here’s a link to the membership form)
  2. New partnerships will form among natural allies in this work from schools, churches, and the community at large.
  3. More people will know about the Race Exhibit and check it out when it arrives. For those of you who live somewhere other than Michigan, here’s the link to the schedule of all the museums around the country at which the exhibit will visit over the next few years. From the website:

RACE: Are we so Different? is a powerful, thought-provoking family exhibit which uses history, science and lived experience, to explore human variation and reveal the reality – and unreality – of race. Through film, still photography, interactive components and programming, the exhibit invites us to explore race as well as the impact of race as an economic, political and cultural construct.

I love meeting with folks around the country. I hope that the stories of our family journey, the film and book, will inspire many people to take action in their own lives and communities to undo racism and other forms of oppression. Whenever I return home from a trip such as this recent one to Kalamazoo I realize that people will either shift the way they walk in the world in some important ways–or–watch the powerful events of last week fade into a dot on their life’s road map.

I hope many folks in Kalamazoo choose the former.

One response to “Discussing “race” in Kalamazoo”

  1. […] first learned about RACE: Are We So Different? in advance of my April 2010 work with the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The exhibit was about to visit the Kalamazoo Valley Museum that year. My […]

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