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In Denver with Harold Fields

Posted February 3rd, 2008 by

After Sundance I traveled to Denver, Colorado. My first day there was a day of complete rest with Keila and Jerry DePoorter at their ranch outside Boulder. A peaceful oasis surrounded by acres of protected open space and a view of the mountains provided such solace that napping came easily and was most welcome.

On Monday evening, Keila and I drove into Denver where we met Harold, our Traces of the Trade and Coming to the Table partner, at the LoDo Tattered Cover for a book reading he was helping to support. Dr. Donald Messer, Dr. Steve McCeney, and Rev. Gilbert Caldwell were on hand to discuss their book, Connected Spirits: Friends and Spiritual Journeys. Caldwell, a retired pastor and long-time civil rights leader, also discussed his book, Something Within, a collection of his writings on faith, civil rights, and human rights issues.

The Tattered Cover is an incredible book store. There are three locations in Denver and I was able to visit two of them. The stores are huge, with wide open aisles that make me feel welcome rather than claustrophobic. The staff is friendly. It’s just a great place to be. More in a bit.

On Tuesday, Harold, Keila and I spent two hours meeting with 300 mostly middle school, along with many high school, students at Kent Denver School, a private college-prep school. We showed clips from the film, I read a few excerpts from my book, and we answered questions from the students, teachers, and parents in attendance. The kids, for the most part, were interested and engaged. Honestly, it feels like Inheriting the Trade and Traces of the Trade are primarily geared for high school age and above. I’ve met with as young a group as fifth graders, but it feels more complicated to me given the subject matter. So I was quite pleased with the conversation we had. Our host, English teacher and diversity director Marti Champion, is committed to offering the students at Kent Denver the challenging truths about racism and oppression in the world. Her enthusiasm and talents with the kids is inspiring.

On Wednesday evening, Harold and I met with the “white folks group,” a gathering of about 10 white people who have committed to addressing their own issues regarding race and racism. I’d never met with such a group before and was impressed that these white people were meeting with each other to hold themselves accountable for their own ideas, thoughts and actions surrounding race. It reminded me of the discussions we had during the making of Traces of the Trade about whether white people should focus on talking with white people or with people of color about these issues. Of course the answer is that we need to involve ourselves in varieties of conversations, but talking with other white people is certainly one of the needed elements. Harold has agreed to facilitate this group which has been meeting now for close to a year.

On Thursday morning, after receiving overnight snowfall of about 6″, Harold and I went to East High School (unfortunately, the snow prevented Keila’s traveling to join us) where we met with approximately 300 high school students. We were introduced by Tammy Rhone, an enthusiastic social studies teacher. We were scheduled to meet with them for close to 90 minutes, which felt like a long time–and I know it was for some. Yet the questions students asked were pointed and probing. Many came up to us after our time together ended to ask additional questions and just to talk more. We went to Ms. Rhone’s classroom afterward where she showed us photographs of her own ancestors who were descended from slaves; photos she uses to teach her students. I am impressed with the teachers I met in Denver and the work they are doing in confronting the challenges we face regarding race, diversity, and oppression.

Thursday evening was the main reason I had come to Denver, a book reading and signing at the LoDo Tattered Cover. Prior to the book event, we met several of Harold’s friends for dinner. I was able to meet an author who had a profound impact on my thinking about race. Patricia Raybon wrote a powerful book, My First White Friend, that Katrina told us about in 2001. Her memoir tells of her deep-seated anger and hatred for white people, including those with whom she worked and socialized with a smile on her face and politeness in her interactions. The book details her path to forgiveness. It is an honest and hopeful book. When I read it several years ago, I found an e-mail address for her online and wrote to her, thanking her for her book. She wrote back, happy that her book–published in 1996–was still having a positive impact in the world.

Pat and I sat together at dinner discussing writing and other subjects. She graciously autographed her book for me that I carried throughout these past weeks in anticipation of meeting her. Our connection, through Harold, came because her husband Dan sings in choir Harold also sings in.

Speaking of which, The Spirituals Project Choir, at Harold’s urging, sang two songs at the beginning of the program at the Tattered Cover on Thursday. The purpose of the Spirituals Project is to “preserve and revitalize the music and teachings of the sacred songs called “spirituals,” created and first sung by enslaved Africans in America in the 18th and 19th centuries.” You can purchase CDs of their music here. You’ll love what you hear. I also get to brag that I know several of the members of the choir. In addition to Harold and Dan, Keila has sung in the choir for the past three years and was able to make it into Denver with Jerry for tonight’s performance as well. Harold’s significant other, Claudia, who also accompanied him to our anti-racism training retreat in Cambridge in late December, sings in the choir, as does her close family friend Liz, a young woman who also attended the Sundance Film Festival where she volunteered at The Black House.

Before the choir began singing, a man walked in who I haven’t seen in two years since we attended the Coming to the Table retreat together. I was filled with grief when I learned that on December 9, two of David Works’s daughters were killed, and he was injured, by a gunman at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, about 60 miles outside Denver. When David and I saw each other this night, we didn’t say a word to each other for the longest time. We just held each other in a warm embrace. Then David and Harold did the same. In matters of dealing with tragedy, healing, and forgiveness, David and his family have set an example for us all. I felt so blessed that he made this special trip in order to see Harold and me.

Somewhere around 130-150 people attended the book reading Thursday, which began at 7:30pm. They braved cold, snow, and closed roads due to security concerns with President Bush being in town. This was the largest crowd for my book tour to date. With the stage set by the choir, the whole evening felt enthusiastic and magical to me. Though the store was scheduled to close at 9:00, I signed my last book at 9:30.

Harold did an amazing job of spreading the word among all the groups he’s connected with in Denver to achieve such a great turnout. He’s been involved with the Tattered Cover for many years, leading a large group of people who meet regularly to discuss racial awareness issues. He coordinated having the choir open the evening. He hosted me in his home. I’m blessed by friendship and his presence in my life. I must say that I didn’t sleep very well my last night in Denver. I couldn’t get the choir’s songs to stop playing in my head.

I arrived home late Friday afternoon after 3 1/2 weeks away (far too long at one stretch), and promptly came down with a cold. I now have four events scheduled in Central Oregon this week before heading for Seattle and Portland next week.

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