In this issue of On, we explore some of the issues around race and ethnicity in Wisconsin. As the national conversation about race has changed in the two years since Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri and protests erupted around the country, so has the opportunity and the imperative for the WHC to be more direct in inviting people to talk about it.
We invite you to read On.
In this issue of On:
- Welcome: From the Director’s Desk
- Featured: Race Matters by Reggie Jackson
- Recently Funded Projects
- In the Spotlight
“A humanities initiative getting people to talk about work is so great! Have you thought ahead, to topics for other statewide conversations? How about race?” asked Jarett Fields, as he and I chatted about the Working Lives Project.
It’s easy to get people talking about work, I told Jarett. And once you hook them, you can get into some more difficult topics, like unions. Or slavery, for that matter. But a project that from the get-go asks people of all colors to come talk about race… that’s a huge challenge because many people aren’t even comfortable saying the word.
At the time when Jarett, who is a past WHC board member, prodded me to consider an initiative on race, it was a couple of months after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson. It was before Tony Robinson was shot by a police officer in Madison. Before the protests in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park following the shooting of Sylville Smith by police last summer. Before Black Lives Matter went from a hashtag to a nationally recognized movement.
Prior to all of these events, I believed we would have a better chance of drawing people of all backgrounds into much-needed reflection on race in America if we invited them in with a low-key approach — in other words, probably through a different door than one prominently marked “race.” I thought we might get there through talking about work.
As the national conversation about race has changed in the two years since Ferguson, so has the opportunity and the imperative for the WHC to be more direct in inviting people to talk about it. Part of what we are seeing now in Wisconsin and elsewhere is a hugely important discussion of law enforcement and people of color. In addition to this discussion, we are also starting to see new and more widespread willingness to really examine the historical evolution, from slavery to this day, of the continued power of racism. Ta-Nehisi Coate’s extraordinary memoir, Between the World and Me, and law professor Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness are two books that have drawn national attention and that are helping to provoke new conversations about race with their penetrating analyses of what it means to be Black in America.
In this issue of ON, you’ll be asked to think about race by Reggie Jackson, head griot and chairman of the board of the America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, a group dedicated to building public awareness of the legacies of slavery and to promoting racial repair, reconciliation, and healing.
I am incredibly grateful that the WHC is able to contribute to the conversation about policing and people of color in Wisconsin thanks to police officer Corey Saffold, one of our ShopTalk presenters. Corey is speaking to people in communities around Wisconsin about his life experience as an African American and a police officer, travelling from Madison, where he works, to places like Eagle, McFarland, Waukesha, and Milwaukee.
In Milwaukee, Jarett Fields has gone from prompting us to talk about race to actively helping us find new ways to use the humanities to speak to the historic and ongoing tensions that touch the lives of African Americans, as well as the city’s Hmong, Latinos, Native Americans, and other people of color. To reach as many Wisconsin communities as possible, we announced a special request for grant proposals and have begun awarding grants to projects that foster meaningful community conversation about race and ethnicity. We are grateful for the NEH’s “Legacy of Race and Ethnicity in the United State” funds that support this grant-making and our special efforts in Milwaukee.
As we continue to broaden and deepen one of the most difficult and most critically important public discussions, we need your ideas, your stories, your voice, and your financial support. This is work that requires all of us.
Dena Wortzel’s day job is as executive director of the WHC. The rest of the time she can be found wrestling hay bales, messing with animals, and watching the grass grow on her farm in Hollandale.
Photo: At one of Corey Safold’s ShopTalk presentations in Milwaukee, audience members discussed local issues of racial inequality and segregation (learn more). Jarett Fields, pictured here speaking, is a former WHC board member who is leading our Milwaukee-based efforts to create and support public humanities programs that explore the legacy of race and ethnicity in this country (learn more).
Essay by Reggie Jackson
My great-grandfather Edward Diltz was born in Tillatoba, Mississippi in 1890, twenty-five years after legalized slavery ended in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Papa, as we called him was a tall, thin man who could have easily passed for white due to the light complexion he inherited from a white grandfather on a small cotton plantation in the northern edges of the Mississippi Delta. He moved his family to Charleston, the county seat of Tallahatchie County, as a young man. He was a skilled carpenter and purchased, from a former pig farmer, a plot of land that he transformed into homes.
I was born in that town and grew up as a young boy on the same ground that pigs joyfully rolled around in their filth. It was a Jim Crow town. Separation of the races was strictly enforced. Separate water fountains, dressing rooms, and seating in the courthouse. As a child I went to swim in the “blacks only” swimming pool. There were no signs by that time but we all knew that the two pools were to be occupied by different people on those hot days of spring and summer. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled twenty-one years before I was born that segregated schools were unconstitutional. The high school in Charleston still has separate proms for its black and white students to this day.
Mississippi, like many other states, resisted the law and refused to integrate its schools for many years. By the time I started school my town had complied with the instructions of the court and allowed black and white children to attend school together. In 1973 my family moved to Milwaukee. I was seven years old and lived in a house on 18th Street just north of Meinecke Avenue.
My first school was then called 20th Street School. After going to school with white children in the most strongly segregationist state in the country, I attended school with only black classmates from 3rd through 8th grades in Milwaukee. Little did I know that I was living in one of the most segregated cities in the country. By ninth grade I caught a city bus to the south side and went to school with whites for the first time since leaving Mississippi six years earlier.
The rules of race were all around but completely invisible to me. I did not recognize segregation as a child. Jim Crow signs often designated separate racial spaces in Mississippi. Milwaukee had Jim Crow spaces too. Blacks and whites were treated differently in stores, schools and lived in different neighborhoods. Racially restrictive covenants prevented blacks from moving out of the central city into the suburbs. These covenants were enforceable by law and in most places stated that only blacks who were domestic workers could occupy spaces in the homes of their white employers.
Race followed me around my entire life without me really noticing. As a young man I joined the U.S. Navy and served on the most famous ship in the fleet, the USS Missouri. The Japanese Emperor signed the treaty ending World War II on that ship in 1945. I was trained as an electrician and lived in a berthing compartment with about forty shipmates. One of my superiors introduced himself to me by telling me he “hated niggers.” I was nineteen or twenty and remember those words as if they were spoken yesterday.
It was my first time feeling race that I can remember. Prior to that moment I had lived in a world insulated from race by ignorance. I knew about the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement from school but did not get it. Many years later I would meet a man who opened my eyes and set me on the path to being what people would call a social justice activist. His name was James Cameron, founder of America’s Black Holocaust Museum and a living survivor of a lynch mob.
Dr. Cameron would become my friend and mentor. He taught me how to research the history of our confusing nation. He loved the law, especially the U.S. Constitution. He thrived in an environment that required strict adherence to the ideals of the Founding Fathers. His vision was of a nation that would live up to the fundamental ideals of the first free Republic founded on the shores of North America. He taught me about his desire to help create a nation that was inhabited by one “single and sacred nationality.”
I’ve taken to this work with a ferocity that matches nothing I’ve ever done before in my life. I’ve been lecturing, presenting and teaching about race since 2002 here in Wisconsin and outside our borders as well. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction out of this work. People ask me all the time why I do what I do, talking about this ugly aspect of American life. I respond by telling them that race is as American as apple pie.
The contours of my life have been impacted by real and hidden racial rules since I was born in a segregated hospital in Mississippi over fifty-one years ago. My mother was forced to enter the “blacks-only” back door of the hospital on that eighty-one degree day I was born. I was fully a grown man before I understood the power of race rules. I feel compelled to study this history and share these stories. As a child of Jim Crow Mississippi and equally Jim Crow Milwaukee I am uniquely qualified to share this history.
I’ve dedicated my life to social justice work because I want to live at least one day in a nation that judges people by the content of their character as Dr. King proclaimed two years before I was born. It’s a worthy cause and benefits us all. In a society that embraces justice all Americans’ lives will be enriched.
Reggie Jackson is chairman of the board of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, a member of the Wisconsin Humanities Council board, and a teacher in Milwaukee.
Image: Charleston, Mississippi. Reggie Jackson in 1970 at age 5, next to his cousin Rose with his great-grandparents Lonnie T. and Edward Diltz in front of the home where Reggie grew up. Image used with permission.
In the Spotlight:
Twenty-five years ago in Baltimore, when Ta-Nehisi Coates was the age of the son to whom he addresses his stunning memoir, Between the World and Me, African Americans comprised 12% of the population. In Oshkosh today, where dozens of people gathered to share their responses to Coates’s book and its stark depiction of racism in America, the African American population is just 3%.
The book and its author, who received the National Book Award last year, have been compared to James Baldwin and The Fire Next Time in their importance. Coates’s portrayal of the lives of Black people, and the perpetuation of racial injustice in America, pulls no punches. Neither does she, says Tracey Robertson, executive director of FIT Oshkosh. FIT recently organized a WHC-funded community reading of Between the World and Me, and offers racial literacy training in Winnebago County year-round.
When the WHC reviewed FIT’s funding request, we loved the idea of the project, but at the same time we wondered how successful Robertson and her colleagues would be in getting people to read such a book in a community, like so many in Wisconsin, where African Americans are an extreme minority. Robertson says that four years ago, when FIT started doing public events aimed at improving understanding about race, they attracted 40 to 50 people every month. This pleased Robertson at the time. But after about three years she felt they were preaching to the choir.
Robertson wanted to reach out, so FIT created a new curriculum and started offering it to the police department, schools, and nonprofits. Her pitch to reach new people was that working on racial literacy is “the right thing to do.” That message was not met with enthusiasm. In fact, it was sometimes met with hostility.
Committed to anti-racism work, Robertson changed her pitch. “The nation is diversifying, so racial literacy is a 21st century skill,” she now explains when talking about FIT’s work. “This is a socio-economic priority for all people.” In Oshkosh, this message resonated with some people, and more began to join the conversation.
Robertson insists that while the language they use to get people in the door has changed, and has been effective in getting more people to feel more comfortable talking about race, nothing in the ensuing discussions is sugar-coated. FIT’s choice of a community reading book offers ample evidence. No one is likely to accuse Ta-Nahisi Coates of sugar-coating.
Photo: Oshkosh residents discuss ‘Between the World and Me’; Photo courtesy of Tracey Robertson/FIT Oshkosh.
When a white state trooper pulled over a black off-duty Madison police officer, Corey Saffold, what did the trooper assume about the man with dreadlocks and a gun – officer Saffold’s service pistol – on the passenger seat? What did the trooper do next?
Saffold shares this and other experiences, both in and out of uniform, as part of his ShopTalk, The Paradox of Being a Black Police Officer Today. Saffold opens his events with video of several police shootings of unarmed black men. He then talks his audience through what he sees in the videos, and his understanding of why these shootings took place. The unjust violence and bias in the videos beg us to ask the question suggested in Saffold’s talk’s title — why, as a black man, Saffold chooses to do the work of policing today.
Saffold’s talk combines personal history with insights into police training and the work he does in a Madison high school, and out in the community. He quickly opens a space for discussion in which audience members feel comfortable sharing stories of police encounters of their own. Many have questions about how police do their jobs, about what they have seen on social media, and what citizens can do to make communities safe for everyone. Saffold responses candidly with knowledge gained during his six years on the Madison police force, and makes sure that everyone is respectfully heard.
At one event in Milwaukee, a woman recalled becoming terrified of police when she was a child, after seeing an officer chase and beat a black boy in her neighborhood. In Madison, someone wrote to Saffold after an event:
We are adoptive parents of black children and work to balance all the current media coverage and advice everyone has for us… Fear was primarily leading my thoughts towards police. This was before I had the privilege to hear you speak… I made the mistake of getting caught up with the social media hype surrounding the arrest at East Towne. I reposted the video with an angry and emotional reaction. I was called out by a former State Patrol Officer. I learned my lesson!!! Again, I appreciate your perspective and have changed my use and consumption of social media. It is not the forum to really connect with people or to change minds or social systems!
In the photo, an audience member at a ShopTalk event at the Pinney Branch Library in Madison helped demonstrate resistance to arrest. To find out about upcoming ShopTalk events with Corey Saffold and our other 25 presenters, go to the WHC’s online calendar. To book a ShopTalk event in your community, browse our ShopTalk catalog and book online here.
Recent events have raised a national call for a more consequential public discussion of the persistent social, economic, cultural, and racial issues that divide our communities. As part of that conversation, the WHC has a special interest in funding projects that foster meaningful community conversations about issues of race and ethnicity. A recent grant to the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission is supporting production of one of a series of short documentaries about the Ojibwe struggle to exercise treaty rights. Fred Tribble (left) returned for filming to Chief Lake where he and his brother tested their treaty rights in 1974 by crossing their tribal reservation boundary to spear fish. Click here for more information about this special grant funding initiative.
Photo: courtesy of C.O. Rasmussen/GLIFWC.
In the wake of the Sherman Park protests this past August, the WHC is working to create and support programs that bring discussions on injustice and race to the broader Milwaukee community. We have been building our local Milwaukee network to ensure our activities are inclusive and accessible. Our program is slated to take place in Spring 2017.
Dasha Kelly is one of the people whose work in Milwaukee inspires us. Immediately after the Sherman Park protests, she and her fellow poets of Still Waters Collective constructed a wooden soapbox and brought it to the park with a microphone, speakers, and chairs. In addition to performing poetry, they invited people, including passersby, to “Get up on the box and get it off your chest.” They planned for one hour but the line of people who wanted to speak encouraged them to extend to two hours. The audience was initially uncertain. As residents took to the box, they were emboldened by the attentive listeners and the uninterrupted airtime for sharing their outlook, questions, emotions, and experience.
Photo: Courtesy of Dasha Kelly.
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