Over the weekend our college witnessed a remarkable theatrical event. Caleen Sinnette Jennings, a theater professor at American University, spent a sabbatical semester at St. Mary’s interviewing our students and crafting a play about race relations. Over the years I have been involved in numerous efforts to facilitate racial dialogue, but I’ve never seen it done as successfully as it was in St. Mary’s Hear and Now.
The weeks-long project began with Jennings interviewing scores of students about race at St. Mary’s. She then fashioned what she heard into a play and had a handful of students engage in scripted conversations about a host of topics. Some of the material from the interviews was put to music or set in rhyme
Americans (and others) often fear discussing race because they fear the subject is too painful. What they fail to realize is that the pain is already present—as a nation we are still twisted in internal knots by the subject—and a well-facilitated conversation actually comes as an immense relief. That was how the audience experienced Jennings’ play.
Among the issues we saw raised were black oversensitivity, white insensitivity, the n-word, roommate disagreements, different musical tastes, unconscious racism, self-segregation, the danger of making categorical statements, the challenge of asking difficult questions, and (a particularly volatile issue) the question of black hair.
The Slovene exchange student who lives with us was the one white male in the play–although, as he pointed out, he is half Bosnian, which makes him a target of ethnic slurs by certain of his own countrymen. The playwright used him to great effect as an outsider in America’s race conversations, especially as an innocent trying to understand how people use the n-word.
Former black students who took my “Minority Literature” classes back in the 1980′s and 1990’s returned to campus to watch the production and were amazed by how openly it confronted the land mines. Afterwards we talked about the contentious debates we had had years ago when we read and discussed Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, Lucille Clifton’s Quilting and other works. As I look back at some very testy classes, I realize that we didn’t talk about the contradictions as well as St. Mary’s Hear and Now did. The black students had been angry at the whites–but of course, these were white students who had chosen to take to take a minority literature course. The white students had been angry at the blacks–but these were black students who had often chosen to buck their communities and come to a predominantly white college. Both groups privately admitted that they had very different conversations about race when they went back to their home communities. The play addressed such issues head-on whereas my literature course often skirted around them.
And yet, as inexpertly as I moderated the discussions, vital things were learned. Alumni from those courses, both black and white, talk positively about them to this day.
I have come to the conclusion that there is no place “above it all” to talk about race because we are always enmeshed in it. Yet as difficult as the conversations are, we have no choice but to have them. As I said, it’s ultimately easier, and far more healing, to talk about race than not.