By Zach Sparks
“We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Chesapeake High School students of all races and religions put away their textbooks on February 7 and engaged in a lively discussion about black heritage and equality, both within the context of history and within the halls of the Pasadena institution.
The history of black music, schools and literature was covered by guests Demetrius Diakhate, Tony and Vivian Spencer, and the Rev. Jay Offer, Chesapeake’s community ambassador. Sergeant Sean Chase shared tales of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black pilots who fought in World War II.
A mixed panel of students and adults debated ways of improving race relations. Performance coach and student mentor Aziz Abdur-Ra'oof compared the teamwork displayed by the recent region champion Chesapeake cheerleading team to the schoolwide effort needed for everyone to get along.
Science teacher Debora Gaskins talked about growing up in Savannah, Georgia, when schools were segregated in the ‘60s. She said other students asked her whether she could wash the color off her face or if she could change colors.
“By the time we got to seventh grade, my school was so bad in the integration that the National Guard came in and we were escorted from class to class by green berets carrying an AK47,” she said.
“We called ourselves the Jumpout Gang when we got off the school bus because what they did was — the parents, everybody didn’t want us there — rocks, bottles, eggs, tomatoes were thrown at us,” she said. “I’m in seventh grade. We called ourselves the Jumpout Gang because we stood at the school bus and when the doors opened, they pushed you out swinging because that was the only way you were going to make it through to get to the school. So today, I live the dream Dr. King talked about because when I come to school every day or to work, as an African-American woman who lived that, I now teach diverse students. I see students of every color.”
Continuing the conversation of unity were Lynda Davis and Thornell Jones of the Annapolis affiliate of Coming to the Table, an organization that provides leadership, resources, and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism.
“None of us are racist,” Jones said. “We really don’t understand when we step on somebody. That’s what we’re talking about here: unconscious bias.”
Davis and Jones asked for volunteers, black and white, to join them in a circle so they could share their feelings and experiences. After the panel discussion, Davis said the Coming to the Table approach is effective because it encourages compassion.
“When they take turns and speak, each person has a chance to think about what they want to say and it’s not anybody just reacting to what somebody just said,” noted Davis, who graduated from Chesapeake in 1984. “You take your turn, you take your time. It’s a very mindful way of speaking, and also you can pass and then also you can reflect on something to add. It’s an equalizing process so that everyone in the circle is equal and then you’re hearing from people’s personal experiences. It really touches your heart.”
To bridge the race gap, Jones leads monthly Coming to the Table conversations at Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. He wanted to share this knowledge with the younger generation.
“I just want to help kids have a decent understanding about things they think they know,” he said, “because I can tell you about all the things I thought I knew and I’m still learning and I’m 81.”
While some of the day’s discussion centered on the past, Offer emphasized the bright outlook he sees for the future if everyone can learn to express empathy and live together as brothers and sisters.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but all of the work doesn’t belong you as a non-minority and all the work doesn’t belong to me as a minority,” Offer said. “There’s work we have to do together and that’s what I’m learning as we have this conversation. We have to have patience with each other, patience with ourselves, forgiveness for each other and forgiveness for ourselves.”