Sunday, March 02, 2008

Op-Ed on Race Relations in Richmond Times

An intensely scheduled life has kept me from blogging lately - but I have been doing some writing. Here is an op-ed I wrote for black history month that appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch in February.


WINCHESTER Black History Month presents an opportunity to look at the state of race relations in our country. The problem is, we lack processes to examine where we are in that realm. The media once presented proof of injustices that led to the civil rights bat tles. The screen images we now see are fleeting and fractured and there is an unspoken unease around race. We are unsure where to begin, how to proceed, or what we are supposed to be talking about.

Nobody can ignore recent progress; Condoleezza Rice is secretary of state, Sen. Barack Obama is a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Oprah Winfrey is one of the most powerful persons in the entertainment industry. Yet disturbing issues around race constantly bubble up then disappear into the ether without a way for us to make sense of them.

When racial tension around teens in Jena, La., exploded, protesters journeyed south to demonstrate, then everyone went home. A black woman, kidnapped and tortured in West Virginia, has fallen away from our national consciousness. A sportscaster suggested up-and-coming golfers lynch Tiger Woods in an alley. In reporting the story, Golfweek magazine's image of a noose on its cover shows us that something about the way we see, relate, and talk to one another around race is not working.

Five decades ago the country settled its racial struggles through a series of legal battles. That was the first phase of desegregation. Perhaps the unease we continue to experience around race tells us it is time to address these issues on another, more emotional and personal level.

PEACE-BUILDING and conflict resolution experts advocate the use of storytelling as a way to do that. Recently, narrative was used to settle clashes between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and as the main vehicle for South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A North Carolina-based program called The Listening Project interviews citizens in conflicted areas around the world to find hidden keys to social change.

In Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, author and activist Betty Kilby is compelled to tell the story of how violence and racism during the civil rights era affected her life. Kilby was 13 years old when she and 21 other students became plaintiffs in a 1958 court case to desegregate public schools in Warren County. The state of Virginia closed the schools under the state's Massive Resistance laws rather than allow Kilby, her brothers, and black peers access.

Kilby and her family were shot at in their home, and their cattle were poisoned. When the schools desegregated and students returned, Kilby was raped in the auditorium.

It took Kilby more than 40 years to write about her experiences in her 2002 autobiography titled Wit, Will, and Walls. Her story allows one to realize an untold human side of this complex struggle. Children were targeted by the state and suffered deeply. Families were ostracized from their community while many stood by and said nothing. Kilby, depressed and self-destructive, went on to battle racism and misogyny throughout her lifetime.

For me, Kilby's story explains clearly how and why racial tensions rise to the surface today. We are just beginning to deal with the fallout. It hasn't been that long.

REMARKABLY, Betty Kilby's story is not all about trauma. She freed herself from much of the rage of racism. In large part that happened with the awareness that people of all races and classes were relating to her story.

A few years ago at a speaking event, a white man about Kilby's age approached her and said, with obvious emotion, "I just wanted to make sure you were all right." Then he walked away. Kilby said to me, in tears, that she wondered if he was one of the boys involved in the rape. Whether he was or not doesn't change the power of that moment. Kilby's heart is open to the possibility that someone who harmed her violently could have remorse. And a white man in rural Virginia was profoundly affected by Kilby's story.

Betty Kilby understands inherently what conflict resolution experts are eager to tell us: Our stories heal and humanize. They help us find meaning in a conflict and have a unique potential to redirect the past and open options for the future. We don't need to wait for the media to come back from their frenetic jag. Through our stories we have the tools to begin the process of defining where we are on race . . . and where we are able to go.

Paulette Moore is a filmmaker, director, and producer of special projects for Shenandoah University Television in Winchester, and is pursuing a master's degree in conflict transformation at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg. Contact her at (703) 597-7766 or

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