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Community comes together to discuss state of race relations

The Prizery’s Chastain Theatre was filled to capacity Monday night when the Halifax County Little Theatre and local branch of the NAACP hosted a forum, “Reaching Out, Coming Together” to discuss the importance of “To Kill A Mockingbird” as a great American novel.

Also discussed during the two-hour forum were the changes seen since the book’s publication and the state of race relations in Halifax County today.

Halifax County Little Theatre will present the play “To Kill A Mockingbird” Nov. 18 through 28 at The Prizery in honor of the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

Prior to Monday night’s forum, the president of the South Boston/Halifax County Branch of the NAACP announced the organization does not support the play, saying it does not support or condone the use of the “n-word” by anyone.

“This has been the stance of the organization since July 9, 2007. Therefore, let it be clear, that the local branch of the NAACP is not supporting, sponsoring or participating in the production of the play, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ put on by the Halifax County Little Theatre (HCLT),” said Kevin L. Chandler, branch president of the local NAACP.

Chandler said the NAACP worked with the HCLT to present Monday night’s community race relations forum.

However he added, “Any other activities pertaining to the play is sponsored solely by the HCLT.”

Monday night’s discussion centered on race relations in the novel, how much has changed in the last 50 years, why change has been so painful in certain areas, and how citizens can be positive influences of change in this community today. 

Panelists included the Rev. Margaret F. Coleman of First Baptist Church, Ferry Street, South Boston, Halifax County Little Theatre board member Melissa Elmes, the Rev. William A. Keen of Traynham Grove Baptist Church, Elizabeth Layne, a 12th-grade CL English teacher at Halifax County High School, the Rev. Russell Lee of First Presbyterian Church of South Boston, and the Rev. Whitfield Scott of Piney Grove Baptist Church.

95.3 WHLF-FM General Manager Nick Long moderated the discussion asking panelists to discuss a series of prepared questions and then opening up the questioning to the audience.

Panelists offered examples of how racism had affected their lives and moved to reasons why people call other people names.
Rev. Lee suggested name-calling is a defense mechanism people use to elevate themselves above others by putting people down.

Layne said she had spent an entire class earlier Monday discussing with students why they call each other names.

“It is a way to make people feel better to put other people down, and we decided name calling also takes away the personality of a person and categorizes them so you’re not seeing that person as a person but as a group,” she added.

Rev. Keen said name-calling is done to hurt a person and make them feel less than what they really are.

Rev. Scott told those in the audience, “You’re not here for any junk. When we call someone a name, it’s the most accurate weapon you have that moment to create hurt. If I call you something and get your attention, I have accomplished my mission. And most of the time they reach down to the bottom of the barrel,” he said speaking of those who resort to name-calling.

“People say ‘get over it,’ but sometimes the puncture to your soul is so deep and so wide that you can’t do it by yourself,” Scott said.

Keen explained in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the citizens of Maycomb are willing to send money to people in Africa, but there is a disconnect with the way they relate to the African Americans in their own community “because in the novel they constantly use the ‘n word’ when they talk about that community.”

He added, “They didn’t have respect for the people in their own community, but they would give to foreign missions so they could say they were God-fearing Christians.”

Layne, a self-described literature lover, pointed out author Harper Lee “intentionally showed the prejudice attitude of many people in the town to show that only common people use the ‘n word,’ and so it is used there to show what we should not do. I think that’s Harper Lee’s purpose in the novel.”

She said the name is hurtful and degrading, but she maintained the author is not praising the use of the “n word” but rather showing it is “ignorant people who use it.”

Rev. Coleman said she read the book as a Halifax County student and at the time didn’t understand the emotions she was feeling as an 11th grade student.

“I just read it again last week, and I felt that same kind of emotion, and now I can put a label to it, it was sheer horror,” she said.

She said she understood it was common vernacular to use the “n word” when Lee wrote the novel.

“When I read it, I tried to read it through the lens of the author, and I tried to see what some people are trying to describe as a ‘compassionate writing.’ It’s still a very difficult read, and seeing that this county is trying to legitimize why this particular book needs to be on the shelves and in the theatre for people to see, that it is going to bring some sort of healing, it is no way this book is going to bring healing,” she said receiving loud applause from those in the audience.

She agreed the racism conversation is “overdue,” however, she quickly added, “It does not bring healing to African Americans.

It does not give me a sense of hope that when my young African American children of color, when my Caucasian students read this book that they are going to run outside and say ‘I’ve got to be nice to everybody.’ If it happens, I applaud this and will eat my words, but I don’t see it happening.”

Layne commented on Coleman’s remarks saying this was the first time in her life she remembers the community having such an open discussion on racial issues.

“I think Harper Lee holds up a mirror to society.  We don’t like what we see when we hold up this mirror. It bothers us, and that is the job of literature at times to bother us, but it doesn’t change the truth to take the mirror away,” Layne said, explaining Lee was reflecting racism in society of that day.

Elmes suggested the book was “never intended to bring healing.”

Instead it was the author’s attempt to show what was real and true and an attempt to show what was wrong with society.

“We’re dealing with this issue 50 years after this book was written. It’s not time to take it off the shelves and say it never happened,” Elmes added. “It’s time to say this happened, and it can happen again in any society and with any group of people. Race is bigger than just the American South. This is where we start, where we say don’t let this happen here.”

As discussion continued, panelist Keen pointed out the modern American court system today is based on economics.

“If you can’t afford an attorney, you can not win a case in court. And when you come to court, in most cases the judges are not African American, and if they are African American, they are afraid to lose their position.”

Keen added, “The court has always been skewed on a racial term.”

Fellow panelist Scott said America has always had a problem with “facing reality.”

“The problem with our judicial system is when dealing with blacks, they are punished by the law, but when it comes to the whites, they are punished by discretion,” he said. “And that means you don’t get the same for the same, and that hasn’t changed. We have to face reality that all of us have rights by the Constitution to have full freedom and not substitution freedom.”

Coleman said this disparity is portrayed in the media who “highlights crimes committed by people of color.

“Even in our local paper, traditionally you will find African Americans’ pictures splattered on the front pages. We know Caucasians commit crimes, but you will not see that portrayed in the media. We need to face reality, tell the truth, recognize there is a problem, and then we can find a solution,” Coleman said, noting that it is a painful subject to confront.

When moderator Long asked panelists why they believe the “n word” is still used today despite the painful feelings it arouses, panelist Lee responded that in some ways he believes it is more hurtful now because people know the pain it causes, and when they do it, it is to intentionally cause hurt.

Layne said students had informed her the “n word” is freely used among blacks and whites, and they are seldom offended by it.

“The black kids call the white kids that, the white kids call the black kids that, and they understand each other, and there is no problem. Everybody knows it is embraced by the rap culture, and what I have read about that is it is used to take away the demonic nature of the word. If we use it everyday, if we call ourselves that, then it is no longer a racial slur,” she said.

The moderator suggested rappers use the word to diffuse tension but added, “I don’t think it’s working.”

Coleman said racism and using the “n word” “dehumanizes and makes a person less than.”

She suggested young people are not educated about their past, so a disconnect does exist between the rap culture and her generation.

“They have no clue about enslavement,” and this will not change until we change what textbooks and classrooms look like and what they’re being taught.

Layne responded that is the reason this book should not be banned, because it shows what society was like in the 30s.
“This is what we don’t want,” she added.

Also discussed Monday night is the segregation that occurs in this community each Sunday morning during the worship hour, “the most segregated hour in America.”

Scott said it is because it is the one time groups can “legitimately and legally be separated without getting any feedback.”
Lee suggested it is “a matter of choice.”

Layne said her students suggested it is because the law is not involved. “People do as they want to do,” she said.

Keen suggested “white supremacy is the order of the day,” and religion is racist because African Americans had been presented a blonde haired, blue-eyed Jesus.

“We pray thank you Lord for delivering us. When the white church prays, it prays thank you Lord that I’m not oppressed,” so he concluded the worship services will stay separate until “all of us come to unite in the concept of forgiveness and atonement. That’s not happening.”

Coleman said when African Americans were offered the freedom to assemble, “it became one of those things that became territorial for us.”

She agreed it is hard to build a diversified congregation where everyone can feel comfortable.

Layne responded to Keen’s comment about white supremacy being the order of the day pointing out America now has an African American president, Halifax County has African American principals at both the high school and middle school, the CEO of the local YMCA is African American, and both the chairman of the school board and board of supervisors are African Americans.

“So when you say white supremacy is the order of the day, I think Halifax County is moving” toward progress, Layne said.
Later in the discussion, she pointed out she sees African American students segregating themselves at Halifax County High School every day in the cafeteria while she is on cafeteria duty.

“I don’t know why. That’s what they’re choosing to do,” she said.

However, Layne said she has seen changes pointing to united church services held at her parents’ church “in the country,” Childrey Baptist, and a nearby African American church, Shiloh Baptist.

“Now people from Shiloh come to Childrey and sing, and people from Childrey go to Shiloh to sing, and this is in the country, so I see progress. They’re doing it by choice,” she added.

Following the panel discussion, a young person in the audience suggested another forum be held with people from a younger generation being on the panel to discuss racism issues in the community.

Ernelle Bellamy said people in the younger generation realize the use of the “n word” is never going to stop.

“Using the ‘n word’ is a term of endearment for young people, so basically, the rappers are taking control of the children. The older generation knows what this word means. They need to be teaching it at home,” he added.

He said adults need to teach the younger generation that “this is something you shouldn’t be doing.”

Gayle C. Hudert said, “We are not going to eradicate racism until we eradicate stupidity, and that’s never going to happen.”

She suggested cultural differences are fine, and that’s why everyone does not want to attend the same church.

Clarence Richardson commented attendance at Monday night’s forum represented the most people he had ever seen at a Prizery event since it’s been open which makes a statement.

“If this play takes place, I can’t see it making a big difference in my life or my children’s life, basically because I’ve educated and talked to them about racism, classism, sexism and everything else. This is something I think needs to be discussed, But to me I think it is a shame that everyone is here, and when there is an open house and PTA meeting, kids graduating with less than an equivalency diploma, that’s being brushed aside. This is a play. We are trying to put kids in college,” he said.

Toward the conclusion of the forum, Rev. Frank Coleman, pastor of First Baptist Church on Ferry Street, said it seems “we are evading the fact the ‘n word’ is going to be used in the play. For me, as pastor of First Baptist Church representing my congregation and other African Americans as well, we are going to certainly be against this and actively protest this play.”

He asked panelists to give him one good reason why the play should be presented, adding, “Don’t tell me art because it’s not art to us. Don’t tell me it’s for education because you just proved it’s not for education. Don’t tell me it’s for bringing us together because you know this play is going to hurt us.”

Layne responded, “’To Kill a Mockingbird’ shows the poison of the word. That’s exactly what it does.”

Coleman asked, “Which line in the book gives me that. Tell me because I want to read it.”

Elmes acknowledged the play is causing pain and hurt for people in the county.

“It has caused pain and hurt in many, many places. The reason I feel it is the right play at the right time is because of the greater issues of racism. If we choose to squash it and not show it on stage honestly as it was written and as it was intended, then we are evading the very issues we are trying to speak to and trying to find a vocabulary and dialogue for,” she said.

“It is the right play at the right time because we in this country are in danger of losing everything that we have gained in terms of race relations in our community  because we choose willfully not to look at it,” Elmes added.

A young white man who didn’t identify himself offered his opinion saying to change the “n word” in the play to a euphemism such as negro would not educate anyone, and “the sentimental value of the play will be degraded.”

A black youth asked why one book is expected to be a miracle cure for racism.

“This book brings discussion. I read this book, and I loved this book,” he added.

Brian Brooks, a 17-year-old African American HCHS student, suggested people not judge each other by the color of their skin.
Pastor Michael Byrd told those in attendance he is totally against the production of the play because “our children need to know they are more than an ‘n word.”’

Panelist Coleman agreed saying, “The director has brought in a play that only stimulates and perpetuates the horror and hurt that African Americans have felt. Why this particular novel?” she asked. ”If the NAACP had never alerted and raised a red flag, would you have entertained yourself to have a forum like this?”

Michael Freshour, the county’s assistant commonwealth’s attorney and director of the play, responded, “Yes. I did entertain. I approached the NAACP in February and said let’s partner together, and I was told they had no interest in helping. I’m not blind to what’s going on, I know the ‘n word’ plucks nerves all over the place.

“I wanted this forum because this is a beginning. I can’t say or do anything that will change race relations. But let me ask you, if we weren’t having this play, would we be having this discussion now?”

Freshour said by having this play he was hoping to get people to talk to each other.

Answering the question why have the play now, the director replied, “The idea of the play from my perspective is you stand up for what’s right because it’s the right thing to do. The message is we can’t let it happen again, and it still is germane today.”

Elmes noted the theme of the novel is tolerance, and Layne suggested everyone read the book. “If you read the book, you see the message.”

Panelist Scott concluded the meeting saying, “Here is the clincher, if we’re not going to do anything more than come to historical meetings, then we might as well have stayed at home.

“We can not overlook the facts of the past. I can tell you from my research that instead of freedom, we got bondage under new management.”