Thirty-eight local teenagers undertook an incredible journey this spring. They and their chaperones left Evanston on March 26 on a journey of learning about racism past and present in their country, their towns and schools, and in themselves.
It was a Sankofa journey – from a Ghanian expression meaning “Go back and take it” – and that is what these young men and women did over Passover and Holy Week: Their intention, the teens say, was to go back to the past and take what they can from it to make positive change for the future.
The Evanston RoundTable joined Second Baptist Church and guests, many from Beth Emet Synagogue, for a Sunday morning service that included a presentation about their 6-day Sankofa journey south to three states, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, including five cities, Atlanta, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham and Memphis. Their destinations were the locations of critical events of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States’ South, including the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Abby Rosenbaum, Adrianna Carter, Ann Sayre, Anni Zuckert, Brandi Efiom, Carleigh Milam, Christian Horn, Daniel Antman, Emily Isaacson, Erika Carter, Elliot Schwarz, Fatouma Hewitt, Hannah Kaplan, Hannah Raus, Julia Bartol, Jasmane Quinn, Jovaun Woolford, Leor Miller, Lily Finnegan, Liora London, Mabel Frank, Mariel Oettinger, M.D.S. Shelton, Micah Feldman, Mickey Manton, Nadjeda Smith, Nkosi Evans, Noa Solomon, Rena Newman, Renaye Barnes, Sadie Hurwitz, Sam Manton, Sarina Siegel, Seth Bearman, Sydney Ransom, Tifanie Layne, Thulani Thomas and Zaria Sawyer are students at Evanston Township High School and other local high schools, ranging from 15 to 18 years of age. Most are members of Second Baptist Church on Benson Street or Beth Emet Synagogue on Dempster Street.
At the church on May 5, a small group of African American and white teenagers left their seats and went to the front. Sarina Ellenbogen-Siegel began: “It is a bright and sunny day in Memphis, Tenn.; almost completely in contrast to what I’m feeling as I look up to the numbers ‘306,’ the wreath on the ledge. This is the place of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The death of a dreamer. There is a large sign: Lorraine Motel.”
Jasmane Quinn spoke next of her own powerful emotions: “Before stepping on the platform my heart trembled in fear. … [We were] going to walk the same footsteps as Dr. King walked before … that tragic day.”
Racism Still Exists; ‘Colorblindness’ Means Ignoring Inequality
After the service at Second Baptist where they presented, a number of the students met with the RoundTable and talked about Sankofa and what it has meant to all of them.
The students said that before the trip they had the basics – general ideas of what had happened during the Civil Rights era. They had studied it in school, certainly. But studying is not the same as experiencing – and experiencing, they said, led to greater consciousness of the racism that is part of society today.
Thulani Thomas said, “I didn’t even know about all these places…. Civil rights monuments deep in the South. … I don’t think anyone really knew what we were getting into. You can’t get this in a text book.”
Mark D. Shelton added, “I think I’ve always had an interest in issues of race. … [Now], with Obama, there’s a question of a new racism. … [People act] ‘color blind’ so they don’t have to mention race. We have this ‘color blindness’ obstruction.”
Hannah Kaplan said simply, “It’s not fair to be color blind.” She said that equality doesn’t mean giving everyone the same thing, that racism is “a lot more subtle than it used to be.”
It is systemic and systematic, the teens said.
The sound of fingers snapping rose at times during the discussion, especially when Rena Newman and Jasmane Quinn brought up “quiet racism.” The students explained that snapping their fingers to indicate agreement with what someone is saying came about on their trip – a way to affirm without interrupting.
Jasmane said, “I see [quiet racism] a lot in school. There are more whites in Advanced Placement (AP) classes than blacks,” she said. “They don’t push us; they tell us we can’t.”
Christian Horn, who lives in Deerfield, said, “There are only about 10 black kids in the whole school. I’m the only black kid in AP.” A senior, he talked about how more than one counselor had tried to prevent him from applying to the college he most wanted to attend. “Lots of counselors tried to keep me down. In your college searches,” he said, “you all are going to find this soon.”
Thulani agreed. “It’s a cookie-cutter system. They don’t push you to limits you could reach. I see that at Niles North, too.” Mark D. said, “They don’t have
high hopes for us. Color is perceived as related to economic status, especially in the educational environment.” He added, “Knowing Evanston, people try to do the right thing. …”
Liora London said, “It could also be the kids choosing not to take classes – they’re intimidated. Social expectations [can put them off].”
The sounds of finger-snapping arose.
Emily Isaacson added another example of “hidden” or quiet racism. She said, “If you walk into a store, your retail experience is different depending on what race you are. Especially in a 7-Eleven.” Others agreed.
Sydney Ransom talked about her friend’s experience at the civil rights museum. She was walking quickly, and a white lady clutched her purse and her child as she passed. That this was at the civil rights museum clearly made it worse to all the teens.
“When it happens all the time,” Sydney said, “you realize all these times [people treat you like this] were no coincidence.”
The journey was led by Reverend Velda Love, assistant pastor at Second Baptist and director of Justice and Intercultural Learning at North Park University. North Park offers Sankofa: Racial Righteousness and Reconciliation as part of its curriculum. Rev. Love did the course as a student at North Park in 2003, taught at the time by Rev. Kazi Joshua. She said she initially did not want to go; she thought the younger students might not get it.
“We went south, Thursday through Sunday, after six weeks of meeting in class, and met for six weeks again after the trip. It was an amazing experience [that made] deeper relationships and trust, being in the South in places with people who lived through [that time], who were able to speak from personal experience, [who could talk about] what still exists as well as changes.”
After experiencing Sankofa for herself, she says, Rev. Love became an intern in the Center for Justice Ministries at North Park. After graduating in 2006, she started co-teaching it with Professor Richard Carlson, who recently retired. Since then Rev. Love has led Sankofa by herself. This is the first time, she said, that she has led an interfaith group; it is also the first time with teenagers.
“I recognized,” she said, “that our public school learning is very ‘abbreviated’ in the formative years. “It is very eurocentric and encourages fear of conversation about racism,” she said. “People are unaware of social controls that African Americans lived under before and under which they still live. African Americans have only been able recently to acquire education,” Rev. Love explained. “The poorest of those even after slavery ended didn’t get educated.” Further, she pointed out, “Africans were never immigrants. They were never able to stay together. There was no continuity of family relationships, ancestry, nationality.”
She said, “If this is not known, we’re continuing to raise kids without awareness, continuing to think everything is okay. … [We want to] raise expectations that African American students deserve to be in the same place as white students. Young people should not be afraid of one another. Since the trip they seek each other out. [They say] it gave me language and it gave me relationship.”
Beth Emet Senior Rabbi Andrea London embraced the Sankofa experience wholeheartedly. She said the 20-year-long relationship between Second Baptist and Beth Emet has deepened in the last few years. When Pastor Mark Dennis approached her, saying he felt they could do more, she agreed. Beth Emet invited Second Baptist to join them for Shabbat services on Martin Luther King weekend, Jan. 13, 2012. The two institutions’ congregants cooked and ate the Sabbath dinner together, and together they listened to the recording of the speech Dr. King gave at Beth Emet exactly 54 years before on Jan.13, 1958.
“It was at the follow-up meeting, when we were going through comment cards, that Rev. Love mentioned the trip idea. I thought, ‘That sounds amazing,’” said Rabbi London.
“The kids say Evanston has ‘drive-by diversity,’” she said. “The point was to go deeper, create the relationships.” The students were able to get together only once before the actual trip. Rabbi London said, “The orientation session was tough. There was [a lot of] nervousness. Pairing [one black and one white in each pair] made kids nervous – they didn’t want to do it.” They had a ‘no electronics’ policy, too: “We wanted them to be immersed. We didn’t want them to be in touch with home.”
“We did so much training on the bus. We watched [the movie] “Us and Them,” documentaries on the Freedom Riders and on Emmet Till, “From Swastika to Jim Crow.” … We talked about them – we did lots of talking. We processed with each other and then [a teen] would come up with their partner and talk in the mike. … From Day One to Day Six they have grown so much; thoughtful, concerned about issues in life,” said Rabbi London. “Watching the kids support each other, challenge each other, question each other was so powerful.”
After their Journey, the Start of Another
The students strongly agree that they are more aware than they were before Sankofa of what goes on around them.
At Second Baptist after the presention, one student said she pays more attention to how she may be racist herself, and she is trying to get others to change. “I’m
trying to pass on this knowledge to others,” she said.
After the Sunday Service, participants commented on the experience:
“I go to New Trier. I have 18 black friends.”
“I have to trace the steps of my African American heritage, say thanks to my grandparents. I’m grateful to have Jewish friends.”
“I’m now aware that the majority of society is not aware of this issue, and it’s my job to make society aware.”
“I’ve got the ability to ask questions – to feel comfortable enough to ask questions. This enriches how I act every day.”
Leor Miller, who was unable to stay to talk after the service, wrote later to the RoundTable. “It really opened my eyes to the institutionalized racism that I hadn’t seen before, in addition to recognizing personal racism and prejudices. … I think a lot about the systems of power and how our country was built on slavery and racism, and I wonder if and how we can overcome our past,” he said.
The close of the students’ presentation, in which they spoke of their feelings at Dr. King’s memorial site, puts it best: Sydney read, “The journey does not stop here; our journey together has just begun.”
Sarina responded: “Together, black and white, Jewish and Christian, we took in the end of the dreamer, but not the dream.”