It doesn’t always feel great to be young, black and living near Belleville. Most of the time I feel OK about it or indifferent, but I’ve never had warm and fuzzy feelings about the metro-east — until now.
After more than a year of working in the area, I finally feel hopeful about my future here, and I am excited about what’s coming next. Here’s why: The Belleville News-Democrat is working on plans to launch a school program about race and identity. Early lessons about race can play a critical role in development, tolerance and, in some cases, achievement. The BND wants to be a part of that conversation. We don’t want to shy away from it.
We took our first step when we shot a documentary about race and identity in the metro-east.
In the online series “Then I Knew,” documentary journalist Julian Lim and I asked black men, women and children about the first time they realized that the color of their skin could affect the way they are treated.
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On April 25, seven months after the first interview, we had a film screening and forum at Belleville East High School. The Center for Racial Harmony and The Dred Scott Heritage Foundation supported the event, along with Project Compassion, NFP; Saving Black Minds; the Society of Professional Journalists St. Louis; and many others.
KMOX anchor Carol Daniel, a 34-year broadcast veteran, and Racial Harmony President Alex McHugh moderated the event.
It was an emotional moment that made me feel differently about the potential of our area. More than 250 people attended “Then I Knew: A Conversation about Race, Identity and Change.” We weren’t sure how many people would come, but I remained hopeful as the event approached. Curtis Paradise, a member of the BND’s advisory board and a board member at the Center for Racial Harmony, made countless calls to get people there. Her efforts and the support of the center paid off.
Attendees heard from Dred Scott's great-great-granddaughter, Lynne Jackson; the Center for Racial Harmony; Charmaine Savage, the editor and founder of I Am East St. Louis, The Magazine; Sharing America editor Holly Edgell; and metro-east residents featured in "Then I Knew."
We also introduced the audience to up-and-coming artist Kas King. His influence drew millennials to the event as they watched him paint a portrait of Dred Scott on the stage. He presented that portrait to Jackson as the song “Glory” — written by John Legend, Common, and Rhymefest — played in the background. The song was handpicked for the event by Daryl Williams, an East St. Louis native who created a playlist for the forum.
Everything about the evening felt right. We discussed tough issues, but it felt good to be black in the metro-east. It felt great to be heard. No one blamed anyone for anything, and no one walked away feeling guilty or ashamed.
I promised the audience that I would address the questions we didn’t have time to answer during the forum. One student wanted to know why the accomplishments of black people aren’t a bigger part of the curriculum in Belleville’s two high schools. Another person wanted to know if we should discuss the offensiveness of "All Lives Matter." We also received questions about institutional racism and reparations for the descendants of slaves.
Every question seems to be connected to another one that stays in my mind: As a white woman, how can I be an effective ally? How can I best make a difference?
It’s a question a lot of people have but that they are afraid to ask. A post on Instagram — sorry for being such a millennial — gives deceptively easy instructions on how to be an effective ally or empathic person. It simply said: "Speak the truth even if your voice shakes."
Journalists often find themselves in this position. The metro-east residents featured in “Then I Knew” had to let go of their fears. It’s scary to admit that your son had fears about being black. It’s hard to talk about a suicide attempt and revealing your feelings about anyone who doesn’t look like you.
But they all did it. What would happen if more white people spoke up about these injustices staring them in the face? The metro-east might feel like a better place to work and raise our children.
I hope the momentum of “Then I Knew” doesn’t die. The series was born out of the need for a long-form story about the state of black America. Daily stories about tragedy and triumph in my community only share a very small part of the big picture. “Then I Knew” explores the silence in between joy and pain. It's about everyday life as a black American. It’s about starting a conversation in the community that serves the greater good.