When the Questions Were Not Surface Level

Jul 21, 2016


The American Civil War Museum, led by Christy Coleman, is situated at the former site of Tredegar Iron Works. | Photo by Alexander Gardner, 1865, via Wikimedia.

“We were the MTV generation, and so we were exploring music and pop culture with each other in ways that our parents didn’t. It was very common for basic culture questions that my black friends and I would get from our white friends, always about our hair or about how we celebrated particular events or holidays. So it was really touching on that kind of thing.

“I can tell you that I wasn’t as comfortable sharing things that I knew would be difficult for my white counterparts to hear from me. I didn’t want to be dismissed by people that I liked. And so I guess ultimately it was about a trust. I did not trust them to be able to really handle what I would have to say about my experiences at that point in my life.

“I have a very, very dear friend to me this day. We met as exchange students—we were in Germany for a summer—and he was the first person that I could have conversations like that with. The questions that he asked were not surface level, they were genuine questions about things like, ‘Did your parents participate in the civil rights? What stories did they tell you about that?’

And I was the only black kid on that trip, and so what was interesting about it is that he picked up on the burden that I was feeling about that. Because the Germans that we were meeting, the families and the kids, had all of these questions. I became the black person to ask about everything that’s black in America and the whole black experience infinitum, which is exhausting. And on top of that, to have the other white students make the kind of comments that they were making on that trip was transformative for me. And made me much angrier.

“So we’re having wine and dinner one night and we’re just joking around, laughing. One of the few evenings where we just got to be us. So we got into music and culture, and I said, ‘I really love x-band, I think it was The Police. I was talking about The Police and Sting and the musicianship and the lyrics, and going into this, and: ‘You’re not black at all!’

“I’m like, ‘What the hell are you talking about? I most certainly am.’ ‘Well you like the police!’ I felt under attack. Because it started with the music, then it started talking about, ‘You’re just different. You’re too well spoken. You’re too this, you’re too that.’

“But like I said, he was very different.

“Given the nature of my work, I would have to say particularly, since I came to Richmond, in the last eight years, I have been involved in more of those conversations than I would have ever imagined, both on a professional and a personal level. It’s very gratifying. I think because people are willing to have the conversations, and we’re willing to listen and to speak candidly about it, that it’s enabled us to address the history of Richmond and all of its other issues.

“Now is Richmond a Nirvana now? Far from it. But I think there’s a lessening of that rigidity around those issues. And that’s encouraging.”