Group imagines being black in the Jim Crow South

Dr. Robert Wright, center, leads a discussion on race at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts Thursday. Panelists from left to right are Katonga Wright, Bill Murphy, Gabriel Lundeen and Mtume Gant.
Dr. Robert Wright, center, leads a discussion on race at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts Thursday. Panelists from left to right are Katonga Wright, Bill Murphy, Gabriel Lundeen and Mtume Gant.

As moderator of a conversation at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, Dr. Robert Wright asked panelists to imagine what it was like for blacks living in the Jim Crow South.

The first scenario that he presented was of a cross burning in a woman's yard.

"That actually happened to (Muscogee County Tax Commissioner) Lula Huff's grandmother," Wright said. "Her grandmother was a pioneer fighting for equal rights and civil rights when it wasn't popular at all."

The exercise was part of a discussion about race held at the center Thursday night as a precursor to a one-man show based on Richard Wright's 1945 autobiography "Black Boy."

In the play, actor Tarantino Smith dramatized Richard Wright's journey from childhood innocence to adulthood in the Jim Crow South. He recited the first half of the autobiography verbatim, giving voice to 15 different characters.

Rick McKnight, the RiverCenter's community support officer, said the event was part of the center's strategic plan to reach out to the black community. Last month, the center brought Noah Stewart, a black world-renowned opera singer, to town to participate in the "The Dream Lives" celebration sponsored by the Mayor's Commission on Unity, Diversity and Prosperity. Stewart also performed at the Alpha Phi Alpha MLK Unity Award Breakfast.

Richard Wright was a poet, author and journalist born in Roxie, Miss. His father was an illiterate sharecropper who abandoned the family when the author was 5 years old. His mother was a teacher who struggled to support her family.

Richard Wright is also the author of several other books, including "Native Son," which made best-seller lists and was the first book by a black writer to be selected for the Book-of-the Month Club.

Smith's performance was part of a New York-based program called Literature to Life, which presents professionally staged productions of classical works at schools and communities around the country. On Wednesday, the RiverCenter presented a morning matinee, as well as another performance held later at Northside High School.

The panelists for the discussion were Katonga Wright, Robert Wright's niece and a local attorney; Bill Murphy, executive vice president for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce; Gabriel Lundeen, deputy director of Chattahoochee Valley Libraries, and Mtume Gant, a teaching artist with Literature to Life.

About 100 people showed up for the discussion, and 425 for the play. Though a few white people attended, it was mostly a black audience.

Murphy, a native of Ohio, said he grew up in a predominantly white community and didn't have a lot of exposure to black people. But he recalled going to visit his grandmother in a nursing home and hearing her roommate use the N-word when referring to the black help.

"Growing up in Ohio, it amazed me the amount of racism that you would typically think of only being relegated to the South after the civil rights movement," he said. "But it was still very prevalent in northern states like Ohio."

Lundeen, who is white, grew up in California. He said America has made a lot of strides when it comes to race relations, but he believes it still has a long way to go.

"You hear people say, 'Oh, well, we've elected a black president, it's all solved now,'" he said. "Absolutely, not. That's where literature comes in. Literature gives people the power to explore a new world."

Katonga Wright said today racism is based on stereotypes that affect how people are treated by law enforcement. She used Trayvon Martin's death as an example. Martin was a black, unarmed 17-year-old who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in Sanford, Fla.

"He wasn't just a kid walking home with Skittles," she said. "He became a potential home invader. If he had been a white kid, that reality or that stereotype or that thought would not have been permeated in Zimmerman's mind.

"The meaning of a hoodie suddenly changes, and that's the scary part," she added.

Robert Wright said he grew up at a time when he had to endure such injustices. He recalled working with his father, a bricklayer. All of the white workers called the superintendent by his first name, but his Dad always had to say, "Mister."

"I couldn't quite come to grips with that," he said. "You just had to sort of tread a fine line because you could lose your job. So he had to suffer those kinds of indignities to maintain his livelihood."

Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.