East Carolina University’s Office of Global Affairs (OGA) confronted issues of racism in America in its March 23 online panel and discussion “The Long Civil Rights Movement: From Emmett Till to Black Lives Matter” with actor Sonny Kelly.
The sponsors of the event included OGA, the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center, the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill’s Carolina Public Humanities and Carolina K-12 programs. The discussion was based upon Vanity Fair’s article, “What the Face of Emmett Till Says About Every Brutalized Black Body.”
Discussion panelist Sonny Kelly performed excerpts from his plays “The Talk” and “Haunted” during the event. “The Talk” discusses the traumatic experiences of a Black man and the conversation he has to have with his Black son about the history of violence toward Black men. He then has to explain to his son how to survive as a Black man in America. The play includes references to W.E.B Dubois, a prominent civil rights activist and author.
The event additionally included music about the struggle of African Americans, such as the song “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cook, and Kelly answered questions about his presentation at the end of the discussion. Kelly explained how Americans can address the issue of racism with one other in a calm manner.
“As a communicator, I have found that if you are going to get into conflict, and anyone who doesn’t think racism is not a problem in America today, then I am going to have conflict with them. I am not going to be mad at the person but we’re going to have conflict. In dealing with conflict you have to create a confirming communication climate,” Kelly said.
Americans need to get to a place where they are open to hear someone else’s lived experiences and acknowledge their similarities, according to Kelly. He explained how some words people say are similar to those said hundreds of years ago that dehumanized people.
Kelly said people cannot have this discussion in a hostile way because no one will listen to understand what someone else has gone through. He said he knows that change is a process and people should come together, not to feel sorry for each other, but to make a change.
“It’s a process, not a product. I can’t just expect you to be woke all of a sudden. What are we going to do now to invest in a better future? Let’s do that,” Kelly said.
Associate Director for State Outreach at UNC Chapel Hill’s Public Humanities Joanna Sierks Smith said during the event that the discussion looks back at the struggle of Black Americans from Emmett Till’s story to Ahmaud Arbery.
Smith said this helps show why Black lives have always mattered and how their lives mattered to different people for a variety of reasons. She said the discussion explores various protests and the fight for justice throughout generations.
“This virtual format allows us to share such an important conversation with so many educators, students and interested members of the public around North Carolina and beyond,” Smith said. “Many of us probably grew up hearing about the Civil Rights Movement by our textbooks and our teachers as something that happened in the 50’s and 60’s, yet we have seen so vividly just this past year that the Civil Rights Movement is not over.”
Director of the ECU Language Academy, which is part of the OGA, Nicole Ianieri helped to plan the event. She said on March 19 that when she searched for resources and people to partner with for this program, she was put in touch with Director of the UNC Chapel Hill Public Humanities’s Carolina K-12 programs Christie Norris.
Ianieri said Norris and Smith helped her get in contact with Kelly in order to begin to plan the panel.
“The Office of Equity and Diversity had a mini grant available and I applied and was awarded one of those grants based on my proposal to create a series of events that would aim to educate the international community about the history of American racism and why systematic racism persists to this day; that was the original idea,” Ianieri said.
The goal for the panel discussion is to educate international students and others about racism in America, Ianieri said. She said she wanted to help international students understand racism in America because when they experience it, they do not understand America's history of race relations.
It is important for international students and all people to learn the history of American racism to understand why it still persists today, according to Ianieri. She said Americans have not come to terms with that history, even today.
“Another issue is that sometimes international students who are also Black or people of color, they come here and they don’t know about American racism and our history and they are treated very badly and they don’t understand why, so I think it is really important just to raise these issues and discuss why this happened and why it persists,” Ianieri said.