One Nation, Two Americas

Coming on the heels of Black History Month, Middlesex’s annual Diversity Symposium on March 2nd and 3rd centered on questions directly related to the February tribute: How does the experience of blacks in America differ from that of other races? And though often considered separately, isn’t black history an integral part of the American narrative? What heroes and stories of black history remain obscure but should be celebrated and woven into the nation’s history?

To inform and encourage discussion of these issues, Middlesex first welcomed consultant Kip Bordelon to campus as the School’s second Equity and Inclusion Fellow this year. As founder and director of the Picardy Group in Chicago, Mr. Bordelon assists schools and federal agencies with recruiting and other services, drawing on his experience working with the U.S. General Services Administration and his passion for American history, the law, and the importance of diversity. Having recognized years ago as a student at Lawrence Academy that his perspective was sometimes markedly different from that of white students and faculty – even within a caring community – he set out to explore and explain this disparity in a presentation entitled, “Are There Really Two Americas?”

Citing specific U.S. law cases from as far back as 1630, Mr. Bordelon gave his audience “a quick ride through history” that clearly demonstrated how blacks, whether enslaved or free, have long been legally designated as inferior to whites and therefore not given equal rights. His numerous examples revealed a racial history painfully marked by slavery, lynchings, and a variety of discriminatory practices affecting employment opportunities, voting rights, and equal treatment in America’s justice system. “Racism plays a serious role in our lives,” he stated.

Instead of expressing indifference and saying, “Get over it,” or “If you don’t like it, just leave,” Mr. Bordelon asked students to respect that everyone has a different perspective, based on their life experience. “Do your best to understand another person. Try to put yourself in their shoes,” he urged.

The next morning, artist, educator, and graphic novelist Joel Christian Gill joined the Symposium to talk about how black history is taught and regarded in America – and how storytelling can effectively bring people together. “When you share your story, you build empathy,” Mr. Gill observed. “You realize you are way more alike than you are different.”

Since the 2014 publication of his first graphic novel, Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History, Mr. Gill has been illustrating the extraordinary yet little-known stories of African Americans like Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who actually mailed his way to freedom in a wooden crate. Always learning about even more amazing individuals from his enthusiastic readers, he has already published two more volumes. “I want you to understand that this is your history,” Mr. Gill stressed, “not something in a box that we open once a year. It’s not ‘black history.’”

When people share their stories with one another, he continued, they share their humanity. Quoting writer James Baldwin, Mr. Gill affirmed, “Racism never stands up to contact,” and offered this advice: “Share your stories. They’re important. When you share, you rebuild empathy and humanity, and this will build a better world.”

Before taking questions from the audience, the second half of the morning began with both speakers answering thoughtfully prepared questions posed by Harrison Clark ’18. In discussing problems of racial stereotyping, each guest dwelt on the burden of cliché assumptions about what black people are supposed to be like. “It’s important to understand that the experience of black people is not monolithic,” said Mr. Gill, later adding, “I play chess – not basketball or football. I like not being in the box people place me in. I draw comics and I teach art.”

To defy stereotypes, Mr. Bordelon told students, “You need to show the world what you want people to see. It’s a choice. ”