By Donna Jackson, Northern Neck News
Why are you proud of being Black started the discussion and what motivates you when you wake up each morning was the final question moderator, Elsie Delva-Smith asked at a panel discussion held at Essex High School, Friday, May 5. They are just two examples of the thought-provoking questions asked that evening. At times panelists grappled with answering Smith’s questions, but they honestly shared their thoughts on the topic of Black pride and identity.
Essex High School graduate, Ronnie Sidney, II, LCSW, launched his fourth book, Rest in Peace RaShawn, and used the subject matter, as a springboard to generate open dialogue surrounding the killing of black unarmed young men.
Sidney was raised in Tappahannock and attended Essex County Public Schools (ECPS). While attending ECPS, he spent seven years in special education after being diagnosed with a learning disability. Despite the stigma, he graduated from Essex High School in 2001, but with a 1.8 GPA. Sidney went on to continue his education, starting at J. Sergeant Reynolds, to Old Dominion University and then Virginia Commonwealth University.
The panelists, as well as audience members, posed questions, shared insights and enlightened all in attendance. It was not a session of finger pointing, instead it was an opportunity for all to gain a greater understanding of the societal issues within the African-American culture, especially young males. The panel represented law enforcement, legal, youth advocacy, spiritual, business, education, and mental health. Most importantly, five African-American young men, all high school students were part of the panel.
Monique Williams on the opening question, why are you proud to be Black, responded, “Our history is the reason why we have become resilient, and strong—why we have a bounce back to us…I am proud of that.”
Michael Ransone admitted, “I was not proud to be Black for most of my childhood… I did not understand the gift that melanin was.” However, at 21, he began to study history beginning with Kemet in ancient Egypt and his self-esteem grew as he obtained more knowledge.
“I am not ashamed of being white, I am ashamed of racism, I am proud that I was raised in a family where certain words could not be used…” said Diane Lank.
“Black people have the uncanny ability to forgive I am proud of that,” said Ulysses Turner.
Chad Lewis pointed out that, “It is important for us, as white people who stand on the side of social justice, to not get too far into our feelings of our peoples long and bloody history…take responsibility and acknowledge…we can use our energies to be more productive.”
The students were asked what do they think about when they leave their houses. Kevin Dameron responded, “I just believe God is going to protect and watch over me.” “It is a chance you might not make it back home, but there is chance you will…said, Isaiah Taylor
As a father of five boys, Turner had a conversation with his boys surrounding how society may view them unfavorably based on their hairstyle or appearance. His advice to the audience and parents included telling your boys to watch where they go and who rides in their cars, but build a relationship where they feel comfortable talking to you about anything.
In regard to the Black Lives Matter movement, Smith asked the panel if the titles, Blue Lives Matter or All Lives Matter undercut the meaning. Illustrative responses were given to provide a deeper insight to the meaning. Collectively the panelists agreed that all lives matter; however, it was emphasized that unarmed Black men and boys are killed at an alarming rate. The movement is an outcry from young people that are saying no more and what’s going on. Furthermore, it is to bring a sense of value on and national attention to the senseless and unjustified deaths and all to often, disparaging outcomes.
“If you truly believe that all lives matter, why does it make you so uncomfortable to center Blackness in the conversation, said Lewis.
Sidney said, “I take it personally when I hear that a young man has been killed…I view them as my brothers, that’s what inspired me to write this book.”
In regard to valuing self and what society values, Emily Eanes said, “Watching the privileges of the dominant privileged culture, it gets ingrained in young people at an early age, even when the parents are conscious and try to change the mindsets.” In response to the race of teachers, the students said as long as the teacher knows the subject and cares, the race does not matter to them—they value their education.
The topic of policing in the community was raised. Rasean Bailey brought out the fact that “A small community has its advantages, you pretty much know most everyone; I feel obligated to talk to a child when I am approached.” Audience members praised Essex’s law enforcement officials for their visibility, community engagement, and service on local boards committees. It was the general consensus that understanding and building relationship with law enforcement is a two-way street.
As the discussion continued the students shared their desires of being successful in life after high school, but vowed to return to make a difference. Their reasons and motivation included helping my family and siblings, building a track and the establishment of a summer track team, to give youth something to do, and letting students know they can make it.
The discussion closed with panelists sharing personal motivations—what gets them up in the morning. Answers shared included: knowing I have to be the best and that I have not reached my full potential, wanting to help my family and my little sisters, I just have to be better each day, I enjoy life, I feel I have a responsibility, I love my job and my goal to make the climate better, to continue my work, to do something every day, and to make change.
Williams personal mantra, “If not me then who, if not now then when,” tied up the discussion appropriately, and left all hoping the conversation continues.
“Rest in Peace RaShawn” is more than the story of an accidental shooting. It’s the vivid story of a young man’s life snuffed out too soon by police bullets – a narrative that, sadly, has become all too familiar in America. The author, Ronnie Sidney, II, MSW, captures the emotional upheaval suffered by families and communities nationwide following the sudden, violent demise of black men. He presents the violence and suffering in a sensitive, easy-to-understand and age-appropriate format for kids. This book is a good way to broach the painful but necessary conversations families across the nation are having with their children, and provides thoughtful discussion points on how to heal the legacy of distrust between African- American communities and the police who are supposed to protect them.