THE high-profile deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police have brought to the surface a reality that many have tried to ignore: Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, America still has a race problem.
Here in Savannah, where the majority of citizens are people of color and police interactions are tense, it’s a topic that is tiptoed around constantly. That leads to few solutions, recognizes artist Jerome Meadows.
“My experience is that Savannah doesn’t necessarily like to talk about these things,” says Meadows.
“People tend to want to maintain decorum in a public setting.”
The internationally-renowned sculptor founded Indigo Sky Community Gallery on Waters Ave. in 2004 partly with the intention to provide a public setting where truth trumps decorum.
He’s inviting everyone and anyone interested in an honest conversation about race, poverty and society to a panel discussion on Saturday, April 4. The day coincides with the 47th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Having grown up in New York and lived in DC, I’ve seen communities be much more energetic and outspoken in dealing with these issues,” laments Meadows, explaining that the discussion will serve as the closing event for Craig Imar Butts’ provocative exhibit of photographs taken at last December’s march for justice in Washington, DC.
“I’m hoping that in the context of a gallery, in front of the art, people will take a different approach to the racial conversation.”
The evening will commence with a screening of a video produced by Butts of the march in DC, after which a diverse panel of community firebrands will talk about how the national racial climate relates to what is happening on the ground in Savannah.
“The idea is to bring together voices from various viewpoints throughout the city to speak candidly about this sensitive subject and by doing so to provide for greater levels of understanding,” says Meadows.
The panel will include Butts himself as well as Armstrong Atlantic State University Criminal Justice Professor Dr. Maxine Bryant, who recently spoke about the need for voter re-enfranchisement among ex-felons.
Also confirmed are beloved youth advocate Molly Lieberman and Alethea Raynor, co-founder of the Risers Academy for Young Men that operated within Hubert Middle School from 2008 to 2013.
“You’ll notice none of them are politicians,” says Meadows wryly, making no secret of his frustration with the lack of effective solutions from elected leaders.
Any conversation about race must include its intersection with education and poverty. Raynor, who has lived in Savannah since 2004, has spent her career implementing opportunities for academic success for underserved students and is still on the faculty at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.
“It amazes me that people can think we can have a thriving economic vision in Savannah when the poverty rate is 28 percent,” says Raynor, who also serves on the board of Step Up Savannah.
Adhering to former Mississippi governor William Winters’ adage that the road out of poverty runs by the schoolhouse, Raynor works to help provide examples of academic success of young black men so that more can believe it’s possible. But racial disparities in discipline methods and suspension rates in the public school system impede those successes, and Raynor says those must be addressed.
“It’s not a failure that we’re still talking about this. It’s a process,” she consoles, though she says the answer won’t be found with more committees and more research.
“This isn’t about technical solutions. We have to be willing to go to the core of these issues and deconstruct what’s really there and put it back together again.”
That may mean putting aside political correctness in exchange for progress when it comes to Savannah’s racial divide.
“These issues are so tender and can evoke such fearful reactions, but maybe within the context of culture and art we can find the common ground,” says Meadows.
“It may not work,” he adds with a laugh.
“But we’re going to try.”