Moving toward healing: Speaking truths about slavery and fighting racism in Muskegon

Dr. Joy DeGruy speaks in front of a packed house at the Frauenthal Center in downtown Muskegon. Photo by Joe Lane for the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.

Before the doors even open, the sold-out crowd gathers at the Frauenthal Center.

Shivering from November’s cold that has descended upon Muskegon, people are rushing downtown: from work, from the polls, from their lives throughout West Michigan. Most of their coats sporting “I voted” stickers from the day’s mid-term election, attendees are embracing one another in greeting and waiting to be the first ones seated for Dr. Joy DeGruy, an internationally renowned author, researcher and educator who has come to Muskegon to speak about a disease called racism and how we as a country heal from it.

The doors open, and, quickly, people fill the seats inside the cavernous Frauenthal Center. Selfies are being taken. Photos are being posted on Instagram: “Ready to have this brilliantly intellectual woman speak volumes,” one person writes in his caption.

In the moments leading up to DeGruy’s talk, titled “Understanding Our Past: Healing Our Future,” people are dropping phrases like “post traumatic slave syndrome,” “racism in Muskegon,” and “structural racism.” There’s certainly an excitement among attendees to see DeGruy speak, but it’s something more than that: there is, simultaneously, palpable sadness, relief and joy reverberating throughout the crowd. A scholar, known around the globe, is about to take the stage in Muskegon and speak hard truths about racism in the United States of America. About slavery and slave-owning presidents. About violence, trauma and segregation.

She will talk about the myths that we as Americans can tell ourselves: about freedom, about equality, about history. It will be a powerful and poignant whirlwind of a night that will leave audience members both in tears and laughing, a night that leaves people saying: what do we do to address racism in Muskegon County? How do we confront our history, be honest about—and change—our present, and work towards a truly equitable future?

Audience members at Dr. Joy DeGruy’s talk. Photo by Joe Lane for the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.

These are messages that deeply resonate with the audience—a packed crowd that includes an impressive spectrum of people, from nonprofit CEOs and factory workers to educators and artists—among so many others. The Community Foundation for Muskegon County sponsored the DeGruy talk as part of its ongoing efforts to build a more inclusive community.

“When we heard Dr. DeGruy speak at the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance forum in May, we knew we needed to bring her to Muskegon for this 2018 community gathering,” Community Foundation for Muskegon County President and CEO Chris McGuigan tells the audience while introducing DeGruy. “Looking at this full house and the waiting list for tickets, you obviously agreed.”

‘I don’t even notice race’: Why we need to talk about race & racism

The United States is a “divine experiment,” and, “if we can make this thing work, I really, truly believe the rest of the world has a chance,” DeGruy says in the first minutes of her talk.

“We have an amazing diversity that clashes with each other, but it’s a diversity that created the brilliance of this country,” she continues.

Dr. Joy DeGruy stands before a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois. Photo by Anna Gustafson

But, DeGruy says, to make this work—to truly have an equitable country of which everyone feels, and is, a part—there needs to be a lot truth telling. And that truth needs to include the history of slavery and the impact it continues to have on our society today, from the way we talk about race in our day-to-day lives to our historical narratives, education systems, scientific institutions, and more, DeGruy explains. This understanding of history—and how deeply entrenched we and our communities are in a most incomplete telling of it (including how we do, and do not, speak about the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans)—is a crucial one to forging a future that is truly able to create a healed nation, DeGruy explains.

“It’s a history that has been left out, and rather deliberately so,” DeGruy says in regards to slavery. “As a result of that, all of us become miseducated.”

That miseducation translates to, well, a lot—and much of it is rooted in the way we navigate race in our own lives.

Dr. Joy DeGruy. Photo by Joe Lane for the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.

“The first chapter in my book is called, “I don’t even notice race,” and I wrote that chapter largely because people have actually said that to me out loud,” DeGruy says of her book, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.”

“They say that to compliment me and say, ‘Joy, I don’t even notice you’re black,’” DeGruy continues. “I say, ‘Really? Because I do.’ First of all, it’s not a true statement; you know they’re only saying that to the people they notice. They’re saying, I’m noticing you, but I’m telling you I don’t. That’s cognitive dissonance.”

To “not” see race is an attempt to erase someone and their experiences, DeGruy says. It’s imperative to talk about race, whether that’s in our own individual interactions or when it comes to large, institutional matters. For example, in a Muskegon workshop led by DeGruy the day after her talk at the Frauenthal, attendees note we as a community must be able to ask hard questions about race, racism, and prejudice. Why are some organizations’ and companies’ boards filled entirely with white individuals? How do we make our downtown more inclusive? How can we make the growth Muskegon’s experiencing translate to a more equitable community? How do we address racism in hiring and in the workplace? How do we make everything from education and the arts to transportation and healthcare more accessible to people and communities of color?

“Whenever you say slave or slavery, there’s such an incredible, ‘Oh come on,'” DeGruy says. “Even black people—some black people didn’t come tonight because they saw ‘slave’ in the title. They said, ‘I’m going to get there and you’re going to upset the white people.'”

Here’s the thing, DeGruy notes: conversations about race are hard. Conversations about slavery are hard. But if we want to really, truly address race and racism in this community and country, those conversations not only need to be had: they have to impact action. Attendees at DeGruy’s workshop emphasize this, noting that white individuals and people in positions of power are going to have to say: racism is not happening outside of my world; it’s not just happening in another place, to other people. It’s happening here, and I am able to speak up about it. I am able to change the way I myself operate. I am able to call out racism when I see it. Not only am I able to do this, I must do this.

In other words: individuals are going to have to understand white privilege, how they benefit from it and how they can use it to make whatever space they’re in more equitable.

DeGruy explains this during her workshop with a personal anecdote about a trip she and her sister, who’s half-black, half-white but looks white, took to the grocery store. During this trip, DeGruy’s sister has no problem paying with a check. But, when DeGruy goes to pay with a check, she’s asked for two forms of identification—and the employee begins comparing DeGruy’s check to “bad” checks placed in a store binder. As this is happening, DeGruy’s sister confronts the cashier about why she’s doing this to someone who’s black and didn’t do it to someone who looks white. The sister proceeded to explain the situation to a store manager, and both the cashier and the manager ended up apologizing to DeGruy.

“My sister recognized her white privilege—she pointed out the injustice,” DeGruy says during her workshop. “As a result of that one act, she influenced everyone in that space.”

You can see DeGruy speaking about this incident in the below clip.

What needs to change when it comes to our discussions about slavery?

The answer to this question is a long and complicated one. What do we change? Well, a lot. Beginning with our narrative about our country’s origins, DeGruy notes. Who were the founding fathers when it comes to slavery? They were slave owners. What about Native Americans? Why is there rarely, if ever, mention, let alone in-depth conversation and study, of our country’s genocide against Native Americans?

“One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in his 1935 essay, “The Propaganda of History,” which DeGruy reads from during her talk. “We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk and only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner…and simply remember the things we regard as credible and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.”

What happens, then, when we do not tell the truth? What happens when we do not speak about the fact that there were 13 U.S. presidents who were slave owners? When we do not speak fully about the 339 years during which 12.5 million Africans were kidnapped from their homes and forcibly shipped to North America, South America, and the Caribbean? When we do not talk about the role that science, religion, universities, the media, and other major institutions played in slavery? Those omissions and lies build up: they steal the country’s history; they steal the history of black Americans. And they pave the way for a present and future filled with misunderstandings and outright lies about slavery and its impact on today’s society. What does it mean to tell the truth? It means we have to disassemble the way we interact with our history—and that can be a very hard, very messy and very emotional endeavor. It means we have to say: the Constitution was not created for everyone.

“We start with a cognitive dissonance about the Constitution,” DeGruy says, noting that the time it was being written, “we were committing a genocide and enslaving Africans.”

“The Constitution was for white men—white, wealthy, land-owning men,” DeGruy says. “The Constitution was never meant for everyone. Most people in this room it did not include.”

However, the desire to create a narrative that, as W.E.B. Du Bois says, erases the evils of history, is so powerful that “every major institution is complicit with 300 years of chattel slavery,” DeGruy says.

“That means everyone had to sign off; you had to find a way to normalize this thing to an entire nation,” she continues. “It was so exacting that no matter what institution you worked for, no matter what profession you’re in, the underbelly is supremacy.”

Dr. Joy DeGruy speaks about U.S. presidents who owned slaves. Photo by Anna Gustafson

By turning our backs on history, DeGruy explains, we perpetuate dangerous myths about who we are as a country. And we do not allow for a widespread understanding of the history of slavery, nor its ramifications after slavery ended, including Jim Crow, the lynchings of black Americans, the “war on drugs” that disproportionately targeted black individuals and people of color, mass incarceration of black Americans and people of color, and wildly unequal education, employment and housing systems.

“Because of slavery, redlining, Jim Crow, segregation, urban renewal, and gentrification, we have serial forced displacement—when people are serially displaced, they figure out what happens: personal and structural violence,” DeGruy says during her workshop. “You destroy my village, and then you tell me you’ll give it back to me for $2.5 million?”

So, what needs to be done to address this?

DeGruy points out that in 2016, the United Nations called on the U.S. to establish a national commission to “monitor the human rights of African Americans” and begin taking steps to repay the labor performed by slaves, from American independence through the Civil War—an amount that has been valued at about $5.9 trillion.

The UN reported that it was “extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans. In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent. Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

“The rest of the world is looking on and saying, ‘shame on you America; shame on you,'” DeGruy says.

We have, DeGruy says, “never answered for our sins, for the forced removal of people from their lands.”

“Most of us think to ourselves: wait a minute, children being torn apart from family? Does that sound familiar?” she asks, referring to the more than 2,600 children separated from their families when crossing into the United States at the Mexican border.

What do we do now? ‘Please stay in this room.’

All of this, DeGruy knows, can be overwhelming, especially as the majority of Americans this year said racial tensions are on the rise. But, she emphasizes that doesn’t mean that, hundreds of years after the first slaves were forced into the United States, we can’t finally have the conversations regarding slavery and race that we’ve been avoiding for far too long.

“I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t believe there was a possibility of change,” she says. “I will say to you and the people in this audience: please stay in this room.”

Community leaders from throughout Muskegon County, and beyond, attend a workshop by Dr. Joy DeGruy. Photo by Anna Gustafson

What does staying in the room mean here in Muskegon? For those attending DeGruy’s workshop, they say it’s a multi-pronged answer that includes: understanding and recognizing both historical and current segregation, racism and bias in Muskegon County, from redlining to recent acts of hate. Facing that Muskegon is one of the most racially segregated cities in the country—understanding how that has come to be and what we must do to change that. Questioning racism, bias, power structures, and prejudice—including with one’s own self. Talking to kids about race, racism, privilege, and prejudice. Using white privilege to stand up for others. Knowing that change does not come easily, and sometimes you are going to have to make others uncomfortable or angry in order to truly achieve justice.

“Muskegon County is one of the most economically and racially segregated places in the country,” Muskegon Heights City Manager Jake Eckholm says during DeGruy’s workshop. “We need to talk about justice.”

That justice comes in many forms, those attending the workshop note—it means talking about housing and race in the city, about who does and does not feel welcome downtown and why, about supporting and growing businesses owned by people of color. It means acknowledging and fighting racism in the city.

“Residents who have owned homes for decades do not feel involved in decisions about the city,” Community enCompass Executive Director Sarah Rinsema-Sybenga says during DeGruy’s workshop.

Audience members watch Dr. Joy DeGruy speak at the Frauenthal Center. Photo by Joe Lane for the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.

Facing race in Muskegon means understanding, acknowledging and working to change the role of racism, bias and prejudice in hiring and addressing income inequality, like the fact that, in one Census tract in Muskegon Heights, the average income is $17,083—while in the Census tract immediately to the south, in Norton Shores, the average income is $67,057. A number of people who spoke to the Muskegon Times during the workshop, but did not want to be quoted for fear of reprisal, said people of color routinely face racism and prejudice during hiring practices in Muskegon. If people of color do end up being hired, they can face racism and prejudice within the workplace. However, people told us individuals do not want to speak out about these matters for fear of being fired and/or never being hired in the community again.

DeGruy suggested that community leaders create what’s known as a “Green Book” for Muskegon—a document reminiscent of the “Green Book” that was published in the 1930s through the 1960s and detailed places that were black-owned or safe for black Americans. [You can read digitized copies of the Green Book here.] The same, DeGruy says, could be done in Muskegon: what organizations, businesses and other spaces are run by people of color or are allies with people of color?

“That will create peer pressure; people will want to be part of that book,” DeGruy says. “…How wonderful it would be to know there’s a space you can go to and feel safe.”

How you can get involved: Upcoming community programs

For those who are interested in getting involved in conversations surrounding race in our community, there are a number of upcoming events. See further details about these events by clicking on this link from the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.

Community Conversation about Criminal Justice

When: Thursday, Dec. 6, 6:30pm

Where: Hilt Building (427 W. Western Ave.)

What: Learn more about the criminal justice system and what is happening in Muskegon County. The event is free, but please RSVP by clicking here.

“Up From the Bottoms: The Search for the American Dream”

When: Thursday, Dec. 13, 12-1:30pm

Where: Muskegon Museum of Art (296 W. Webster Ave.)

What: Narrated by Cicely Tyson, this film explores the struggles of African-Americans as they migrated from the southern United States to Muskegon during the 1940s. See more information about the film here. Admission to the film is free. 

“Black Man: A Documentary”

When: Monday, Dec. 17, 6pm

Where: Frauenthal Theater (425 W. Western Ave.)

What: This feature-length film is part of the Muskegon Museum of Art’s exhibition “SONS” and features 32 African-American men from across the greater Muskegon community. This screening is free and open to the public; no tickets are required.

“SONS: Seeing the Modern African American Male”

When: Thursday, Dec. 13 through Sunday, March 10.

Where: The Muskegon Museum of Art (296 W. Webster Ave.)

What: Presented by the MMA in collaboration with artist Jerry Taliaferro, this photography exhibition features African-American men from the greater Muskegon community. “[The exhibition] is both timely and relevant,” Taliaferro said. “Recent events point to the urgent need for conversations about the contemporary Black American male. Any effort, however humble, to foster an understanding of this largely misunderstood and often marginalized segment of the American population is of utmost importance.”

The exhibition’s opening reception will be held Thursday, Dec. 13 from 5:30-7:30pm at the Muskegon Museum of Art. A free community day will be held from 10am-3pm on Saturday, Dec. 15, when all are invited to explore the new exhibition and attend free related programming at the art museum.

“Ad Man: Joseph Grey II”

When: Thursday, Dec. 13 through Sunday, March 10.

Where: Muskegon Museum of Art (296 W. Webster Ave.)

What: An artist, designer, art director, and writer who was one of the earliest African Americans to work professionally in New York City’s advertising business, the work of Joseph Grey II helped to break down racial barriers in one of the most influential cities in the world. A gallery talk with Joseph Grey II will be held Thursday, Feb. 24 at 6pm at the Muskegon Museum of Art. The talk is free and open to the public.

Community Gathering Initiative: Embracing Discomfort and Advancing the Conversation

When: Thursday, Jan. 17, 6-8:30pm

Where: Location to be determined.

What: Hosted by HealthWest and funded by a Community Foundation for Muskegon County grant, this event is part of a series of community conversations meant to prompt discussion about race, equity, inclusion, and diversity. The event is free and open to the public, but you need to register in advance. To register, please click here.

23rd Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Breakfast

When: Friday, Jan. 18, 7:30am

Where: Muskegon Community College Collegiate Hall

What: Each year, Muskegon Community College hosts a county-wide breakfast to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year’s keynote speaker will be Anne Bailey, author of “The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History.” Tickets for the breakfast are $25 each and are available at the MCC bookstore beginning Dec. 3. Call 231-777-0569 for more details about the event.

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Photos by Joe Lane and Anna Gustafson. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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