Barbershop: Virginia Gov. Northam Plans His 'Racial Reconciliation Tour'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now it's time to step into the Barbershop. That's where we invite interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Today, we want to talk about a subject that's been percolating in the wake of the news that the Virginia governor and the attorney general were blackface at parties years ago. Another Virginia official was the editor of a yearbook with many such racist photos in it. The - Governor Ralph Northam has been pressed to resign, even by members of his own Democratic Party. But instead of doing that, the governor sees a teachable moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS THIS MORNING")
RALPH NORTHAM: This is really an opportunity, I believe, to make awareness of this issue, to really have a frank dialogue and discussion about race and equity in this country.
MARTIN: He was speaking to CBS News there. And one way he plans to do this is through a series of talks to engage the public on race, something of a reconciliation tour. Virginia Union University, an historically black institution in Richmond, will be his first stop. In a written statement, the university wrote, it is important to bring the community together to develop a plan to reach healing and reconciliation.
So that's what we wanted to talk about. What does reconciliation look like? How might it be achieved? And we've called on three people who have thought about this and who have worked on this. Rich Harwood is the president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. That's an organization that facilitates community discussions around difficult issues. He's with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome back.
RICH HARWOOD: Good to be with you.
MARTIN: Russell Moore is president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He has been involved in dealing with the convention's complicated history on race. He is with us from his office in Nashville, Tenn. Thank you for joining us once again, Pastor Moore.
RUSSELL MOORE: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: And, finally, Sharon Leslie Morgan is a genealogist who's been seeking racial reconciliation by tracing her multiracial ancestry. And she's with us from her home in Mississippi. And Sharon Leslie Morgan, thank you as well.
SHARON LESLIE MORGAN: Thank you.
MARTIN: And I'm going to start with Rich Harwood. You wrote a very interesting piece for your blog, in which you said that confronting racism and identity in this country will involve sorrow and that the conversation will not be polite. And so I wanted to ask you about that. Is this governor - is this tour, this series of discussions that the governor - that Governor Northam's talking about - is that a good first step?
HARWOOD: Well, I think he faces a fundamental choice. If this is about political survival for his governorship, no. If this is about him being an instrument of society, potentially. And I think what he needs to be prepared for is that this will not be a civil conversation. We can't ask people to engage in civility here because that just means lower your voice, don't be emotional. This is an incredibly emotional topic. People feel loss. They feel anger. They feel a sense of rage. This has been coming for generations. And I think he needs to be prepared for a very hard-nosed, tough emotional conversation that's coming his way.
MARTIN: Is that going to be fruitful?
HARWOOD: I think we can only engage in a fruitful conversation if we allow this kind of sorrow, this kind of emotion, this rage and anger to come forward. Otherwise, folks who have been discriminated against, who have dealt with inequities for their lives will say this is yet another effort in lip service from a white politician who's simply trying to survive, politically.
MARTIN: So, you know, Pastor Moore, you've already done some hard work on this issue yourself. I mean, you've said that Southern Baptists have been complicit in racism and bolstering racial pride among Southern whites. And I wanted to ask you - how has that gone as you have tried to address this at the convention? What have your experiences been?
MOORE: Well, I see the best of times and the worst of times happening, simultaneously, as they often do. On the one hand, I see God moving many congregations in a very different direction, toward healing and reconciliation and justice. I also, though, am shocked that I will receive white supremacist hate mail that reads almost exactly like that that my predecessor would have received in, say, the 1950s or 1960s.
MARTIN: That's interesting. I want to hear more about that and how you get people to the table. Let me go to Sharon Leslie Morgan, though. You've been able to find the names of more than two dozen people in your family who were enslaved. And some of those stories and the stories of their descendants, both white and black, are truly painful. I mean, for example, you talk about your white grandmother, who was disowned by her family when one of her children was born with brown skin. I mean, that's just, you know, one story. And yet you've said that tracing your roots has helped you confront the trauma that slavery and racism imposed on your family. I mean, how?
MORGAN: The first thing that you have to do is that you have to remember that, first, it hurts. And then, it heals. And one of the things we must do is go back and confront this history that is the legacy that we're living with today. The reason that we have racism and all of the acrimonious feelings between people of different races has a great deal to do with the history of this country and it having been born as a country that embraced slavery. So you have to go back into the past. You have to confront it. You have to experience the pain. And then, you have to use that in a productive way to move forward to the healing.
MARTIN: So, Pastor, I want to go back to that. And, you know, Sharon just said you have to confront it. As you've just told us a lot of people would really prefer not to. How do you get people to the table?
MARTIN: I mean, is it - do you find that it requires the deep commitment of religious commitment to get people to the table? And even then, when they have that, do they really want to engage? Like, what do you do to get people to the table who are not that interested?
MOORE: Well, both of my fellow guests have said something that I think is exactly right, which is the necessity of lament. Jesus said blessed are they who mourn, and a great deal of this has to do with those who are leading and speaking, making sure that people, especially majority culture people, understand that history alone doesn't take care of this.
Sometimes, I will hear white Americans say, well, it's 2019 as though, simply because it's 2019, all of these issues are passed and behind us. And so that means standing up and saying how did this happen. How were people able to be so blinded to something as basic to both the Christian vision of reality and to the American founding documents of the dignity of all human beings? How was that missed? And what, then, are we missing? And how can we build something that is not just about getting along with one another but actually loving one another and behaving toward one another, justly? That's - what I find is that, usually, the people who are grappling with the question and asking the question - where do we go from here? - are usually in a pretty good place. They're moving in a good direction. It's the people who don't think that this issue is even one that should be talked about at all or that it's a distraction - that's what really worries me.
MARTIN: So, Rich, what about you? How do you get people to the table? I know that you've had some difficult community conversations in the past. I mean, for example, I know that you worked in helping the community figure out what to do about the site of the former Sandy Hook Elementary School. You were part of the facilitation process there. But those were people who were highly motivated to be part of the conversation, and one assumes that they at least approached it with some semblance of goodwill toward each other. I mean, what about when it isn't that, when - what about it when it's with what Pastor Moore said, that there are a lot of people who said, you know what? That was then. This is now. My family didn't own slaves. I have nothing to do with this.
HARWOOD: Yeah. I think - look, I think if we think that this conversation is going to ramp up really quickly and we want to scale it really fast, I think that's a mistake. I think a better strategy is slow and steady. And what we want to do initially is start to bring people together in small groups who are willing to come together and let that ripple out over time and build our capability to do this. Look at - the heart of this is going to be our civic confidence, our belief that we can do this together and do something productive. I think that's going to have to start small. It can start to build from there and ripple out. And we can begin to bring more and more people into the conversation over time. We can't start all at once. It's a big mistake. It won't work. And we're looking for trouble if we try to do that.
MARTIN: OK. Sharon, what about you? I know that you've been involved with a group called Coming To The Table, an organization that acknowledges and seeks to heal from the racial wounds of the past. I'm reading from the, you know, statement...
MARTIN: And you contributed to this really interesting volume called "Slavery's Descendants," which is coming out soon. It's published by Rutgers University Press, which actually has essays from people who were people who know that they are related to people who enslaved people and people, like yourself, who know that you are related to descendants - who are descendants of people who were enslaved. How has that worked for you in getting people to participate in these conversations or have these kinds of dialogues?
MORGAN: It's worked very well for us. And I think, on one hand, I kind of agree with Rich when he says that these are things that happen. There has to be a change of heart by individual people. So those are things that happen on a very small platform, and that does ripple outward. So you need enough people to change their hearts and make a change in the society. So Coming To The Table has been one way of doing that because we now have thousands of people around the country who are interested in this model of being able to take the descendants of people who were enslaved and unite them with the people who are descendants of those who enslaved them. And it may sound counterintuitive to make that that connection, but it really does work because nobody has had a way to relieve themselves of this moral burden.
I'm also agreeing with Reverend Moore. This is a moral imperative. If you believe in humanity, if you have love in your heart, if you believe in Christian principles, if you have a moral compass, it - you have to engage this conversation. And I am feeling very positive because as I go around the country and I speak and I see the people who are buying my books and the people who attend our sessions when I do talks, I am seeing a yearning in people that really do want it to change because we're tired of the acrimony, you know? We're ready to do re-embrace this moral principle and to start really caring about each other and getting over this past.
MORGAN: But it's not over, and it's got to be over if we're ever going to make it, if we're ever going to heal.
MARTIN: We're going to have to leave it there for now. Let's get back together again when these talks proceed and just see how they're going. And that's - that has been Sharon Leslie Morgan, writer and genealogist. She's the co-author of "Gather At The Table: The Healing Journey Of A Daughter Of Slavery And A Son Of The Slave Trade." Rich Harwood is with us, president The Harwood Institute. And Russell Moore was with us, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I thank you all so much for starting our conversation about this.
HARWOOD: Thanks for having us.
MORGAN: Thank you. This was good. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.