To the Editor:
Last Monday offered a stunning presentation during Not In Our Town’s (NIOT) monthly “Continuing Conversations on Race and White Privilege” at the Princeton Public Library on the necessary topic, “Is Truth and Reconciliation Possible in Princeton?” The panel, moderated by Professor Ruha Benjamin, associate professor of African American Studies, Princeton University, began with Shirley Satterfield, Fern Spruill, and Larry Spruill, leading spokespeople in the black community who gave deeply-moving personal histories.
Over 100 engaged Princeton-area residents heard firsthand narratives about growing up black: stories of discrimination in hospitals, mistreatment by faculty as our schools were first desegregated (1948), hatred and fear of police, the witnessing of the lynching of a family member.
When we then broke up into small groups to discuss what we’d heard, the Community Room became electric, animated to a pitch I had rarely witnessed as a “Continuing Conversations” participant. I was personally humbled by the presenters’ courage and commitment — offering up, yet once again, for (mostly) white ears and hearts, their knowledge of personal historical pasts, riddled still by trauma. They barely catch breath to acknowledge they’re “tired” of teaching those of us who don’t “get it.”
My concern is not that “things have gotten better,” rather, much remains the same. My group said/heard that Princeton parents of children of color still have deep fears about their children on the streets every day, despite much progress made in sensitizing law-enforcement personnel to recognize and reject racial profiling. We heard a former School Board representative say that many problems of the 1990s remain — although a dedicated group of people (many from NIOT) is working with school Superintendent Steve Cochrane and other school personnel to achieve an accurate, eyes-open understanding of white American violence against blacks in the school curricula, along with rebalancing of faculty. We (who are older …) discussed the strain of gathering socially with unfamiliar people — the un-comfort zone we must risk for us to make change happen.
Resisting the status quo is hard. Princeton was once known, well into the 20th century, as the “northernmost city of The South.” The very mixed legacy of Woodrow Wilson (who as president segregated “the races” in federal department buildings) indicates as much.
Much work remains. Rabbi Hillel asks, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14). And Roberto Schiraldi, NIOT’s moderator last Monday, pointedly asked us, “If not here, where?” His question was reiterated by Professor Benjamin, who sharply observed that the word “re-conciliation” assumes that somewhere, in the deep abysm of time, we were unified, not sundered: truth-telling is the beginning of conciliation — yes, the truths some of us carry (too lightly) of being born into cultures of white supremacy and continue to benefit from those inexhaustible granaries.
Come to “Continuing Conversations” meetings (first Monday, every month, 7 p.m., Princeton Public Library, Community Room). You will find many others who want to tell truths, disburden, learn, attempt conciliation.