Like many others, I have wrestled during the past week with what I can do, how I can help push forward some lasting, systemic change in our city. In the end, I found a story to share. Here’s one about Danita and Martha.
Danita Rountree Green and Martha Rollins were meeting late yesterday afternoon in Rollins’ sunny living room off Monument Avenue, just as President Obama was finishing his speech in Dallas, a speech that honored the officers killed by a gunman but also emphasized the hurt felt by many who believe that America isn’t listening to them.
“When all this takes place, more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid. We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism. To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and coworkers and fellow church members, again and gain and again, it hurts. Surely we can see that, all of us.”
Green, an author and educator, and Rollins, a founder of Boaz and Ruth, have forged a friendship through talking about that hurt, and the two want to invite more African-Americans and European-Americans in Richmond — those who grew up here and those who have moved here — to join them.
Danita Rountree Green, an author and educator, and Martha Rollins, a founder of Boaz and Ruth. (provided photo)
The two were finalizing details for a July 19 dinner at Pine Camp – a gathering planned months ago as part of their volunteer jobs as co-conveners of Coming to the Table, a national organization founded in Harrisonburg and affiliated with Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. The Richmondchapter had its first dinner in March 2015.
At Coming to the Table, attendees first share a meal and then talk with one another about some very tough stuff: labels, use of terms such as reconciliation, Richmond’s history and how the legacy of slavery affects everyone, and carrying guilt.
“We introduce ourselves and we ask people gingerly what brings them to the table,” Martha says, adding that the gatherings are confidential. “It’s a safe haven for that kind of conversation.”
And things roll from there. Attendees unpack what brought them. Sometimes it’s something that was said at work or on a bus or at a gas station. They ask about what they should have said, what they should have done. Sometimes they share what they were told or taught at home growing up.
“After you have broken bread and get comfortable and experienced their pain, it really affects the person you’ve been talking to, especially if they have been experiencing life in a very different place,” Danita says.
Danita began her work with Coming to the Table after attending the opening of the African-American Museum in New York a few years ago. She and a woman of European descent had been admiring a mural of Nat Turner together. “And then all of a sudden, she was just wailing tears and then threw herself into my arms, and she asked for forgiveness. … I just didn’t get it at all.”
A few weeks later, Danita was having lunch with Martha and told her the story, and Martha started crying, too.
“And it had never occurred to me that anybody else had any remorseful feelings about slavery at all,” Danita says.
“I never thought it was a burden that European-Americans carried at all. I thought it was only a burden carried by African-Americans. Since we’ve been doing this work, I have learned that is definitely a hardship that we have. That it’s not one-sided. That’s why the conversation is so difficult to begin with.”
But Danita and Martha both know that the most dangerous conversations are those that we, African-Americans and European-Americans, don’t have with one another.
“There are so many stories we hear, that people say our mothers and grandmothers never talked about [slavery] and then they find papers in the attic that say their family owned 100 slaves,” says Martha, who is in her early 70s. “A huge part of what we do is uncover history. My sin, or the folks of [my] generation, is being ignorant of the truth. And continuing the lie.“
The two women want to see Richmond natives around the table as well as newcomers who are having difficulty figuring out their new city.
“[Newcomers] have never experienced anything like it before, as far as the attitudes between African-Americans and European-Americans — how we have a basic, I would say, a basic distrust of one another,” Danita says. “How we talk about each other like we don’t live in the same city. We don’t share the same space. We have so much disconnectedness. …We don’t shop at the same stores, we don’t eat at the same restaurants. … It’s different here. [Richmond is] just a different animal.”
Martha seamlessly picks up where Danita leaves off. “The reason it is, was, so separate was because of the white power structure. We chose to make it separate. We chose to continue our story [after the Civil War],” she says.
Danita and Martha would like to see smaller discussion groups form out of the larger dinner meetings. There is a need to go deeper, get to know one another even better over the course of a few months. Perhaps even develop friendships that span years, as has Danita and Martha’s.
For now, they would be happy if you just joined them at the table.
“Coming to the Table is truly about forming relationships on the basis of truth, instead of the certitudes that we both have come to see in each other,” Danita says. “I’ll admit I had a lot of certitudes about white people that did not serve me well, and I think a lot of people who come back to the table are willing to say that they are looking at the certitudes that they came with and realize that they are not truth and have not served them well.”
And as President Obama said yesterday, “If we cannot talk about these things, if we cannot talk honestly and openly, not just in the comfort of our own circles, but with those who look different than us or bring a different perspective, then we will never break this dangerous cycle.”
The next Coming to the Table dinner will be held Tuesday, July 19, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Pine Camp Cultural Arts Center, 4901 Old Brook Road. Suggested donation $6. Please let either Danita or Martha know your plans to attend: firstname.lastname@example.org or Martha@livingintheand.com