A few weeks ago, a train delay forced my mother to wait on a hard wooden bench in the Charlotte station for nearly an hour. She hates those benches. For her, they bring back memories of her childhood. She used to walk with friends to the original location of the Charlotte station to watch the soldiers wait for their trains during World War II. At the time, the station was bifurcated by a rod iron fence to honor the spatial logics of segregation: "colored" soldiers on one side; whites on the other. The colored section had what my mother called "straight up and down" shallow-seat benches that made it difficult for the black soldiers to find comfort. Their peers in the "white" section, on the other hand, sat and slept on the kinds of deep-seated, slightly curved-back benches that are currently in the station. That was one of my mother's intimate memories of US involvement in World War II: same uniforms, same war, different benches.
I have thought about that story a lot over the past few weeks. It came to mind listening to one of our field scholars, Evan Faulkenbury, give a colloquium on philanthropy in the southern civil rights movement; listening to Tracy K'Meyer's Hutchins lecture on school desegregation in Louisville; and watching field scholar Taylor Livingston work with interns
Alex Ford, Devin Holman, Monique Laborde, and Destinie Pittman as they interview members of
a group of the first African American students who attended UNC from 1952-1972. It came to mind again watching black students and their allies continue the unfinished work of the civil rights movement by protesting for greater inclusion on our campuses and laboring alongside invested administrators to reckon with the legacies of anti-black racism that continue to restrict underrepresented faculty, staff, and students from experiencing a full sense of belonging.
All these things were on my mind this weekend as I witnessed the horrific acts of terrorism in Beirut and Paris on my television and participated in discussions about those attacks as well as prior and on-going atrocities fueled by xenophobia, fear, and anger in Syria, Kenya, Nigeria, Northern Iraq, and other spaces and places in need of recognition and healing.
On campuses and in city streets around the globe, the question that reverberates is: What can we who are invested in social justice do right now? I tend to believe that the first step, although humble, is the most important. We can listen. We speak our values, our hopes, and our pain through our stories. We can stand in witness to another's telling, ask honest questions, and do what is in our power to do. We can stand in solidarity by first showing active empathy and care. We have to be willing to connect the dots between domestic acts of racism and xenophobia and those perpetrated abroad. That work begins with the stories we make space to hear and how we choose to value them.
--Renée Alexander Craft