A matter of perception

THE OTHER DAY, a friend posted a photo of some landscape improvements happening on a public square, marked by a city sign that read "Pardon Our Progress."

She captioned it drily, “Savannah: apologizing for change since 1733.”

This made me snort sweet tea outta my nose, because ain’t it the truth? Positive growth is often met with a certain degree of resistance around here, from updating museums to desegregating public schools to investing in hi-tech infrastructure.

Savannah may be far too refined to be caught kicking and screaming as the rest of the world moves forward, but it does tend to drag its kitten heels.

As our city offers a polite plea to forgive any inconvenience caused by prettifying the lilies, some of its residents unapologetically push on to address the roots of crime, economic injustice and racial iniquity in our community. Last week, the folks at Solidarity in Savannah hosted Savannah Perceptions: A Real and Uncensored Dialogue on Race, Culture and History, an evening of straight up, real talk about the challenges that keep social and economic progress at bay.

Most of the folding chairs set up at the W.W. Law Recreation Center on East Bolton Street were already full by the time I arrived. I found a sweet spot near the Emergent Savannah crew and craned my head around to see the usual social justice suspects, various clergy and plenty of folks I hadn’t met before—young, old, black, white, professionals dressed in suits, artsy types in paint-spattered jeans. While no one was quite sure how this massive topic might be squeezed into the allotted hour and an half, the room buzzed with the enthusiasm that it was worth finding out.

click to enlarge A matter of perception
Photo by Brandon Blatcher
Citizens packed the W.W. Law Center to hear different perspectives on race and culture and share their own.

SIS director Lana Abbott introduced the panel, comprised of Savannah State student Carlos Williams, Eastside Alliance neighborhood activist Jennie Brannen, ex-prisoner and SIS success story Jacob Stevens, and local economic commentator and former Chatham County commissioner John McMasters.

Using SIS’ recent online survey about racial prejudice as a launch pad, each was to answer questions ranging from “Do you think there is segregation in Savannah?” to “Does music feed culture or vice versa?”

Moderator Chris Nunnery, a special education teacher at Hubert Middle School, prefaced his queries of the crew with a condensed early history of African Americans in Savannah, from slavery to Jim Crow to the Great Migration, and how it laid the road we’re all traveling on today.

He offered the perspective that since Savannah was one of the few Southern cities that wasn’t destroyed during the Civil War, it did not have to rebuild its social and economic structures and therefore remains stuck.

“Nothing was broken,” he explained. “The slave/master mentality, the resources stayed intact.”

I don’t know what other historians would say to that assertion, but college student Williams pointed out that a lack of historical context contributes to the division between black and white culture in Savannah and beyond.

“We aren’t taught black history except for February,” said the city native.

“And then we’re taught that black history starts with slavery.”

It would take a couple of years worth of evening forums to fill in the gaps of what most of us were never taught about black history, and in terms of the achievement of an equal and free society, you might agree with McMasters, who remarked, “You’d think at this point we’d be a lot further along by now.”

But hey, we can only start where we are. Savannah’s racial issues—so often framed as “us and them”—are inevitably stoked by the way we view crime. SIS interrupts the local cycle of gangs, violence and mass incarceration of young black men by engaging them one-on-one and helping them find resources to create legal income.

One of the focal points of the panel was Stevens, a former drug dealer in his 40s who has been able to go legit with SIS advocating for him.

“Black people have the will and the skills, but they don’t have the paperwork,” he said, meaning that those who have served time in prison—known as “returning citizens”—have little chance of scoring a job interview after checking the “Are you a felon?” box on a job application.

Often they turn back to crime out of desperation to feed their families.

“Ain’t got no options, ain’t got no job—y’all already know this story.”

Georgia “banned the box” for state jobs last year, but that law doesn’t extend to private businesses. SIS’ aim is to build relationships with employers open to hiring qualified returning citizens. Stevens recently scored a well-paying gig at a local furniture company with room for advancement, but decent jobs remain a chimera—for everyone, regardless of race.

“Racism issues are fed by poverty,” said McMasters, who reminded that Savannah’s burgeoning tourism industry only pays an average of $8.65 an hour, part of the systemic class system that keeps 26 percent of our neighbors poor as hell.

He reiterated the simple fix he has been championing since the last city election: “You could reduce the poverty rate to 14 percent overnight by raising wages two dollars.”

I think some in the room hoped to advance more solid solutions towards the intersection of systemic poverty and institutionalized racism in the local economy as well as in education and the justice system. Others shifted in their chairs, perhaps a bit bored of hashing out this very familiar topic once again. Nunnery seemed to sense the dynamic and handed over the mic to audience member Kevin Biggins, who shared his experiences of racial stereotyping.

“People definitely judge me for how I look, for something I did when I was 14,” said the softspoken Biggins, revealing a grin of gold teeth. Now in his 30s, he’s waiting to hear back about a job with the Dept. of Justice and wants everyone to see each other as they are, not necessarily as they appear.

“I’m just trying to take care of my child, trying to help her see differently.”

More folks began passing the mic, offering their own perspectives. The young black man sitting in front of me expressed that he felt that churches tacitly allow racism by staying silent; a white lady across the room felt that Savannah is an inherently religious community where common faith might heal its divides. The discussion bounced from corruption in local politics to cultural appropriation of hip hop to affordable housing to hair, peppered with sympathetic “mm-hms” and harumphs of disagreement.

It got heated at times and a little chaotic, but remained unfailingly civil, and handshakes and business card exchanges abounded as Nunnery finally called the evening to a close.

Perhaps future events could benefit from clearer rules of engagement, such as limiting the amount of time on the mic and focusing on a specific subject, but there is something clearly valuable in uncensored conversation between people wanting to be heard and people willing to listen.

It might not be as pretty as a new set of pavers, but this is what real progress looks like in Savannah—no apology necessary.


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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