On May 15, Rabbit Box held a curated show for elder storytellers: “Silver Box – My Life in Black & White” at the Melting Point. Punctuated by the sound of pouring rain on the tin roof, nine storytellers told personal narratives relating how issues of race have affected their lives or discussed broader social narratives that pinpoint areas of social injustice. With Mary Whitehead acting as MC for the night, these storytellers showed that issues concerning race may not always be strictly black and white.
Donald Johnson began the night with a story that took place in 1964, the year he, at 16 years of age, saw the passing of the Civil Rights Act. A former congressman for the 10th district of Georgia, Johnson told of the murder of Lemuel A. Penn–a decorated Army reserve officer who was followed and killed by members of the KKK–and his father’s involvement in the case as a member of the prosecuting team. Reading impactful statements from his father’s closing argument, he transported the crowd to the stifling courtroom that was divided by race.
96-year old Robert Ayers took to the stage with an effortless personality that moved the crowd easily from laughter to tears within the span of only a few minutes. A self-proclaimed “PK,” or preacher’s kid, Ayers related how he became sharply aware of the social atmosphere of the times when Rae, the family’s young African American cook, became the accused in a situation where she was clearly the victim.
Valdon Daniel’s story was a lesson in geography, economics and self-worth. Daniel’s family lived in Broad Acres-the Projects of Athens–where his hardworking mother and father juggled responsibilities and long hours to earn their small salaries. Daniel himself worked across the street at a small neighborhood grocery store, where he came to realize he was being under-compensated for his work. To solve this problem of supply and demand, he adopted a Civil Rights-era tactic of peaceful protest: The Walkout.
Scientist Sydney Bacchus related a serious modern account of the intersection between politics and civil rights. A pertinent story given the recent mayoral election, Bacchus highlighted how local politicians are responding, or failing to respond, to voices on the periphery of the community. She specifically detailed how the Billups Grove Baptist Church, which was formed by freed blacks after the Civil War, has been affected by sewage sludge runoff from the adjacent dump.
Alzena Johnson told a story of the ways in which race can isolate a person, whether as a young teenager working her first job at a department store, as a student shielded from racial conflict by a protective mother, or as a professional affected by prejudice. Change has to occur under pressure and time, Johnson said, and people will know change when they judge by character rather than skin color.
Earnest Thompson dubbed his ‘60s era story the “Boy Who Loved Azaleas.” Living in an integrated neighborhood where black and white children played peacefully on sidewalks, he related how the arrival of some new white neighbors disturbed the peace. When Thompson, as a young boy, spied the new neighbors’ son picking flowers in his backyard, he defended his territory. The response from law enforcement was not something he expected, nor was it something his mother could protect him from.
Sylvia Priest described her sheltered childhood in a little farming community in Indiana and the diversity she never experienced in the homogenous white towns she travelled to throughout her life. She didn’t truly recognize racial conflict until she became the coach of an integrated girls’ basketball team that was searching for a place to sleep along the racially divided Route 66.
In an era where affirmative action is still a subject of debate, Mony Abrol told a story of race-based discrimination. At 30, he sought a position as test chief for a shipyard in New York City. An overqualified candidate, his credentials were questioned on the basis of race. Instead of taking the personal slights to heart, however, he used his experience to rise above the situation and to avert a crisis.
Ivan Sumner closed off Rabbit Box with a story of his pursuit of a Southern belle named Patsy Pepper. Hoping to take a bus in 1961 in Atlanta, he discussed a poignant moment of self-awareness and shame when he realized he was in the wrong racial section of the bus terminal.
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