Forum will explore the difficulty of Breathing While Black

Andy Downing
Black Lives Matter rally in 2014

The Columbus African Council has been running monthly discussion panels tackling big-picture questions within the black community, delving into the state of black education and the growing racial wealth gap, among other topics. But the organization’s upcoming forum, Breathing While Black, takes a more personal turn, exploring the reality that those within the community are forced to “learn to be hyper-vigilant about our black bodies while… dancing/selling bottled water/napping in a dorm/mowing the lawn/going to the store/walking through a neighborhood,” as detailed in the Facebook event page.

“When I heard about the concept, there were so many things I was immediately drawn to. I thought about Trayvon Martin. I thought about Michael Brown. I thought about Tamir Rice, and all of these [instances] where you have African American men shot and killed, and a justice system that never quite delivers the justice that it claims to,” said Kyle Strickland, senior legal analyst at the Kirwan Institute for Race & Ethnicity, who will join a four-person panel in discussion at the Columbus Metropolitan Library on Tuesday, Dec. 17. "And you think, ‘That could be me. That could be anybody at any moment in time.'"

Eventually, though, as Strickland considered the topic, he started to think on a more experiential level about the ways race had routinely exhibited itself in his life, often in ways as simple as “never really having the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

As an example, Strickland, who grew up in a predominantly white Worthington neighborhood, pointed to a visit he made to a childhood friend a couple of years back, when he was approached by a white woman while he sat in his parked car.

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“And she walks up and says, ‘What are you doing here?’” Strickland said. As the conversation continued, Strickland informed the woman that he was merely waiting on a friend, and that he had in fact grown up in the area. And yet the woman persisted. “And she finally said, ‘You don’t really fit in … so you might want to move along,’ which was very much code for, ‘I’m going to call the cops.’”

While Strickland termed the encounter “trivial” compared with the experiences of others, it served as yet another in a lifetime of reminders that his skin color will sometimes be the first thing some people will see. In grade school, Strickland said it wasn’t unusual for teachers to discipline him more harshly than his white counterparts. Then, while he was a senior at Ohio State, someone spray painted “Long Live Zimmerman” on Hale Hall, the university’s black cultural center, in reference to George Zimmerman, who shot and killed black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Even Harvard University, where Strickland earned his law degree, wasn’t immune, with Strickland recalling the debates surrounding the Harvard Law School shield, which included three sheaves of wheat taken from the coat of arms of the Royall family, which amassed its fortune in the slave trade and on a sugar plantation in Antigua (Harvard Law School was established in 1817 with a bequest from Isaac Royall Jr.; the shield has since been removed from the law school).

“And one day we woke up to seeing the portraits of all of the black professors with black tape over their mouths,” said Strickland, who also serves as the director of My Brother’s Keeper Ohio, a statewide network aimed at providing educational and community opportunities for young men of color. “It seemed like a shock at the time: 'How could this happen in a place like this?' But then you look at it, and it’s like, ‘No. There’s no shock at all. This exists, especially in places of power and prestige.'"

But for Breathing While Black, Strickland said he’s as eager to hear from community members far removed from positions of power as he is fellow esteemed panelists, which include organizer Tammy Fournier Alsaada, Judge Kimberly Cocroft and former Ohio State Sen. Ray Miller.

“There’s a great group of panelists … but you could bring anybody up there to have these conversations and it would be just as powerful and impactful,” Strickland said. “And I think we often lose sight of that. It’s not just the ‘success stories,’ or people in positions of power [who should be heard]. Really, it’s the stories of everyday people who are too often ignored. … We need to listen to the stories people tell and the pain that they go through.”

While discussions centered on race can be difficult, Strickland said they’re essential to countering the long-simmering hatreds and prejudices that once led his fellow Harvard students to place black electrical tape over photographs of black professors, and the teachers in his predominantly white grade school to punish his perceived misdeeds more harshly than his fair-skinned classmates.

“If you see ugliness and sit idly by and say, ‘We’re not going to talk about it,’ it will still persist. So I’m going to continue to fight, and to talk about these injustices,” Strickland said. “I think about my two nieces, who are 3 and 1 years old, and I think about the type of country I want to see for them. … Ultimately, you talk about being subjected to all of the ugly parts of this country, but there are so many beautiful parts within it, as well. I’m not going to let somebody hijack that narrative from me of what it means to be an American.”

Columbus Metropolitan Library

6-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 17

96 S. Grant Ave., Downtown

Breathing While Black