When the Past Is All Too Present
For most of us, the image of a plantation evokes thoughts of a distant, troubling time in American history, but for a group of North Park University students who took a 72-hour “freedom ride” to see civil-rights landmarks last year, that history was all too present.
"I don't recall ever meeting anybody who was of the particular opinion that slavery wasn't so bad, that people received three meals a day and adequate housing," said Ramiro Medrano, a mid-life adult student, as he described the visit to a working plantation offering historical reenactments and tours near Natchez, Mississippi.
"I was really surprised that the owners of this plantation were marketing that, and even more surprised that they had students come out and participate in an activity where they picked cotton and then they gave that back to the plantation owner's company," he said.
The plantation's owners are descendents of slave holders, said Abigail Svoboda, a North Park undergraduate, and their business is a lucrative one. The cotton picked by elementary school children is sold for a profit, she said, and sharecropping is also part of the business model, with descendents of former slaves farming the owners' land. "They're very happy and proud to tell you that," said Svoboda. "They will also tell you, "Racism doesn't exist.""
For both students, this stop was the most memorable and disturbing of the journey they took as part of North Park's Sankofa experience. The annual, three-day bus trip begins on a Thursday night during the spring semester. Social-justice and civil-rights videos stimulate conversation as participants journey along
the same basic route that Freedom Riders took in the 1960s. After a night on the bus, the group of up to 60 participants visits sites like the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama. They get a good night's
rest at a hotel Friday night before another full day of sightseeing and another night of discussion on the long bus ride home.
What really disturbed Svoboda about the plantation stop was the realization that school children were being taught a false version of history. "They're taught that slavery was actually just happy laborers singing in a field," she said. For her, that was a "microcosm" of how racism works. "It's really easy for most of us to say that these things don't exist when we're still living off the benefits."
The group actually left the plantation tour early, and most people were crying afterwards, said Svoboda. It was the third day of the trip, and the bus was hot and smelly, Medrano said. "We experienced being uncomfortable. It added to making us a little bit more hostile."
Participants are so physically worn down by this point in the journey that "they've lost some of their mental filters and ability to play nice," said the former program director for University Ministries, Paul Johnson C'97. "The political correctness is all out the door. You get a lot more of the raw emotion, a lot more of the knee-jerk reaction to things that otherwise I think they would gloss over."
As Svoboda was preparing to go on her second Sankofa trip this February, a white friend told her he was still struggling with guilt over his immediate reaction to what happened at the plantation last year. He had initially expressed disapproval of the way the group had "demonized" the tour guide, even though he too was appalled at what she was saying.
His perspective was a "valuable thing for us to hear," said Svoboda, "but it was also difficult because [there were] just so many spiritually oppressive lies that we were being told." Her friend's concern didn't stifle conversation on the bus, she said. Although rules like "no profanity" and "no personal attacks" govern behavior, "at that point, it was pretty no-holds-barred."
Managing Emotions and Reactions
Marcus Simmons C'2009 is a coordinator of the Sankofa program and has been on 12 trips since he first came to North Park as an undergrad in 2004. At first, he wondered whether talk could accomplish anything and whether there were whites who cared enough to engage in difficult conversations about racial reconciliation. But by his fourth trip, he was wrestling with how to have serious discussions about race in a way that honored both his faith and his passion for reconciliation work. And by his eighth trip, he was grappling with how to have multigenerational conversations about race.
It was on this trip, which he took with North Park Theological Seminary, that Simmons realized he was harboring anger toward older generations of all races. "Through an outburst of emotion that I didn't even see coming myself, I realized that I had been looking at it as a problem that I inherited," said Simmons. It was also a problem he didn't want to take responsibility for, but older participants were saying was his generation's to solve.
"At first, I really pushed back on that and said, 'You know, it might be, but this is your fault. You didn't fix this and I don't know what to do about it," said Simmons. Afterwards, he came to the conclusion that different age groups need to work through these issues together. Now Simmons coordinates a multigenerational trip himself.
Medrano was sometimes concerned about the anger African Americans expressed on the bus and by the tendency of whites to "write things off," as if the actions of their ancestors or modern-day racism had nothing to do with them.
"Unfortunately, in the work of reconciliation, not enough people are taking responsibility to walk them through that. Because of where my passion is, I did, and will, even after the trip," said Medrano. He recalls watching the film Amistad on the bus and coming to the realization that, although he has experienced prejudice and racial profiling as a third-generation Mexican American, his own Spanish and Portuguese ancestors may have been involved in the slave trade, too.
"It's challenged me to look at things differently," he said.
Finding Language to Talk about the "Absurdity of Race"
Rayshauna Gray took two Sankofa trips when she was a student at North Park. She went on the first one thinking it would be a "great time" to hang out and talk about race in ways that she and her black friends ordinarily only did when they were alone together.
Sankofa gave Gray additional language to talk about "the absurdity of race," she said. "There comes a point in an intentional conversation about any form of privilege when you must be moved to action," said Gray. "I don't want crucifixion. But I do want accountability. I want people to understand that this isn't something that I can do on a weekend and forget about later."
"Sankofa done right reveals to us that our humanity is at stake," Gray said, "that race, too, is still at the heart of this country's darkness, and that the hope for a better tomorrow hinges upon the past we've inherited and the work we do today." White participants may be confronting the reality of white privilege for the first time, said Johnson. "A lot of people understand white privilege as perks and benefits that most people don't get," he said. "The next layer down is to understand that those privileges come at the expense of other people."
"Sankofa made me brave enough to say that I was raised a human being," said Gray, "and every morning when I wake up, I'm fully human, and then I go out into a society that lops off limbs and makes me Black or female. I can choose to live in a bubble—that's all well and good until someone in Boston at the bus station calls me a racial slur when they're drunk, which happened last week."
Looking Backward to Move Forward
Sankofa didn't originate at North Park. It is a West African word that means "looking backward to move forward," and it has been used by many people in a variety of contexts, said Chrissy Palmerlee, manager of the department of compassion, mercy, and justice in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC).
The denomination's Covenant Ministries of Benevolence organized the first Sankofa trip in 1999 after its executive vice president, Harold Spooner, and his colleagues Jim Sundholm C'67 S'72 and Jim Lundeen C'55 were introduced to the idea at a 1998 Christian Community Development Association conference, said Spooner.
"The point of Sankofa is to give you a relationship that you can continue to walk in," said Palmerlee. The ECC hosts two trips every year for 35 to 40 participants from around the country as part of a multilayered denominational effort called "Journey toward Racial Righteousness," she said. Journey to Mosaic, which involves Sankofa-like experiences in different regions of the country, and Invitation to Racial Righteousness, which involves reconciliation work between local churches, are the other two components.
Evolving into the Future
In 2000, after Paul Johnson's colleague Alexandria Taylor came back from an early ECC Sankofa trip, she convinced him to adapt the experience for North Park students. Although the bus trip hasn't changed in the past 12 years, the rest of the experience has evolved and expanded, he said. The number of pre- and post-trip gatherings has increased, and students can even take a Sankofa class. Participants are also now paired with partners of a different race before the trip and are encouraged to meet together outside formal gatherings to build their relationship.
"We really tried to utilize this experience as a catalyst for change on campus and then change within the individual," said Johnson. "The more of that work that was done ahead of time made the experience so much deeper and richer on the bus."
The partnership model is unique and especially beneficial for college students, he said, because sharing dorm rooms and classes facilitates ongoing opportunities to interact around the issues.
For Abigail Svoboda, the relationships formed on previous trips led directly to her involvement. An interracial group of female students who lived together introduced her to the experience when they shared their Sankofa stories at a campus event. Then, as a junior, she moved into a "diversity house" that had been formed by participants of another trip. Now she keeps the conversation going by hosting dinners with one of her Sankofa partners.
"Sankofa gives you a perspective of history that is so, so crucial to the conversation," said Svoboda. "Dealing with issues of reconciliation on the level of a whole community, a whole country, and learning to get past ignorance and find our historical and societal context is something that I had never dived into."
One of the University's goals is to prepare students who are "interculturally competent," said the dean of diversity, Terry Lindsay, because graduate schools and corporations want young adults who are not only competent in their areas of study but also prepared to "live, learn, and lead in a globalized society."
Sankofa is one of many cross-cultural experiences designed to shape students for the future, Lindsay said. Although it is carried out under his direction, he himself took the journey for the first time just last year.
"I've been doing this diversity work now for many years," said Lindsay, "and it's by far the most transformational experience I've ever had."
Likewise, a decade of coordinating North Park's Sankofa experience gave Johnson a lens through which to see life that now affects everything he does: how he spends his money, who his friends are, where he lives, what his job is. "This is a filter that I run every decision through," said Johnson, who now works on racial reconciliation and social justice issues at a majority-white church. "An immersion experience like this, when coupled with the right kind of classroom and learning experience, I think, is a perfect environment for true change."
Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story, which appears in the printed magazine, the quotations from Abigail Svoboda were misattributed to Melissa Quinn Hughes.