Mawuli Davis, Jana Johnson-Davis, and Monica Agoston listen as actor Jay Jones reads a short script centered on race as part of Decatur Dinners at the home of Clare and Jay Schexnyder on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019, in Decatur. The reading and dinner was one of 100 being held simultaneously across Decatur to talk about race and equity. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Polite conversations about racism and other hard issues

“A Few Honest Moments With Sam” had a certain deja vu, been there, done that quality to it.

Sam is a fictional character but his story could just as easily have been the story of Mawuli Davis or Trey Hawkins or even Jay Jones, the man playing Sam in the 15-minute character play performed just prior to one of Sunday’s 100 Decatur Dinners.

Despite having graduated from college and landed a white-collar job that afforded him an upper-middle-class existence, Sam was deeply worried about how to protect his family. He recalled the time his wife was stopped and held on the side of the road for nearly a half hour by white policemen who offered no explanation or apology; having to explain to his young son why he was called the N-word; and having clients make the assumption that his white co-worker was the team leader and not him, and how it all left him feeling sick and tired.

“The message is you don’t matter,” he said. “You don’t belong here.”

Actor Jay Jones read “A Few Honest Moments With Sam,” a short script about race, as part of Decatur Dinners at the home of Clare and Jay Schexnyder on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019, in Decatur. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When Sam’s wife suggested he could either get a dog or see a therapist to cope, he chose the latter.

But he wasn’t really depressed.

Sam was simply tired of having to prove himself, tired of watching black men and women be shot dead and being told to get over it, tired of being told he was overreacting.

RELATED | Read the AJC’s Race and Religion series

Many African Americans here and across the country will tell you the same thing. Many whites will tell you any claims of racism are simply that — claims — and that black folk simply need to take responsibility for their shortcomings and move on.

Many on both sides will tell you racism is a difficult issue when it isn’t difficult at all. It comes down to this: Do we have the moral fortitude to acknowledge the pain it creates or will we continue to simply ignore it? Will we condemn white supremacy and do nothing or will we finally do something to bring change?

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“I came here tonight because I wanted to do something,” Sam said, finally. “I just don’t know what that something is.”

My guess is the estimated 1,200 who participated Sunday evening in the Decatur Dinners shared that sentiment. And I bet it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that those seated at Jay and Clare Schexnyder’s table most certainly did.

It was Clare Schexnyder after all who, with several other women, set Sunday night’s conversations about race in motion.

It was in this home last December, when Schexnyder hosted 30 guests to watch “Shaking the Wind,” a one-woman play about the life of Minka Wiltz and produced by Ariel Fristoe, the founder and artistic director of Out of Hand Theater.

For hours after, most of those guests remained talking about the inequities they saw, including the disproportionate number of African American kids in the city of Decatur school district who are disciplined more often than their white counterparts, who are expelled more and who don’t perform as well academically.

A small business owner and the mother of a school-age son, Schexnyder wished out loud that they could start a conversation about race.

RELATED | Why are these 100 dinners in 1 night in Decatur special?

Fristoe and Wiltz liked the idea and early this year met with Schexnyder and Dietra Hawkins to talk about what that would look like. It helped that Hawkins, a clinical psychologist and founder of One Small Change, had been hosting community “Dinners With Friends” to get people talking about everything from equity to discrimination and income inequality.

The women agreed to host 100 dinners simultaneously across Decatur.

It turned out to be greater than anything they’d imagined.

In all, 50 private residents signed up to host dinners in their homes. Twenty large venues, including churches, businesses and Decatur city schools, opened their doors to as many as 50 people wanting to share their stories, to listen and create the change they wanted to see.

Live performances like “A Few Honest Moments With Sam,” each created by Minka Wiltz, provided the starting point for the conversations.

People participate in a dinner conversation on race as part of Decatur Dinners at the home of Clare and Jay Schexnyder on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019, in Decatur. The dinner was one of 100 being held simultaneously across Decatur to talk about race and equity. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal0Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

With the Schexnyders was Jay Jones who played Sam; Mawuli Davis, a civil rights attorney, and his wife Jana Johnson-Davis, a former City Schools of Decatur teacher and unopposed school board candidate; Sarah Dansby, a 74-year-old widow; Monica Agoston, a clinical psychologist; Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett, and facilitator Trey Hawkins.

They were four whites and five blacks eating plates of chicken and rice, drinking glasses of water and red wine, politely talking about issues of race, and hopefully listening.

What quickly emerged was the weight that racism places on African Americans.

“Always had a fear of whites going way back,” Dansby said. “I’ve seen a lot but I also see where things are going today. The Ku Klux Klan is rising up again. I see children talk a lot about hate. I don’t understand how someone so young can hate. I wish there was more love, more understanding and respect and everybody was treated like a human being.”

RELATED | Racism: It’s not your fault, but it is your problem

Dansby, who came of age during the “separate but equal” era, remembered passing schools to get to the two-room schoolhouse where she was educated and never having any new school books until eighth grade. Those new books, she recalled, were used books from white schools.

Clare Schexnyder, right, listens as Sarah Dansby speaks about her experience growing up during a dinner conversation on race as part Decatur Dinners on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019, in Decatur. The dinner was one of 100 being held simultaneously across Decatur to talk about race and equity. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

After sharing her reality, Mawuli Davis asked what, if anything, should America do with that?

“It has to be more than an apology,” he said. “Acknowledgment is the first step, but then how is it addressed? That’s the challenge we have.”

Jana Johnson-Davis described the racism she has experienced as exhausting, but “thinking about her students provides the strength she needs to fight another day.”

Agoston said that the emotional labor required to survive racism takes away from being able to live life well.

Mawuli Davis, however, said that even with the struggle, he loves his life and is hopeful Decatur can overcome even racism.

Schexnyder is hopeful, too, especially after Sunday night.

“I don’t even have words to describe how I feel about this evening,” she said in a Facebook post after the dinner. “My heart is full to bursting. We talked about hard things, we showed up, we shared a meal, we welcomed strangers into our homes – and we left as friends.

“We touched 1,200 people tonight. Hopefully they’ll see the issue of race in a different way after today and work to create change in our city in a concerted effort. It was a grand experiment… let’s keep it going!”

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com, and read the full This Life Race and Religion series (ajc.com/this-life-race).

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