Friday, December 27, 2013

Racial Healing Initiative Book Club, Connecting & Challenging with "Clybourne Park"

Every other month the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society holds a Book Club meeting at Kazoo Books. The Race Initiative Book Club is founded out of the SMBHS’s Racial Healing Initiative, which is a program that maintains that the “lingering legacy of historical injustices must be addressed through” four steps: facing history, making connections, healing wounds and taking action. The Book Club is a drop-in club that fits into this structure by opening up a space for people to read and discuss books that promote racial healing and reconciliation. As the newest member of the SMBHS team, I jumped on the opportunity to join.

I arrived to Kazoo Books for my first Book Club meeting on a rainy, chilly November night. Inside I was welcomed by an intimate and cozy room shelved floor to ceiling with used and new books. A reader's paradise. Fluffy, grey cat included. Although I’ve visited this little bookshop on Parkview dozens of times, it was nice to be greeted by a community of like-minded activists, questioners and curious souls. A dozen or so women and one gentleman (yes, only one…) said their hellos and pulled up a chair for me around a large table. After old friends and first timers introduced themselves, Donna Odom, Executive Director of the SMBHS, passed around a tin of cookies and we were handed a set of guidelines they call Boundary Markers. Used at the Racial Healing Retreats, this set of practices is used to “create and protect safe spaces.” Talking about race is not always easy—as “Clybourne Park” demonstrates—so having a full page of ideas like, "Speak your truth in ways that respect other people’s truth," provided the other members and me with tools to handle our discussions with respect and consciousness. I thought it was a great way to start off what can often times be a difficult and sensitive topic. After a brief chat about these Boundary Markers, we began. 

November’s book choice was actually a 2009 play written by Bruce Norris called “Clybourne Park.” Written in response to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” the dark, confusing and sometimes hilarious play fearlessly tackles issues of race, gentrification and housing in an all-white suburb in Chicago—which actually ends up being Any City, USA.

The first of the two-act play takes part in 1959 around a white, middle-aged couple, Bev and Russ Stoller, who are packing up their modest home to move into a new neighborhood. Throughout the first act, the Stollers are visited by a group of characters, including their neighbor Karl Lindner, who discloses that the family buying the Stoller's home is a “colored” family. Tensions rise as Karl does all he can to convince them to back out of the deal, afraid that desegregating the neighborhood will bring property values down and encourage other black families to move in. As the conversation escalates among the small crowd, each character is confronted with their own biases and judgments. Act 2 is set in the exact same home as Act 1, though it takes place 50 years later, with the house in visible disrepair. The neighborhood has become an all-black neighborhood, and our group of characters sits discussing housing codes. There is a white couple planning on buying and remodeling the house, who are negotiating with local housing regulations and neighborhood organizations, represented by a black couple. We quickly discover the meaningful connections these characters have to Clybourne Park: the black wife is a relative of the family that bought the house in 1959, and the lawyer representing the white couple is the daughter of Karl Lindner. She mentions quickly that her family moved out of Clybourne Park right around 1960. Discussions of housing codes quickly dissolve into debates and arguments filled with racial tension and resentments. By the end of the short play, the characters and readers have been forced to look racism and gentrification dead on.

The play brought on a much welcomed discussion for me at the Book Club. As we spent time going over the scenes of the play, I was happy to hear members of the table bring forth their own experiences and perspectives on racism in housing—sometimes challenging one another on our levels of knowledge and acceptance of racism and gentrification in our own Kalamazoo. I hadn’t recognized what some members considered the causes and beginning stages of gentrification in some of our neighborhoods. It was nice to be challenged to think more critically about this. I also valued the comfort I felt around the table. Although there were clearly disagreements, everyone was in that space to learn, speak and grow. The Racial Healing Initiative has done a good job, in my opinion, on creating that safe space where people can challenge themselves—and ask to be challenged by others—without the fear of saying the wrong thing or feeling ignorant. I left the meeting thinking about housing in a way that my privilege, youth and diverse upbringing has not forced me to think of it until this point, and I am grateful for the discussions and the people that opened this up for me.

One member reminded us that there exists in most of us a deep fear of the unknown. You cannot truly know a thing, you cannot truly know a person unless you are in close quarters with them, until you become familiar with their culture, their ideas, their history. This takes commitment to ideals of integration. It takes, in many ways, for many people, courage, I think. This club is one of the many spaces Kalamazoo has to take up this courage and talk about these issues, so please join! The next club meeting is Thursday, January 16th at 6:30p. We meet at Kazoo Books at 2413 Parkview and we will be discussing A Stronger Kinship: One Town’s Extraordinary Story or Hope and Faith by Anna Lisa Cox. This book explores the attempts of the people of Covert, Michigan to defy racism and create an integrated city as far back as the 1860’s—despite the laws and standards of the surrounding world.

Plus, (lucky us!) “Clybourne Park” is coming to the Zoo. Come see the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, 2012 Tony Award winning play here in Kalamazoo. It is showing at Farmer's Alley beginning Friday, February 7, 2014. For more information or to buy a ticket, see:

And lastly, if you find you have some time on your hands, check out This American Life's timely broadcast of housing and racism.