Wednesday, March 27, 2002

First meeting prompts discussion of issues in book, city

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When Jerome Manigan asked the group why “Caucasians have to make other people feel inferior,” he may not have anticipated the response.

        The 18 — 10 African-American, eight white — had gathered at Kaldi's on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine Monday for the first On the Same Page discussion. They were primed to discuss not only the racial divide described in Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, but the problems plaguing Cincinnati today. On the Same Page aims to bring our community together through discussion centered on Mr. Gaines' book.

    7 p.m. tonight, Sitwell's Coffee House, 324 Ludlow Ave., Clifton. For a complete schedule, go to Cincinnati.Com/samepage
        “Everything has a past and everything has a root,” said discussion leader Denis Daly from the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County. “In order to understand where we are now, we have to understand what went before.”

        Although the dialogue began with comments on who learned what lesson from whom and the nature of manhood, it quickly moved from the written page into the streets of Cincinnati.

        “The worst crime is that you have people with common interests fighting all the time and people benefiting off it,” Mr. Daly said. “We need to see what we have in common more than this false idea that I am better than you.”

        Mr. Manigan, a Cincinnati schoolteacher, agreed: “Until you get to those kinds of issues, it will be very difficult to understand the anger. And there's a lot of anger out there. I don't know how angry black women are — they should be angrier than black men because they've been denied the opportunity to be whole. Black women should be at the ready to tear it down, and the black men should tear it down.”

        Comments about the recent findings that Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach had lied about what happened when he shot Timothy Thomas in an Over-the-Rhine alley, jumped back and forth from the book to the city. That shooting led to last April's rioting and subsequent boycott of downtown by African-American organizations.

        “It was a lynching and the community watched,” Oakley resident Brian Swann said of events in the book. “It was a lynching through the legal system.”

        “All of this is best illustrated by the runaway cow,” Mr. Manigan said. “They didn't shoot the cow. Do you understand what all that symbolized?

        “A lot of the issues here are timeless,” said Mr. Swann. “There are those who could go into court today and be lynched just like Jefferson was.”

        A Lesson Before Dying is the story of Jefferson, a young black man sentenced to death by an all white jury and judge for a murder he did not commit. He is taught to die with dignity by a local teacher at the request of his aunt. In the process, a number of characters learn lessons in tolerance and humanity.

        The city officials in the book are less than sympathetic, and on Monday night the group found local city government lacking as well.

        “Where was City Council tonight?” asked Vicki Beare. “This is downtown. I'm thinking a lot of them would be here. This is their community.”

        “You stand up. You make a stand,” added Bruno Lanman, a local business owner. “The fact we are here talking about race has never happened before in this city. The object is to have an open dialogue where we are not threatening or threatened. But the people who need to be here aren't.”

        Mr. Daly lead the conversation through a discussion on intraracial bias sparked by descriptions of discrimination of lighter skinned blacks against those with darker skin.

        “I lived in Kentucky until I was 12,” Mr. Daly said. “When I moved up here it was like I had the plague. People wanted to know why I had shoes on and if I knew how to read. I started telling people I was from Wisconsin, because that was OK.”

        “To be Appalachian is to catch pure hell,” agreed Mr. Manigan.

        As the evening progressed, it was clear most had their say and both white and black perspectives were shared.

        “We got away from the book, but I'm glad we did,” said Mr. Daly. “It was great.”

        “I needed to say the things I did,” said Mr. Manigan. “We have got to stop seeing us and them. We have to get to the point where we see us. I enjoyed this very much. It was enlightening. It made me come to an awareness.”


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