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HomeLife In the Berkshires‘Being Black in...

‘Being Black in the Berkshires,’ a forum on the black experience

“The fear that black families have when their children leave the house is the same as it was in 1909 [when the NAACP was founded].” -- Dennis Powell, president of Berkshire County NAACP

Great Barrington —“Being Black in the Berkshires” was the title of a panel presentation sponsored by Multicultural BRIDGE on the evening of Monday, February 11, at St. James Place. A capacity crowd of 40 mostly white South County residents heard four panelists discuss black life in the Berkshires and relate some of their own experiences as people of color in a region where black faces are few (African Americans make up about 3 percent of the total population of the Berkshires).

The gathering was a follow-up to last September’s forum on the same theme in Pittsfield, but this time in the more affluent – and whiter – South County. “There is an imaginary line between North and South County,” said Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County NAACP and a Pittsfield resident who was born and raised in the city. “It passes right through Guido’s,” he added (to nervous laughter), referring to the food emporium’s northern location on the Pittsfield / Lenox line.

Dr. Eden Renee-Hayes, Dean of Equity and Inclusion at Bard College of Simon’s Rock. Photo: Amelia Silver

BRIDGE stands for “Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups through Education,” and the four panelists embodied those ideas in their own professional and personal lives. Besides Powell, panelists included educator and community activist Shirley Edgerton, Dr. Eden-Renee Hayes, Dean of Equity and Inclusion and Associate Professor of Psychology at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and Alfred Enchill, District Aide in State Sen. Adam Hinds‘ Berkshire County office – another son of the Berkshires – who moderated the event as a private citizen. BRIDGE educator Stephanie Wright, St. James Liaison Jane Burke, BRIDGE Board Co-Secretary Ari Cameron, and Powell provided welcoming remarks.

“I’m not an ‘expert’ in being black,” Powell commented; ”I am black.” Hayes said that in her roles as dean and professor she expects to be educating people about racial attitudes, but she noted that it shouldn’t be every black person’s job to raise awareness of bias in others when it emerges, often in small ways that can accumulate and produce a feeling of exclusion. Her mode is to “presume positive intent” in dealing with others, but she said she has had to confront instances of bias even if unintended.

Shirley Edgerton and Alfred Enchill, District Aide to state Sen. Adam Hinds. Photo: Amelia Silver

Both Edgerton and Hayes moved to the Berkshires from other parts of the country, the former 26 years ago, the latter ten. They spoke both as insiders and as people of color coming into communities from places with more mixed populations. Edgerton, cultural competency coach for the Pittsfield schools, stressed the need for teachers, parents, and black students themselves to set high expectations. She related how she helped a black student from Pittsfield who was homeless get into college in North Carolina, where she is now on the Dean’s list. She also spoke of the lessons in “code-switching” she gives to students and to her own grandchildren – how to behave in the white world as opposed to how you might behave with black friends and family.

Powell offered views of race relations in America and the Berkshires that ranged from dark to guardedly optimistic. “I am here to tell you not what you want to hear but what you need to hear,” he said. Asked what had changed from the time of the founding of the NAACP in 1909 to the present, Powell replied, “Too little. Ropes have given way to bullets. We’ve seen ‘Serve and Protect’ replaced by ‘Enforce.’ The fear that black families have when their children leave the house is the same as it was in 1909.” He related his own experiences as the victim of job discrimination, and he lamented the lack of role models for young black men in the Berkshires; for him, he said, it was his grandmother’s hand that guided him. At the same time, he spoke  encouragingly of students from Williams College mentoring Pittsfield public school students (where black enrollment is 11 percent) and recounted movingly about how he is trying to teach his three local grandchildren to navigate the world. He puts his energy into young people now, he says, and pointed to 20-something Enchill as one of them, eliciting a broad smile from the latter.

After questions and comments from the audience, Powell put in a pitch for the exhibit “Their Stories: Oral Histories from the NAACP,” about African Americans from the Berkshires, now at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. You read about it Monday on The Edge.

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