Students from the Jessye Norman School of the Arts have been working hard to tell the story of the 1970 Augusta riot in the podcast, "Shots in the Back." Half of these students are white, while the rest are Black. That dynamic has made it intimidating to talk about racism in the classroom. In this bonus episode, several of them share their fears about racism.
Shots in the Back (Bonus): All Cakes Should Be Equal
Sea Stachura: Hey, it’s Sea Stachura, host of “Shots in the Back: Exhuming the 1970 Augusta Riot.” We are delaying our next full episode by one week. Thanks to an outpouring of support from listeners we’ve gained a lot of new material for our episodes, and it’s taking a minute for our small team to incorporate. In the meantime, here’s a glimpse into the minds of our fantastic students.
When COVID-19 hit, my students and I at Jessye Norman School of the Arts had to quarantine rather suddenly. So we didn’t have a chance to wrap up a lot of conversations. And there’s always been one I wished we could have continued. It’s the conversation about racism—both in the podcast’s content and in the classroom itself. Gabbie Stallings never liked to talk about racism. The word itself bothered her. One particular classroom conversation stands out.
Gabbie: No, nobody says that word. I just call it the r-word in my mind. So just say the r-word. Cause that's kind of freaked me out at first. I have two fears—
Sea Stachura: Nope. We're not doing this Voldemort thing. You are not Voldemorting me.
Sea Stachura: Voldemorting is the practice of avoiding a word or topic because you’re afraid of it.
Gabbie: Can I just tell you my three fears real quick? Small holes, racism, and being in the dark alone at night…
Essence: Shhh. Let’s get back on track.
Sea Stachura: We're all going to say the r-word in our silliest voices. Ready? Let's say racism in or silliest voices.
Gabbie: I guess, guys. It’s fun. And people got abused and killed and shot and I’m going to go outside for a minute.
Sea Stachura: I appreciate Gabbie’s honesty. She is exactly right. Saying the word racism in a silly voice does not dissipate its danger. Gabbie is 10 years old and going into the fifth grade. She’s also one of only a few black students in my class. And over the months, she found it a little easier to talk about the subject of racism in the presence of white students.
Gabbie: Last semester, I was just, like, so uncomfortable because like, I didn’t know about racism until I first stepped into the podcast thing.
Sea Stachura: Well it sounds like you did know about racism.
Gabbie: Yeah, I didn’t. Like I knew about like, how can I put this? Like white people like bringing my ancestors over and putting us into slavery. I can handle that because I've heard it many times before. But racism? That’s just a whole ‘nother level of uncomfortableness.
Sea Stachura: A few weeks ago, she and I got a chance to catch up. I asked Gabbie what she thought about the events over the past few months.
Gabbie: Like COVID, the racism, the racial injustice, the protest or do you mean for, like, the podcast?
Sea Stachura: She’s been keeping up with the news. And she’s seen what can happen to black people for simply existing.
Gabbie: I don't feel safe going outside of homes anymore and knowing that horrible racial groups like the KKK are now back. I also don't like it and become very self-conscious whenever we go out. I try to be safe, and I feel very relieved when we get home. So I don't want to go out as much like we used to even before COVID-19.
Sea Stachura: I also caught up with my student Atticus Dillard-Wright. He’s 12 years old, white, and going into the seventh grade. Like Gabbie, Atticus prefers to stay inside nowadays.
Atticus: I feel like the more I hear about like COVID-19 death counts in Georgia and different police shootings and stuff like that, I feel like the more I want to just crawl into bed and never leave.
Sea Stachura: Atticus and Gabbie are both afraid and largely for the same reason. But Gabbie’s fear is more concrete. She’s afraid she’ll be killed. Atticus says he recognizes that his fears are more abstract because he’s white.
Atticus:.It maybe feels like it won't happen to me, but somebody I know, which is still terrible, but, it feels less — I don't really know.
Sea Stachura: Less immediate.
Sea Stachura: Half of my podcasting class was white. And sometimes far more than half. And sometimes that dynamic kept racism abstract. It made the topic hard to talk about for both groups of students. Gabbie was the first one to point it out.
Gabbie: Cause not to be offensive, but there's a lot of white people in this room. It makes me feel uncomfortable.
Atticus: That's honestly fair.
Sea Stachura: Gabbie wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Aijalon Henderson is 15 years old and going into the tenth grade. She brought this up to a WRDW reporter in Augusta. She was being interviewed about the process of making this podcast.
Aijalon: Sometimes I felt like I was the only black kid, and sometimes I felt weirded out because like, how could they possibly know?
Sea Stachura: She chose to take the class because of some advice that her mom had given her.
Aijalon: So podcasting, she was like, you should consider podcasting because there are a lot of white people in the classroom and you could be that black voice to stand up and say — to stand up and, like, talk about racism and riots and stuff like that.
Sea Stachura: The kids in my podcasting class had their pick of which class to take. Jessye Norman offers dance, art, chorus, photography, theatre, and podcasting. Each as an after school program, all of it for free. So, when classes started last August, I knew it was an uphill battle getting kids to choose podcasting. To choose podcasting when we’re talking about a riot in particular. But I was honestly surprised that the class ended up being predominantly white in a predominantly black school. One of my white students, Aidan Allen, had a theory about this. He says it could be because black students don’t have to learn about racism. They live it.
Aiden: Also, I feel like it was a majority of white kids in this class is probably — it might be because, you know, black people want to forget about that and I understand.
Sea Stachura: You know, he’s right. Not many people want to talk about racism in their free time. And JNSA is a comfortable home for a lot of creative black students. This topic is sensitive. I recognize that as a white teacher, I’m probably not the type of person who they would expect to be having these conversations with. Or even feel comfortable with. But sometimes, the only way to get past something is to engage it. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing as we worked on the podcast together. The kids have come a long way from that first conversation. In Episode One, Atticus said talking about race was risky.
Atticus: I do think that everything is going to end up terrible. I just feel like this is going to end either perfectly or terribly.
Sea Stachura: When you say ‘it’ what do you mean?
Atticus: The podcast. And like, the fallout.
Essence: Because of the different opinions of races?
Sea Stachura: Now, he feels more confident in his ability to have difficult conversations.
Atticus: I feel like because I did this — the podcast stuff — it feels like — feels like I am better equipped to go about talking about some of the stuff than I was maybe before I started. On a scale of I guess I'd put it on a scale of one to ten: Before I started the podcast. I was maybe a bit like a three. And after, now I think I'm at like a six or seven. So a lot more comfortable. But not like one hundred percent.
Sea Stachura: Atticus is a pretty well-informed pre-teen. And after learning about the riot, he couldn’t help but connect Augusta’s story to more recent headlines.
Atticus: Well, look at the news right now and then think about what happened during the riot in Augusta. In Augusta, one man was killed by the police or people in power, and it caused a protest and a riot. And then look at what's happening right now, today, with Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. The same things are happening right now, as happened 50 years ago.
Sea Stachura: Those similarities are why Atticus thinks that learning about the riot might be more important.
Atticus: The past is not just the past. The past tells us not just what happened in the past, but also can help, like, shape our decisions for the future and what will happen in the future.
Sea Stachura: Gabbie agreed. When we talked recently, she said it was important to her to be informed. But she is still uneasy using the language of racism. Instead, we talked about cake.
Gabbie: I've seen a video that explains racism with cake. There's a judge and you and your friend are going to a baking competition. We believe that all cakes are supposed to be created equal, but the judge only likes white cake. So if somebody enters a chocolate cake, a chocolate cake won't win. Even if it's the worst-looking white cake. But that white cake will automatically win. That's practically saying that white people — that some white people think that they're better than black people. And I don't like that.
Sea Stachura: She says that white people—or, as she would call it, white cake—should use this advantage to help everyone else.
Gabbie: Racism is going on in this country and that not just black, not just chocolate cakes, but the white cakes—the good white cakes should also help the lower delicious chocolate cakes to help reach their goal instead of just standing there on the sidelines just watching chocolate cakes die. Or go to jail for no reason.
Sea Stachura: Atticus agrees.
Atticus: I think I can like to use my white privilege that I was kind of born with to try to help people who are not born white can help them, like, gain the same level of acceptance, I guess? I'm not a hundred percent sure how to go about that, but I think that's what I should be doing.
Sea Stachura: Nathaniel Q. Smith had a few ideas. He is the founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity. It’s a racial equity organization based in Atlanta. He says it’s important to have these conversations about racism with kids—especially white kids.
Nathaniel Q. Smith: Allyship vs advocate I think is a critical component of the conversation. And this question about, are we teaching our young white kids about the history of resistance that we have in the white community. We’re dropping the ball on that.
Sea Stachura: The South has a rich history of white advocacy. Smith says young white people need to know about that history. About people like John Brown. Brown died trying to free Blacks in slavery. And knowing that history will expand what students like Atticus believe they can do. Smith says that when kids learn how to advocate for others, they ultimately also know how to stand up for themselves.
Nathaniel Q. Smith: I just think with young people we’ve gotta encourage them to volunteer and get to know every aspect of it, whether it be a soup kitchen or door knocking with their parents or doing voter registration work. All of that is important. There’s nothing wrong with getting a kid involved in a protest. You teach them about democracy. You teach them to cherish it so when people try to take that away from that, they understand what it means when people are trying to take away your voice. So the earlier the better.
Sea Stachura: Through these difficult conversations, the kids learn how to create change in their communities. And Gabbie has an idea of what that might look like.
Gabbie: But maybe one day the world will be a good and better place where all cakes are created equal. Man, I'm so hungry. So, yeah, I believe whether you're red velvet, a carrot, or white or chocolate cake, all cakes are supposed to be created equally.
Sea Stachura: I’m Sea Stachura. This is “Shots in the Back.” It’s a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Jessye Norman School of the Arts. For more of our reporting, visit GPB.org/Shots. We’ll be back with a full episode next week.