“My Leaders Look Like //” is an independent series of profiles archiving moments of black love, light, and leadership in candid spaces.
During a City Council meeting / March 15th 2016 Berea, KY.
Several volunteers who assist with the planning and execution of Berea’s annual Spoonbread Festival spoke to local tension around the vending of Confederate Flag merchandise. One volunteer was insistent the flags had benign impact on those in attendance, despite opposing public outcry, and that the matter was of minuscule concern. The Spoonbread Festival has traditionally been sponsored by the city’s local government. Its Mayor, in partnership with its Human Rights Council are in the midst of re-drafting a financial contract which would prohibit the sale and presence of Confederate merchandise at the festival (outside of educational contexts).
A local Reverend and community leader rose to politely challenge the volunteer’s assumption.
“Good evening, I’m [Rev.] Gail Bowman. I’m very pleased to have this quick opportunity to speak. It’s an amazing experience to be in a room, and have a conversation like this one, that is so demonstrative of our democracy and what we represent together as a nation. This is not easy work. It’s uncomfortable work; it’s painful work—but it’s necessary work. My sister, you spoke and I heard so many things in your conversation. I appreciated hearing them so much. One of the things I heard, of course, was your frustration, and your disappointment, but I also heard your pride—and I think that was my favorite part. You have a huge responsibility for an event [The Spoonbread Festival], in which you take great pride, and you’ve done it to the very best of your ability. You’ve attracted people who come to it with the same spirit. I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing, and so I thank you for it. I thank you for this opportunity to be in Berea, where such things take place, and so many people come together to make them possible. I do take contention with just one point, and I’ll get to this point very quickly and then I’m going to be done.
You were talking about how so many people had come [to the Spoonbread Festival], and how everybody had a good time, and that it was all okay. Well, that is one of the things I’d appreciate you all taking some time to look at, because it’s not okay. And when that flag is there, everybody doesn’t have a good time. I’ve dealt with that flag all my life, since I was a little girl and would go places with my parents. My parents would point them out and say “Be careful here,” and they’d tell me why; they knew what the flag meant. It was the continuation of Jim Crow; it was the continuation of segregation; it was the continuation of discrimination.
I’m aware, having lived in Kentucky for just a brief minute, that there are many people here, for whom it means other things. And so I won’t dispute that—that it means other things. But we are living in the shadow, let’s just be honest among ourselves—of what happened in June when a young man in South Carolina lit that [American] flag on fire, and gathered himself, his energies, and his intentions under the Stars and Bars. It was a wake-up call for so many in this country who didn’t realize that it was painful for me to go places where that flag was. It was painful for me to see that flag.
It’s always problematic whenever any person tries to speak for their entire race. But I will say that I know very few African Americans—in fact I’ll just go ahead and say that I know none—who aren’t offended by that flag. No, we are not intimidated! We are not intimidated because we have pride and we stand tall in this democracy as well—but we are offended. And it’s uncomfortable; it’s not pleasant. I’ll be out with some white friends, and sure, we’re all having a good time, but I’m also thinking about how many flags I saw, and how I had to look around and be careful and so forth…
So, what I’m hearing this evening, and I’m very hopeful it’s true, is that this can be worked out. [The Spoonbread Festival] is an amazing experience. It’s an amazing event. But let’s please keep in mind that this is not a tiny matter. I know there are questions about electricity, and others that I cannot speak to, but this one’s not tiny.
We have an opportunity to move forward, and to heal a wound that is so old, I’m not even sure I can tell you where it started. But if we can heal this wound, that would be a blessing. Thank you.”