To the Editor:
Last August 17, during the Harvard Charles Hamilton Houston Institute’s Annual Conference on Race on Martha’s Vineyard, I was intrigued to hear the esteemed panelists address the need for dialogue about race in this country and then express their own uncertainty about how to go about such a huge and daunting task.
Although it was rewarding to hear these prominent voices pronounce the same need that has been echoing in my own thoughts, I must admit I was frustrated that the panel didn’t seem to a have the (tidy) solution I was perhaps naively hoping for.
But, I do believe that only a few weeks later, a valuable example of this very kind of sought-after dialogue took place at the Aquinnah Cultural Center in the format of a discussion between Linda Coombs, both a member of the Wampanoag tribe and director of the ACC, and Geraldine Brooks, the author of Caleb’s Crossing, the historical novel based on Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.
For most of the evening, Ms. Coombs asked a series of carefully measured and thought-provoking questions, to which Ms. Brooks responded one by one. Other Letters to the Editor have already quite aptly described some of the content of this interaction, so I would like to concentrate more on the spirit of the dialogue between the two speakers.
What took place was a scrupulous and genuine conversation between two intelligent and learned women wisely taking the time and space and willingness to speak and listen with honesty and respect for themselves and each other.
I think it would be fair to say that each of the speakers had an agenda. Neither woman was neutral on the subject of Ms. Brooks as a non-Native American using the life and voice of a Native American as a main character in her work of fiction. And in my opinion, it was the speakers’ strong feelings on the subject that constituted an important element to giving significance to the discussion. Neutrality doesn’t necessarily nourish deep dialogue.
In trying to recount the event at the ACC to different people who weren’t there, I am almost always asked the question, “So, who won?” And my answer is, “The community won.” The event wasn’t a trial in a court of law or winner-take-all debate. It was an opportunity for learning.
I won’t say that anyone positively and radically changed his mind on the subject of the evening, but I will say that the participants (including the audience) had the opportunity to broaden their spectrum of understanding and have access to another cultural vision.
Providing windows into another way of looking at the world is part of the role of a cultural center and I would like to thank Linda Coombs, Geraldine Brooks, and the Aquinnah Cultural Center for doing just that, and with such intelligence and grace.
Aquinnah and Paris, France