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NKU students bring talent and insight to documentary exploring the social construct of race

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By Vicki Prichard
NKy Tribune reporter

As conversations go, the subject of race is one of the more complicated ones.

Now, a new documentary from a talented team of NKU students, NKU sociology professor Dr. Joan Ferrante, and J Gray of Numediacy productions, suggests that a critical precursor to thoughtful conversations on race may well be grief.

Ferrante

With the social construction of race, we’ve all lost something and changing assumptions about who we are can be a first step toward working through the problems that are the legacy of socially created racial categories.

Mourning the Creation of Racial Categories, explores how racial categories were created in the United States, the lasting consequences of these social constructs, and ways to mourn these categories. It’s a subject that Ferrante was stirred to pursue more than 20 years ago when she attended a lecture by NKU’s Dr. Prince Brown, Jr., who was speaking about the Black-American Indian alliance that created the Seminole Nation.

During the lecture, Brown explained that when the U.S. government demanded that the Seminoles be divided, members who had Indian mothers, but fathers of African descent, were classified as blood Seminoles, and those who had Indian fathers and mothers of African descent were classified as Black.

Ferrante realized then that race was a construction, and actually about the division of relationships without regard for family ties. The lecture spurred her toward in-depth research into the social construction of racial categories. In 1998, she and Brown co-authored The Social Construction of Race in the United States.

While the documentary initiates an important conversation, Ferrante says its goals are simple.

“The goal of this project is modest — to change people’s assumptions about who we are,” says Ferrante. “We believe changing assumptions is the first step that must be taken before working through the issues and problems that are in the news and beyond. It is too early to make applications — we have to mourn first. I really hope this project becomes one that leads the nation in mourning; we cannot have truly thoughtful conversations until we do that.”

Gray, the documentary’s director, creates short promotional and mini-documentaries on environmental and social causes. Mourning the Creation of Racial Categories is his first hour-long documentary.

“It changed my whole language and ideas about everything,” he says.

The White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive, by Richard Hildreth, is a starting point for the documentary.

The film follows Ferrante’s efforts to find unique ways of mourning biological, family, romantic, and other bonds severed by this legally imposed system of race.

She issued a call to students majoring in the creative and performing arts at Northern Kentucky University to become part of a team dedicated to realizing her vision. What was intended as a three-week project turned into nine months.

Culling their unique perspectives and their respective talents, the students wove the story of race through choreography, dance, song, art, poetry, and acting.

The film gives special attention to the laws that were enacted in the time between 17th century Virginia and the Jim Crow era that made racial categories matter.

As a starting point, the documentary begins the conversation of racial categories by reflecting on the story of The White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive, by Richard Hildreth. It involves two enslaved men, Archy and Thomas, both classified as slaves, though Archy appears to be white.

Archy was classified as a black slave because, though his father was white, he was born to a black slave and by the laws and customs of Virginia, it was not the father but the mother whose race determined that of the child.

Theatre majors were asked to join the creative team and to act out the scene where Thomas and Archy, caught while attempting to escape, are freed by a little girl. At that point, Thomas, realizing that his dark skin would bring unwanted attention to them, urges Archy to separate from him and chart his course for freedom passing as a white man.

The students learned how the categories of white and black were forged from emotions such as pain, loss and abandonment. They learned that, in Archy’s case, membership into the white category was achieved through abandoning one’s family, friends, and community in order to pursue opportunity and freedom.

The students weren’t the only ones who walked away better-informed. Ferrante says she learned from the students as well.

“I learned if my ideas were working — if they had legs, if they resonated with a much younger generation,” says Ferrante. “I also learned from the way they mis-processed ideas where I needed to be clearer. And they opened my eyes to the many ways we can mourn.”

Dr. Kelly Moffett, director of NKU’s graduate program in English, and coordinator of the department’s creative writing program, also worked with the students. She says Ferrante wanted the students to be as excited and engaged about the concepts of racial categories as she was, and that her job through the creative writing workshops was to help with the craft.

“I never encountered race in the way Joan framed it — as a social construct, not natural, and that this social construct breaks bonds and keeps us separate, so we need to mourn that broken bond and try to come together to have the hard conversations and be color brave,” says Moffett. “I had the opportunity to read Joan’s chapters and engage with the topic before I workshopped the students’ work. Yes, I was changed – I was given an entirely new way to think about race. I felt the urgency and accuracy in Joan’s words and then I witnessed it in the students’ creative writing.”

Moffett says the students presented work that was rich and mindful.

“I believe that since they were commissioned as artists by Joan that they held themselves to a very high standard, and the work I received from them was already verging on the level of being professional,” says Moffett. “I found my role was to challenge them to make the work even stronger by considering areas that needed more development or where the language could be tighter or more precise–all craft-level considerations. All the students were humble enough to take my suggestions to heart, so each time I read a new version of their work, the writing just got better.”

She says the students internalized that they were engaging in important work as a team and wanted to give their best to make it as strong as it could be. As such, she says they not only clarified and illustrated the concepts, but did so “artfully and professionally.”

“Joan came up with terms and gave us a history and stories that allowed us to understand the creation of racial categories–how they were all socially constructed–and how we were separated due to those categories,”says Moffett. “Then she gave us ways to engage in a conversation about race by describing what it means to be color brave. Once we all had an understanding of the concepts, we were able to share our stories and unpack the impact racial categories have had in our own lives,”

By putting the students front and center throughout the documentary, Ferrante provided a richly important academic experience.

“I have never witnessed such a belief in our students as Joan had,” says Moffett. “Joan could have hired professional writers, performers, and artists, but she believed enough in our students that she chose to have them tell the story of race.”

Ferrante literally invested in the students, using funds from her textbook sales and Moffett said they rose up in ways she has never seen before.

NKU student India Hackle said participation in the project thought her to think differently about race (provided photo).

“I was and am in awe about how unwavering belief can give students confidence and as a result, produce work far beyond any expectations I would have had about student work,” Moffett said. “What they created was on the level of professional, and that has everything to do with Joan’s belief in them.”

For India Hackle, a junior majoring in international studies and minoring in theatre, participation in the documentary prompted reflection and gave her language to move forward with the conversation of racial categories.

“Before this project, being African-American, conversations usually ended with ‘my people/your people, they did this to us,’ and it was that type of thing,” says Hackle. “It was really a negative approach, but at the same time I know the people who taught me about race, they took on the same traumas that were passed down to them and then passed down to me. That’s the only language I knew…so I didn’t have the language to talk about race in an effective way so I just took on what traumas were passed down to me and kind of lived my life that way.”

Hackle says the challenge will be to take the conversation to family members and strangers.

“That’s where our challenges are now — just anybody and everybody — let’s have this conversation,” says Hackle.

Contact Vicki Prichard at news@nkytrib.com

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