'Why can’t we all get along?'January 18,2009Photo by Vyto Starinskas
Rohan and Sherry Providence (front row) stand outside their Guilford home with sons (back row, from left) Rohan Jr., Aaron and Justin.
All eyes at Brattleboro Union High School this Tuesday will be on its 75-student marching band — Vermont’s representative to the inaugural parade of the nation’s first black president. But last June, all ears were on a white mother lamenting campus and community problems with racism.
Brattleboro usually makes news when free-thinking residents strip naked downtown or indict the president for war crimes. That’s why Sherry Providence and other parents expressed shock last year when a handful of students formed a hate group — the Nigger Hanging Redneck Association — and flashed a gun at minority classmates.
The 47-year-old nurse, fearing for her three biracial sons, attended a public forum and listened as residents speculated about how the perpetrators must be uneducated or underprivileged.
Providence knew it was more complicated. Taking the microphone, she explained how the hate group’s leader had grown up visiting her home just south in Guilford. How he had her husband, a dark-skinned Caribbean native, as a soccer coach. How he helped their oldest son when the family car slid into a ditch.
“Without a doubt, this is not a kid who sits around his whole life with racist parents drawing nooses,” she said. “Something has happened.”
But what? People in the southeastern corner of the nation’s “whitest state” (96.1 percent of Vermonters are Caucasian, compared with Maine at 95.2 percent and New Hampshire at 94.8 percent) started mulling that question. Six months later, their dialogue has given way to a different buzz: The school band’s $60,000 trip to play for Barack Obama.
“I think it’s ironic,” 18-year-old son Rohan says, “that a school that just a year ago had such big problems with race is going to have its band go to the inauguration of the first black president.”
But that doesn’t mean all’s harmonious for minorities in the town or the state. This Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, the Providence family is talking about Vermont’s continuing challenge with racism — and how residents of all colors can best respond.
When Sherry Houghton graduated from Brattleboro Union High School 30 years ago, diversity was limited to what country in Europe your ancestors came from.
“My history can’t be any whiter — the first black person I ever knew was in college.”
She studied a year at Johnson State College, then earned a nursing degree at the University of Vermont. Returning home to work at the Brattleboro Retreat psychiatric hospital, she received an invitation six years later to join the retirement plan. That’s when she volunteered for the Peace Corps.
“I thought if I don’t do something different in my life right now, I never will.”
In 1987, Sherry took her nursing skills to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, an 18-mile-long map speck between Puerto Rico and Venezuela. There, hospital coworker Rohan Providence (family and friends call him “Prov”) invited her to the island’s annual Carnival.
“It was never going to be anything more than a fling,” she says with a laugh.
But by the end of her two-year tour of duty in 1989, the two exchanged marriage vows at the courthouse in St. Vincent.
“Do you think you really want to do this?” Prov remembers the judge saying. “You’re kind of young.”
His new wife worried that some might voice a different concern.
“When I left,” she recalls, “I had people joke, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, don’t come back with a black husband.’”
During the Revolutionary War, Guilford was home to Lucy Terry Prince, considered the first African-American female poet. But the small bedroom community has little other history of racial diversity. Through calls and letters, Sherry had told her family of her desire to change that.
“I gave everybody one opportunity to tell me what they thought about the fact that I was marrying a black man. I knew my family needed a place to put their concerns on the table and get them out of the way. It was like a free pass.”
She remembers the questions: “I live in the whitest state in the country — what’s it going to be like? The kids are going to be so different — are people going to accept them?”
Her family welcomed the union with a church wedding (“The one who said don’t come home with a black husband was very embarrassed and apologetic,” Sherry says) and the couple went on to build a house next to her parents’ place. Rohan was born a year after the ceremony; Aaron, now 17, in 1991; Justin, now 15, in 1993. Each was the only student of color in their elementary school class, but none faced blatant bias.
“When Rohan was in kindergarten or first grade, a little kid didn’t want to touch his hand because ‘he was dirty,’” his mother recalls. “Was it because his hand was black or was his hand really dirty? I don’t know.”
Then came high school. Brattleboro Union has 79 students of color — nearly 8 percent of its grade 9-12 population of about 1,000. That’s low nationally but high for Vermont, where 6 percent (some 5,700) of the state’s 94,114 grade-school students identify themselves as black, Hispanic, native American, Asian, Pacific islander or multiracial.
The school’s problems with race are bigger. In 1998, someone dangled a black doll over the homecoming bonfire. In 1999, students rallying behind the Southern colonel mascot sparked debate by waving Confederate flags. In 2004, leaders retired the mascot in a decision that divided the community.
Rohan was a freshman when someone drove by and shouted, “Go back to Africa.” But such threats were more talk than action until last year’s arrival of the hate group.
A handful of students announced the NHRA on the social-networking Web sites Facebook and MySpace, spray-painted the initials of the Ku Klux Klan on public property and drove around town shouting racial slurs while swinging a baseball bat. Then last June, the group’s teenage leader threatened a group of black students with a gun on the same street where Rohan worked at Brattleboro’s Boys & Girls Club.
Neither he nor his younger brothers faced danger. But they knew those targeted — and, more surprisingly, the head of the hate group, too.
‘A thicker skin’
“At first I couldn’t really believe it — I had class with the leader of the NHRA,” says Rohan, now a senior. “We’ve been in the same school since forever. I was always the one who would help him out, and he would always come to me instead of any of the other kids because I was the only one who was nice to him. They were kind of outcasts in school, and I guess they wanted to be known for something.”
Police charged the leader with aggravated stalking with a deadly weapon and a judge ordered him under a 24-hour curfew. (The boy, unidentified here because of his age and the Providence family’s concern for his well-being, went on to plead guilty to reduced charges last fall and received two years of probation.)
Days after the gun incident, nearly 200 townspeople attended a public forum at the school. Many said the community needed to send a strong message to the perpetrators.
“I’m intolerant of intolerance,” said one local, “and not being educated enough about these issues is not OK.”
Then Sherry spoke.
“My children went through 11 years of school with the child who is now under house arrest,” she began. “Never in a million years would I have thought it. This is not a kid who grew up like this. This is a kid who grew up talking about race. I don’t wish the family anything — they’ve got to be going through their own hell.”
She urged the crowd to focus inward, relaying a recent conversation with her oldest son.
“I said, “Don’t be an angry black man. Figure out how to deal with the angst you are feeling without reacting. Figure out how to deal with it in a proactive way,’ which is really what their dad and I have tried to do.”
Sherry told the forum that she abhorred racism — but she also knew it was real.
“And somehow we have to learn how to be tolerant of that, we have to teach our children of color to step above it just a little bit and have a thicker skin,” she told the crowd. “It’s not fair, but it’s the life they live right now.”
Over summer vacation, the school organized several educational programs for students, teachers and the public, while the band marched in Brattleboro’s Fourth of July parade wearing “Hate Has No Home Here” stickers on its uniforms. For his part, Prov — a 44-year-old systems administrator at the Brattleboro Retreat — participated in a restorative justice hearing for one of the perpetrators he chaperoned years earlier on a class trip.
“He acknowledged his mistakes,” Prov says. “I feel sorrow for the kids and their families and trials and hardship they put the community through.”
By the time school resumed last fall, news of the presidential election overshadowed concern about the hate group.
“I think it was really good timing,” Sherry says. “The Obama campaign gave students a very proactive, positive way to talk about race.”
It also gave her son a role model when some of his peers continued to fume about prejudice.
“My best friend wanted to leave,” Rohan says, “or to punch somebody in the face.”
But the candidate showed him a cooler, calmer way to deflect slings and arrows.
“He really got me interested in politics — he just has that voice that people want to listen to.”
His mother, tapping her psychiatric nursing training, offers reinforcement. She feels anger and anxiety toward hate groups and guns but chose not to fight aggression with aggression.
“I’m not reactionary because I don’t think it’s helpful if people are, regardless of the circumstance that got you there. It’s easy to point fingers at ‘those’ people. But if I get indignant, the conversation stops. Somehow we as a larger group screwed up — we didn’t see it coming. We all have to figure out how to get along in the world, but we can only be responsible for how we behave.”
‘The bigger message’
The Providence family isn’t alone in calling for people of all ages and colors to tackle racism. Junie Pereira, a Brattleboro Union High teacher and chairman of Vermont’s nonprofit ALANA board (founded as the African, Latino, Asian, Native and American Community Organization), believes his school and community have addressed the issue — and need to continue.
“It was serious no doubt, but people often forget the hate group was only a handful of kids,” Pereira says. “For better or worse, it serves as a reminder for everyone that discrimination still exists. It provides an opportunity for each individual to ask ‘What’s my prejudice?’ because we all have them, be they racial, social, economic, physical ... We’re moving forward, but there’s still work to be done.”
And that, the Providence family understands, can be a challenge.
“This is a community that is very white, which doesn’t know how to talk about these issues,” Sherry says. “We all think we should know how to talk about it, but nobody knows.”
She cites her own situation.
“If I say ‘black,’ someone’s going to be offended. If I say the n-word, a lot of people are going to be offended. If I say ‘African-American,’ there’s nobody in my house who’s African-American — my husband’s from the Caribbean.”
Her oldest son has seen adults cross the street when he approaches on a sidewalk. But is it because he’s black or young or male or they just need to be on the other side of the road? Likewise, the high school senior says some classmates don’t consider him “full black” because he doesn’t sport “ghetto” dress, slang and attitude like certain peers and “white kids who want to be black.”
Such a statement can make his mother see red.
“I’m fascinated living in this family and having my sons all identify themselves as black. I’m like, ‘Hello, I’m a white mom, you’re not just all black.’ But we have to be understanding and accepting of other people’s language on how to talk about these issues.”
Because, in the end, the family believes such conversations must continue in the nation’s “whitest state.”
“My way of thinking is we create personal connections with others and those relationships allow us to accept one another,” Sherry says. “The bigger message is people should just treat others like you would want to be treated if we didn’t have a color to our skin. But they also should recognize that there is a difference and you have to talk.”
Adds her oldest son: “I’m very hopeful, but I don’t know if it’s rational to think that racism is going to disappear in my lifetime. Everyone’s really the same, we just have different skin color because of where our ancestors were from. Why can’t we all get along?”
Contact Kevin O’Connor at email@example.com.
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