A free Black History Month program, The Black Experience in Chicago’s North Suburbs, was presented by the Northbrook Community Relations Commission on at the North Suburban YMCA last week.
This year marks both the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The evening took a close look at how life has changed for African-Americans living in Chicago's north suburbs with Rochelle Singer, Ed. D. charing the event for the Northbrook Community Relations Commission.
“Why does Northbrook celebrate Black History Month? Because this is our history – the history of all of us as U.S. citizens," Singer said. "Because we value each individual who lives in our community and our neighboring communities, and because we hope that the struggle for civil rights for all of our citizens will no longerbe a struggle; it will be a reality.”
Panelist Nichole Farris, Assistant Principal at Waukegan School District 60, started off by talking about her journey growing up in Waukegan and progressing through the education system.
“I was never more aware that I was a little black girl in Waukegan than when I went to school," Farris said. "I would learn later on that even there, my intelligence and not my race defined me.”
Farris said she feels hopeful that today’s children look at others as all shades of color rather than trying to stereotype them by race. When her own daughter was younger she described other kids as “peach” or “tan.”
Paul January, a teacher at Miguel Juarez Middle School in Waukegan, grew up as the son of a young, single mother. He credits his mother and grandmother for stressing education and looking at the bigger picture.
“Growing up on the North Shore I quickly learned to have two identities – one at home and one at school," January said. "Balancing both became a skill I needed to guarantee future success.”
January and the other panelists talked about their need to use code-switching (speaking a different way at home from when they are in public).
North Suburban YMCA’s Guest Services Manager Kandice Cooley grew up first in Evanston, but then moved to Skokie. In Evanston she felt average and not as aware of her color, but when she got to Skokie, people would ask her about her race a lot due to the lighter color of her skin.
“As I got older, there were fewer black people around," Cooley said. "It can be a double-edged sword having to be the only representative of your race."
The final panelist was Glenbrook North High School student Cameron Swanson. He echoed Cooley’s sentiments since he first lived in Evanston where being bi-racial seemed normal. After he moved to Northbrook, he experienced some discomfort from being in the minority, especially while reading literature such as Black Boy and Huckleberry Finn in English class.
Northbrook's Community Relations Commission representative, Ron Montagne, asked the panel how they felt about the existence of prejudice today. Their answer was a cautious “It’s still around, but getting better.”
They concluded that we still have further to go to achieve Dr. King’s famous dream that people be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.
Some suggestions from audience participants included: visit many different communities in the Chicago area with your family. Get out of the bubble and learn more about people who are different from you. And, everyone concluded that prejudice is learned at home rather than in the community these days, so be aware of your influence and be open-minded.
North Suburban YMCA Executive Director/CEO Howard Schultz concluded the event by thanking the participants and nvited everyone to attend the next Community Relations event “Taste of Asia,” which will also be held at the North Subruban YMCA on May 5.