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Promoting equality locally

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February 8, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — Every time Marichal Gentry calls Comcast to ask why Black Entertainment Television (BET) isn’t included in his standard cable package — he’s been doing this regularly since 1999 when Adelphia was the local provider — the representative offers the same curt explanation: Sorry sir, the market just doesn’t demand it.

This isn’t news to Gentry. The associate dean of Middlebury College, who grew up in North Carolina, has lived in Middlebury for eight years as part of one of Addison County’s smallest minority groups: African Americans. He is used to having unique needs.

Here in Vermont, he scours Shaw’s Supermarket for soul food to satiate his southern taste buds. He treks up to Horizons Salon in Essex Junction to get his hair cut by an African American woman who has experience working with black hair. And he leaves the state frequently, traveling to North Carolina and Tennessee where he can sing with his choir, visit his family and stock up on the recorded gospel music that’s difficult to find up north.

But Gentry never considered it outrageous to request access to a national television network.

“(Comcast’s) usual response is that there aren’t enough African-Americans to justify having Black Entertainment Television, as if African-Americans are the only group of people who might tune in to BET, which has programming that would be entertaining, educational, newsworthy, and spiritually uplifting for all groups of people, regardless of race or ethnicity,” he said.

The issue isn’t that the representatives at Comcast, or Adelphia, have anything against African Americans. Like most businesses, they determine their market on the basis of statistics. And in a county where, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, 96.9 percent of residents are white, the company’s concern that BET doesn’t serve the majority is not altogether unfounded.

But for Gentry and the other African American or black residents who make up 0.54 percent of Addison County, something as simple as flipping through television channels can be a stark reminder that they live in a community designed for someone else.

“What do you take for granted that African Americans have to ask for or request?” Gentry asks.

It was a question that nationally renowned anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise began to answer during a lecture at Middlebury College in January. Wise has spoken to colleges, universities and community groups around the country about racial equity for the last 20 years. He also trains corporate, entertainment and law enforcement officials on methods for dismantling racism in their institutions.

At the college, Wise, who is white, spoke to a rapt audience about white privilege, which, he said, can be as simple as having the freedom not to think or talk about race. White people are not burdened by the weight of racial representation.

“If the president were a black man and mangled the English language in the same way President Bush does, his inarticulateness would trigger a set of associations that would not rub off,” Wise said. In other words, white people don’t have to worry that their individual shortcomings will be attributed to their race, while people of color, he said, “have to be 100 percent accurate in order to be respected.”

For any real change to occur, white people themselves need to address this issue with just as much commitment as people of color.

“Yell, cry, scream a little,” he said. Whites must “relinquish that privilege of our silence, we can’t leave it all to the people of color.”

When François Clemmons came to Middlebury College nine years ago as the Twilight Artist-in-Residence, he was one of only five African American faculty members, a number that has not risen since then.

WOOING BLACK FACULTY

According to Dean for Institutional Diversity Shirley Ramirez, this year’s breakdown of black faculty at Middlebury College looks like this: four tenured black professors, one tenure-track professor, one artist-in-residence, one visiting scholar (who will leave after a year) a basketball coach and a track coach. All but the visiting scholar, she noted, are men.

“The issue of diversity here in Addison County is a challenge at the college, especially when it comes to attracting faculty of color,” Ramirez said.

Wooing professors is more difficult than wooing students, she said, because their position is more permanent. They have to be willing to commit to Vermont, to know they can build a community here, not just for themselves, but also for their families.

Ramirez took her position at the college only a month ago and is the first dean dealing explicitly with diversity ever to sit on the president’s cabinet. One of her main charges is to see that the college becomes more aggressive in hiring minority faculty.

But in 1998, Clemmons could see that the issue of race was not a top priority on the academic program. So he began teaching a winter term class on the history of the American Negro spiritual, in which he guided his mostly white students through the musical history of African Americans, and opened up an ongoing discussion about what it means to be black in America, and more specifically, what it means to be black in Vermont.

Echoing Gentry, Clemmons noted the absence of a black community is what defines his Vermont experience, the simple lack of amenities reminding him he’s not like everyone else.

“I can’t get a haircut in Middlebury unless a student comes to my house,” he said. “And people who are white never think about it twice. It’s a certain kind of rejection that I just can’t walk out of my house, as an American citizen, go down the street and get a haircut. And it does color how I feel about being here.”

There are salons in Addison County with stylists who know how to cut African hair — Bimini Bill’s and Mane Stream Full Service Salon, both in Middlebury, to name two. But tracking down those stylists can be difficult, Clemmons said. And he would rather go to someone he can trust.

“It doesn’t have to be a black hairdresser,” he said. “But I don’t want someone experimenting on my hair.”

That’s why both Clemmons and Gentry go to Josie Thomas at Horizons Salon in Essex Junction.

Thomas has run the only Vermont salon specializing in African hair for 11 years, and she has become the social and cultural hub of the black community scattered around the state.

“To have to drive all the way there, in some ways, is worth it,” Gentry said. “I go there to get a haircut, but also to see people who look like me. The whole cultural thing is just so important to me. Everybody here knows Josie.”

FINDING COMMUNITY

Gentry rattled off a list of African Americans he has met through Josie: Sandy Ford-Centonze, the head coach of the Dartmouth College women’s track team, who drives an hour and a half from Hanover, N.H.; University of Vermont professors Sondra Solomon, Mark Phillippe and Richard Johnson; and UVM Associate Provost for Multicultural Affairs Wanda Heading-Grant, who organizes the annual Gospel-Fest concert at the Flynn Theater.

They all visit Thomas regularly, some call her almost daily.

Thomas believes getting a haircut should always be an intimate affair, one that lasts as long as there’s something to talk about.

“Marichal doesn’t have much hair,” she said. “It would only take about 15 minutes to cut what he’s got. But if I threw him out the door after 15 minutes, he’d wonder what was wrong. We go to the salon to stay connected to our black roots and black culture,” she said.

Thomas isn’t surprised that people come to her for regular haircuts from as far as South Royalton, Woodstock and Lebanon, N.H.

“It’s about a sense of belonging,” she said. “A lot of these people work in very white-dominated areas. For them to come and see themselves, see people who look like them, gives them a sense of comfort.”

Forget hair and BET. For Gentry and Clemmons, the most unique and essential of their needs, it seems, is the need for a sense of community, one that may not always look like them, but is open enough to share in their traditions.

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