The divisive nature of color was not something I was born aware of. But I learned about the inherent anti-black culture that permeates American society. I am the product of an interracial marriage and that has enveloped my experience as a child — and even today as a professor at Florida A&M University.
I grew up in a working-class community, predominantly black and Latino, in the suburbs outside New York City. Color, race and perception are burdens I have dealt with my entire life. Moving to Tallahassee was no different.
When I was approached to share my story and work with the Southern Shakespeare Company on the “Town Divided” project, I could not refuse. I saw an opportunity to use art as a catalyst to have these difficult conversations.
“A Town Divided” is an original play that will use the story of “Romeo and Juliet” to unearth how Tallahassee and its residents are struggling with race.
To be able to devise a powerful piece of theater using the courageous stories and testimonies from our community, we can show that, although art may mimic life, our lives can all improve because of art.
In Tallahassee, I find people are often curious as to my ethnic background. I answer as honestly as history and family have taught me, and that’s the turning point. I become “one of us” or “one of them.”
Before the moment I gave the abridged history of my lineage, I was at a safe distance, or felt included. Then I am treated as a novelty, incomplete or as a new member of an extended family.
I can see my students look at me and I know what they want to ask. Why would this racially ambiguous man from New York who attended an HBCU want to move to Tallahassee and teach at Florida A&M?
The pride it brings me to give everything I have to offer as an educator at a historically black university helps me dispel the demons of my own color complex. To look into the eyes of thousands of students each day and provide a space that was vacant for me at their age cannot be measured.
One student inevitably asks, “What is your background?” There is a sigh of relief so strong I think the walls even exhale. Then, in a matter of seconds, they feel safer; perception changes in the blink of an eye and we move forward.
To educate oneself about race and culture is a beautiful thing.
We should all come together and let the vision of the Southern Shakespeare Company allow an entire community to take one step closer together.
Chris Berry is an assistant professor of theater at FAMU, co-founder of We Are Soul Nerds and board member of the Black Theatre Network.