Black students recognize harsh reality at retreat

September 28, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

What was billed as a unity and leadership retreat for 48 young black people from Howard County high schools this weekend in Chevy Chase was in reality a rite of passage. Students returning home from the 42-hour experience say they have been irrevocably changed by it.

"It gave us self-awareness," said Dahya Ramsey, a 17-year-old Wilde Lake High School student. "It gave us a lot of weapons against miseducation from school. It helped us understand what we need to know about ourselves, our history, and our past in order to plan our future better. It was a unifying situation that will help us solve problems in our schools."

The students worked hard -- discussing, debating, sometimes arguing with one another and their seminar leaders. But no one was complaining. After each workshop -- whether an exercise in self-discovery called "I am who I am," or seminars on black history and racism -- the students seemed hungry for more.

"It is helping a lot of black youth understand the reality of the circumstances we are all in," said Jarid Wing, 17, of Wilde Lake High. "I have learned something of what I need to do to help my community and to better myself and my people.

"I feel we need more of these [retreats] to help educate more persons in our culture who are uneducated, and who, when they remain uneducated, remain part of the problem."

Having more retreats for African-American high school students is exactly what the co-sponsors have in mind. The school system and the Helping Hands Foundation hope to make this an annual event under the direction of the Black Student Achievement Program.

Topics at this year's retreat at the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase were aired first in a general way, and then explored and confronted at a personal level. At yesterday morning's seminar on racism, for example, students were divided into seven groups and asked to listen to a short story about a baroness who was killed for disobeying her husband.

The story went like this: A baron told his wife not to leave the castle or he would punish her severely. The baroness left the castle, however, and visited her lover. When she returned, the gate man told her that he had orders to kill her if she crossed the bridge to the castle.

The baroness asked her lover for help. He refused, saying their relationship had no basis other than romance. The boatman said would not ferry the baroness to the castle unless she paid him. Broke, the baroness asked a friend to lend her boat fare. The friend refused, saying the baroness would not be in this mess if she had not disobeyed her husband. The woman crossed the bridge and was slain by the gate man.

The students were asked to determine -- first on their own, later as a group -- which of the six characters in the story was most responsible for the death of the baroness.

"As leaders, you need to be aware of the role you take to influence decision-making," said Gloria Washington, one of the retreat directors. "Is the decision being made by voting? Consensus? Domination? Are you laid back and not participating? Think about it. If you are not aware [of what you are doing], change it."

In some groups, the dynamics changed immediately. "No, no, no!" one student said, pressing his point. "He's responsible for giving in. The gate man is responsible for giving in."

The student was unable to carry the day, however. The closest the gate man came to being held accountable was by a group that ranked him second in culpability. Three groups ranked him third, two fifth and one sixth.

Six of the seven groups said the baroness was the person most responsible for her death. The other group said it was the baron.

One student, Austin Mosley, 16, of Mount Hebron High School, drew enthusiastic applause when he said: "Every point everyone in this room gave is right. All six characters are guilty. I gave them all ones."

The students were asked what would happen if the characters were given "symbolic representation." What if the baron represented society, the baroness stood for women and people of color, and the gate man represented police and military forces? What if the boatman represented educational and financial institutions, the friend signified liberals and the lover became enticement -- promises of fulfillment of the American dream?

Such a change would make a difference, the students said. In the discussion that followed, they substituted real people for the PTC characters in the story.

Rodney G. King, the black motorist who was videotaped while being severely beaten by white policemen in Los Angeles, was substituted for the baroness. Police who beat him became the gate man. Alcohol took the part of the lover. The baron was cast as white-male power structure -- a structure that allows black men to be treated more brutally than white men when stopped on the highway and arrested, students agreed.

Their earlier choice of the baroness as the villain responsible for her death was an acceptance of a concept that makes victims responsible for the crimes committed against them, the students were told.

The point of the workshop is that a new perspective is needed -- one based on self-determination and a refusal to accept individual blame for circumstances beyond a person's control.

During the break, most students agreed with Kia Davis, a 1992 graduate of Mount Hebron High. "This [retreat] is really important," she said. "It teaches black leaders facing critical issues. It teaches people that there are mechanisms they can go through and networks that they can use, that they really can make changes."

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