Although a few technical issues emerged on the Zoom platform, nothing could diminish the emotionally fraught and enlightening performance of Unpacking the Race Talk on Thursday, February 11, 2021. More than 135 community members, students, and UNCG faculty and staff attended the virtual event.
Guest performers Drs. Sonny Kelly and Elizabeth Melton spoke honestly of the realities of race relations in the United States, one from the standpoint of being a Black man confronted by prejudice, and the other from the perspective of a white woman learning later in life about her small town’s role in desegregation. The event was organized by the National Communication Association’s Center for Communication, Community Collaboration, and Change, housed in UNCG’s Department of Communication Studies and co-sponsored by Greensboro community and UNCG campus groups.
Considered a performance ethnography, the show was an example of when “voices are brought together in singular and plural narratives for personal scrutiny that is both private and public, and individual and communal” (Bartleet, 2013, p. 446). These kinds of performances are similar to acted monologues, but with emphasis on retelling personal experiences and collective memories through cultural contexts. Drs. Kelly and Melton have backgrounds in critical performance ethnography.
Dr. Kelly acted out and retold personal narratives, familial accounts, historical references, and recent atrocities against Black men in the United States, to explain the multiple emotions Black people feel having the race talk with their children to keep them safe and vigilant in responding to the injustices waged against them.
Dr. Melton’s performance spoke of growing up in eastern Texas and her late father’s life and influence there during Jim Crow. She used a box of her dad’s old photographs and memorabilia to investigate her memories and the narratives of family and friends struggling to navigate race and school desegregation efforts.
Unpacking the Race Talk was a consciousness-raising event, where viewers could gain a heightened sense of awareness of the injustice toward people of color in the United States by hearing everything from personal experiences to nationwide news (Sanford, 2020). The event urged people to enter into dialogue about the topic of race, in order to grow towards what Martin Buber refers to as I-Thou relationships – those relationships with mutual vulnerability based on trust and intimacy (Ballard, 2017).
After the back-to-back performances, Dr. Kelly and Dr. Melton answered audience members’ questions about their inspirations for their performances and offered suggestions for how we can all engage in our own versions of the race talk.
Read what students had to say about the event:
“Using artistry, poetry, poetic inquiry, critical analysis, and academic rigor, Sonny and Elizabeth showed us the importance of reaching out, LISTENING, and avoiding ‘silencing labels’; such as the Karen trope. Sonny’s suggestion to view ignorance as an opportunity to educate struck me; I have viewed ignorance related to race as a finite barrier.”
-Charlene Pell, MA student in the UNCG Department of Communication Studies
“As Sonny began to recite the words of Emmitt (Till’s) mother I could feel myself about to cry. The passion that Sonny put into that performance was unbelievable. I could feel the pain and agony flow through him…Although I am an African American, I have no clue what it’s like to be a Black man in America. I also began to reflect on my upbringing.”
-Alexis Brown, MA student in the UNCG Department of Communication Studies
“From the eyes of Dr. Elizabeth Melton, we were able to see how race is not only felt by the community being oppressed, but by those who are allies and work tirelessly to enact great change. Her story went on to share how her father in a small, segregated town in Texas worked to help those with no voice. He worked daily to help their stories be heard and to help lessen the negative impacts that his familial history had on the overall race situation.”
-Steven Haynes, UNCG student, Bachelors of Science in Integrated Professional Studies
“Together they helped me think about the intricate relationship between our broader cultural narratives and our own personal lives; we are all connected to each other in so many ways, but the webs of our own lives and memories are often entangling and elusive. Storytelling helps us untangle…unpack! What a great metaphor they use.”
-Gabriel Parks, MA student in the UNCG Department of Communication Studies
“‘I was just a color,’ Sonny gushed, an ‘infrahuman in the Western world.’ America has truly perfected the art of demonizing Black men. Sonny Kelly’s story, intended to call people in, instead of just calling people out, was also oozing with hundreds of years of oppression, of pain. Unjustifiable pain that no man, no human being, should ever face.”
-Marianna Levithan, MA student in the UNCG Department of Communication Studies
“When talking about racism, I learned that we have to be responsive and responsible, openly decide on the limits of the conversation’s contents, and make sure to call people into the conversation via an invitation rather than calling them out…As Dr. Melton mentioned, the benefit of telling our stories to others is the space where we find the commonalities that have a trickle-down communication effect to create change and change minds like the receiver’s family and their kids, neighbors, and friends.”
-Travis Nickelston, UNCG student, Department of Communication Studies
Ballard, R. L. (2017). Communication ethics. In M. Allen (Ed.),The SAGE encyclopedia of
communication research methods (pp. 195-198). Sage.
Bartleet, B. (2013). Handbook of autoethnography (S. H. Jones, T. E. Adams, & C. Ellis, Eds.).
Sanford, A. A. (2020). From thought to action: Developing a social justice orientation.