Talking about race is not easy.
In 1935, the National Conference of Christians and Jews established a branch in Miami. NCCJ’s signature program became the Intergroup Youth Council, designed for students attending the racially segregated Booker T. Washington Junior-Senior and Miami High schools. Under the laws of the time, people could get arrested for being in the same room as a person of another race. Special arrangements were made for students to meet together during the school year for dinner followed by discussion. As they got to know each other, the students talked about what it would be like when they finished school and had to live together in a segregated Miami. In the late 1950s and early 1960s one Thursday evening a month, the meetings were held at either the downtown YWCA or the University of Miami’s Koubek Center.
Times have changed. Laws requiring the separation of blacks and whites no longer exist. Although the local branch of the NCCJ is now known as the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, its mission remains the same: to seek an inclusive community in which all people are treated with dignity and respect. The one monthly school program has grown to four: Student Voices, a leadership, prejudice-reduction and anti-bullying program; Diversity Action Team, a program that provides leadership tools for civic engagement; Metro Town, a six-day residential summer camp for high school students; and Metro Town Institute, four eight-hour programs during the school year developed to help summer-camp graduates better understand the experiences of different demographic groups in Miami by visiting their neighborhoods and learning from their leaders.
In addition to school programs MCCJ sponsors community events. Currently, in partnership with the Frost Museum of Science, MCCJ is presenting the exhibit “RACE: Are We So Different?” This award-winning national touring exhibition was developed nearly a decade ago by the American Anthropological Association with funding from the Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation. The intent is to help people understand what race is, what it is not, and to challenge many misconceptions.
According to the exhibit’s brochure, titled “The Story of Race,” “science played a key role in the construction of race with scientists attempting to classify humans into a taxonomic system on the basis of presumed biological and other differences. Linking race to biology led to a “race science” that attempted to legitimize race as biological fact and account for differences in peoples’ capabilities and their supposed superiority or inferiority.” The text also states, “In a country founded on ideals of freedom and justice for all, notions of race served to nationalize slavery, justify the near-elimination of Native Americans and their culture, and privilege people viewed as white.”
The national tour for the exhibition began in 2007 at the Science Museum of Minnesota and has been shown in nearly 30 museums throughout the country, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It continues at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh; the North Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.; History Colorado in Denver; Illinois Historical Holocaust Museum in Skokie; and will end at the Muhammed Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2015.
The Miami showing began Dec.14 and continues through May 26 at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Science Museum, 3280 S. Miami Ave. For hours, activities, and numerous discussion points for all ages visit, www.miamisci.org/www/race-exhibit.html.
It is never too early for conversations about race with children and youth. This exhibit is for the entire family. A discussion guide and virtual tour online help teachers and parents with young children. Middle school and older students can enjoy it through the readings and images which encourage dialogue. Resources for families and teachers with special guides for middle and high schools; scholarly papers, bibliography, related websites and the exhibit brochure are among the resources available at www.understandingrace.org/resources/indexhtml.
On site is an interactive setting with programming tools given to recognize racial ideas and practices in contemporary life in the United States. Feedback stations located throughout the exhibit offer visitors the opportunity to comment on some aspect of the exhibit and to read the responses from others.
As a member of Miami IYC from 1957 to 1960, I remember the efforts of then NCCJ director Dr. Max Karl; Booker T. Washington human relations teachers Marie Roberts and Mamie Williams; Sally Milledge from the YWCA; and the Rev. Edward T. Graham, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church. They led the discussions about race, made us aware of Miami’s rich history and showed us that racial identity goes far beyond the confirmed spectrum of black and white.
Play it forward more than 50 years. On Wednesday, at the Frost Museum, “ Melt: A reading of the play by Michael McKeever” explores how three families from different backgrounds, African-American, Jewish and Cuban, intermingle in our Miami community. The reading connects themes from the RACE exhibition with characteristics that make our community unique. Preceding the discussion, visitors will have time to explore the exhibition. Reading begins at 7 p.m. Admission is $6. The RACE exhibit will soon be leaving Miami. The tools provided in this exhibit and the programming can help continue the conversation until the question is answered: Are we so different?