In the Fall of 1998 I had a bizarre experience on the GR city bus. It wasn’t anything a security camera could capture, if they had those back then. It was just a tension. Something I’d never felt on the buses in Boston that I had just finished riding daily for years. There was no casual ease, no exchanging glances, no acknowledgement of the existence of others on the bus. I felt as if I had walked into a room after a family fight and everyone had decided to just move on and ignore what had happened. Pretending.
This eerie feeling persisted whenever I took a bus ride. Also in other spaces where I found myself in racially mixed company. I would ask about it through the years, but I could never find people who acknowledged it or could articulate much of anything about the race relations in Grand Rapids.
Until I attended Dr. Todd Robinson’s presentation of his book A City Within a City: the Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2015 at the GRPL Main Library. The auditorium overflowed with people hungry to hear how this historian had assessed our city after years of research. The way he uncovered and named the interpersonal and institutional tactics employed here hit a nerve. The audience showered him with questions for hours. It was clear this conversation needed to be continued. More questions remained than answers. But it opened a door and provided clues for our Escape Room.
Nowadays people seem more equipped to answer my questions about the racial tension in this city. And each time there’s a dialogue, panel discussion, or presentation that honestly and openly explores the issues, people gain a little more understanding and vocabulary. As one person said, “I knew I wasn’t a conspiracy theorist….but I felt I sounded like one. Now I know I’m not! This stuff is real!”
It’s fulfilling to have found a way to keep these important conversations unfolding so more of us can be armed with truth. I should take another bus ride soon and see if the light has brought some warmth in.