For Dr. William ‘Smitty’ Smith and Southender Rekha Purwaha, race amity in today’s climate is an idea whose time has come, and a very close examination of that time will debut at 9 p.m. tonight, April 12, on WGBH – when the documentary ‘An American Story: Race Amity and the Other Tradition’ debuts to the public.
Smith, a professor at Wheelock College in the Fenway, and Purwaha, of the South End, have been working together on the project, and they both said it’s a project from the heart that gets away from the current toxic conversation on race, and brings about stories of incredible, cross-racial relationships that have existed throughout history alongside the negative racial tradition.
Hence, ‘The Other Tradition’ in the name of the film.
“I borrow a quote from Cornell West, who said, ‘Racial Amity is an idea whose time has come,’” said Smith, a native of South Carolina who has a long history in the New England media community. “I believe racial amity is an idea whose time is long overdue…The public discourse on race now becomes very difficult and really becomes toxic because the discussion that develops soon gets into the blame-grievance-rejection cycle. That cycle develops into toxicity…A key element is missing because in order for the dialogue to be meaningful there has to be a relationship. People are hesitant to share their personal feelings on racial views…But if you develop a relationship, it allows an opportunity to deal with sensitive issues. Our approach is we need these relationships.”
Purwaha, who owns Scribe & Co. public relations firm in the South End, began working on the project last year, and it quickly became more than a job. Growing up in London, Purwaha said she understood racial prejudice and found a great deal of hope in Smith’s idea of racial amity – that being a respect for all people and cultures and promoting positive cross-racial relationships.
“I was born in England, but I’m not English,” she said. “I’ve dealt with racism all my life, but I’ve never had an opportunity to work on it…I have this amazing mix of friends all my life and when Smitty and I talked about racial amity, I loved the idea because it’s how I live my life. It was something I wanted to aspire to. It’s not about going to a march or protest but getting this idea out there. This film is a great way to do that. I’ve done PR for 17 years, but this feels so natural to work on because I live it. It’s a real passion.”
Purwaha lives in the South End with her husband, Muneesh, and their daughter, Rei, who attends the Josiah Quincy Elementary.
The film follows the motto of the National Center for Racial Amity at Wheelock College, which is E Pluribus Unum – or “Out of Many, One.” The idea behind the film is to examine cross-racial relationships throughout history.
The approach of racial amity is known as the ‘other tradition’ – the perspective of which is that in America’s racial history the dominant tradition of racism has always had a parallel moral counterweight that promoted access, equity, and social justice built on close, loving, friendships and collaborations across racial communities. This contrast to racism is the other history of our great nation.
Smith tells that story by examine four relationships, one being between Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell – the famous Irish orator and abolitionist.
Douglass had heard about O’Connell when he was still enslaved, and figured that any person his masters didn’t like was someone he should like. After gaining his freedom, Douglass eventually spent time in Dublin, Ireland, and was able to meet O’Connell later in life – becoming inspired by his ideas about universal suffrage.
“The time with O’Connell began their relationship and helped Douglass grow to expand his understanding of universal suffrage,” said Smith. “O’Connell had said he was so involved in abolition because ‘suffering anywhere is suffering everywhere.’ Douglass saw this…and it helped shape his philosophical life.”
Other stories include the relationships between Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and Fred Ross Sr. – among others.
“We picked four big stores from early America because we want to break down the myth from day one that America started as a brutal slaveholding country,” he said. “In part, that’s true, but in early America – as early as the 1600s – there were thriving inter-racial communities.”
This ‘Other Tradition’ is something for which both Smith and Purwaha hope the time will have come for tonight, April 12, at 9 p.m. on WGBH 2. A nationwide premiere of the film will roll out next fall. Smith said it is the first in what will be a six-part series on the concept and tradition of racial amity.