On Thursday, from the stage in the auditorium at Minneapolis’ South High School, a slight, elderly man shook the very bones of several hundred young people using his voice, his view of history and his audacity.
Race, Dr. Mahmoud El-Kati told a gathering of students from South and from high schools in Lakeville and Farmington, is a myth while racism is a reality. And a hefty dose of history is the key to understanding the distinction.
He exhorted. He sermonized. He joked. He moved theatrically about the podium, tufts of white hair escaping a black cap embroidered with the shape of Africa.
“You’re not born into a race,” he thundered, arms thrown out and fringed tunic flapping. “You’re assigned a race by law.”
A professor emeritus of history at Macalester College in St. Paul and a prolific writer, El-Kati made his point again and again, seeming uncertain that his audience had been taught enough history from the vantage of people of color to take in his message.
“You can’t eat at this lunch counter, you can’t go to this part of town,” he railed. “That’s a part of my experience, and I am not Methuselah.”
The multi-culti faces that gazed back at him appeared to find El-Kati wholly compelling and totally overwhelming. All eyes were wide under the rows of colorful headscarves, somber headscarves, tie-dyed asymmetrical punk styles, up-dos, afros, cornrows, crew-cuts and the inexplicably enduring Justin Beiber look.
And every last student squirmed in their skinny jeans when El-Kati dropped the N-word — twice, in historically appropriate context — referred to himself as a negro and noted that Thomas Jefferson, “a great man,” “claimed in his lifetime 600 people as private property — my ancestors.”
“Speak truth, shame the devil, let’s get free,” he said. ““You have a great and rich history, but you’ve got to learn the narrative, and it’s not taught in school.”
El-Kati was invited to talk by a group of students who aim to change that. Project s.t.a.r.t. Leadership — the acronym stands for students together against racial tension — was founded almost two years ago by a group of teens at South who wanted to talk about race, equity and cultural identity.
Last summer, the kids and their adult Lead Consultant, Kate Towle, won the St. Paul Foundation’s Facing Race Idea Challenge grant. The modest grant attracted support from a host of quarters.
The students have received scholarships to attend the YWCA’s annual It’s Time to Talk Dialogue about Race, Skyped with radio host Michele Norris about her book about growing up African American in Minneapolis, “The Grace of Silence,” and hosted a family dinner to discuss the book.
The groups’ work has attracted invitations, too. South students have taken their activities and discussion model to Lakeville’s two high schools and Farmington High School, where s.t.a.r.t. groups are now going. And three of the students were invited to testify at the Capitol before the Minnesota Integration Revenue Task Force in January.
After El-Kati’s presentation, the s.t.a.r.t. students from all four schools moved into the front rows of the auditorium to talk to their guest. The professor began by asking what they had taken away from his talk.
An uncomfortable silence ensued. Hearing and thinking about race and equity is one thing; potentially exposing your ignorance or offending an honored guest is another.
When the questions finally started, it was clear the students had paid close attention to El-Kati’s ideas. One young man struggled to express his appreciation for El-Kati’s distinction between race and culture.
“I liked the struggle part,” offered another student, a dark-haired girl. “People talk about struggle as a negative thing and the way you put it it was about growing.”
“You have to struggle for anything you get,” El-Kati replied, smiling. “That’s what democracy is about.”