First things first: Fill your plate with seafood stew, spicy slaw, catfish, corn, and bread. Then make your way to your assigned seat to begin the Black Lunch Table discussion. This interactive experience is designed to explore attitudes and create dialogue that addresses the ways in which race relations function in our communities.
The food is the perfect icebreaker at each table of five or six diners. We’ve all registered in advance and given the organizers our demographic info for a diverse mix at each table. Some of us are nervous because we’ve agreed to be recorded during the facilitated conversation that’s about to take place. The recordings will be transcribed and archived for researchers.
The event is part of “North Carolina: The New American Heartland,” an interdisciplinary conference hosted by the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park.
A deck of cards contains the questions, so as soon as we finish the meal, we start the discussion at our table by turning over a card.
It reads: “What does solidarity between white communities and communities of color look like?”
After a few moments of awkward silence, we get underway as participants explore the question and its impact. The room fills with chatter.
“How is NC characterized in national media? How does this relate to our vision for the state’s future?”
Long-time Carolinians tell newcomers about the progress – and setbacks – in the state. The conversation flows more easily. So far, we’ve been able to discuss the topics at a pretty safe distance without revealing much that’s personal. Then comes this question:
“How is ‘Black Life’ part of your daily life?”
One white woman explains that she defied expectations by choosing a black woman to be her physician. Another describes her work as a youth mentor for an at-risk student. The group becomes more candid.
One participant whose father is Italian admits that it’s sometimes awkward being “a native Southerner without any Southern heritage.” A man who grew up, graduated from college, and still works here in North Carolina quietly adds that current events make it difficult to hold conversations with people he’s known for decades.
And then all of a sudden, it’s time to wrap up. Participants head for the coffee table (and a few peek back at the buffet line to search for any Saltbox Seafood Joint leftovers).
Project co-founders Jina Valentine and Heather Hart staged their first Black Lunch Table event in 2005, organized around “literal and metaphorical lunch tables.” Through their ongoing work they explore topics such as “otherness,” self-segregation, and the ways in which these are expressed on a trajectory that begins in grade school, continues in university settings, and remains ingrained in professional and artistic circles.
One iteration of the Black Lunch Table has been specifically designed to focus on police brutality, dismantling racism, and other issues at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Valentine is currently an assistant professor of Art at UNC Chapel Hill; Hart is based in Brooklyn. The pair also host Wikipedia edit-a-thons to bring attention to under-represented artists, such as those of the African Diaspora.
By providing space and structure for difficult conversations to take place, Valentine and Hart are hopeful that they can “inspire new thinking and new connections between local communities.” And that may be the best reason yet for gathering around a table and sharing what’s on your plate, on your mind, and in your heart.
For more information, visit the Black Lunch Table here.