At a recent discussion event held in Portsmouth and remotely across the state, participants shared their hopes and fears around having open conversations about race.
“Hope: That I can learn about the lives and experiences of [people of color] in my community,” one participant wrote.
“Fear: saying something wrong,” another wrote.
But when it comes to talking about race, there are no wrong answers, said Richard Haynes, who organized the event with Kristen Butterfield-Ferrell. The duo has hosted three Culture Keepers, Culture Makers event series in the past, and started their most recent, hosted by 3S Artspace in Portsmouth, on Thursday (May 13). The series will continue for three more weeks, encouraging people from around the Seacoast and throughout the state to start talking openly about race and equity, exploring the issues through the lens of visual art.
Haynes is Black; Butterfield-Ferrell is white. As they told the audience, they’ve formed a friendship that crosses differences in race, age, gender, socio-economic background and sexual orientation. Now, they hope to help others to do the same, and they feel that more and more, Granite Staters are willing to.
“It’s more important now, because more people want to have the conversation,” said Butterfield-Ferrell.
From Sharecropper’s Son to New Hampshire’s Culture Maker
The first session of the series opened with Haynes sharing his story. Today, Haynes is the associate director of admissions for diversity at the University of New Hampshire. He has lived in Portsmouth for three decades. But his story begins with his birth to sharecroppers in Charleston, South Carolina. Neither of Haynes’ parents had a formal education, but as soon as Haynes began to read, he realized that the world around him was closed off because of the color of his skin.
“There were big, bold black-and-white signs that constantly told me I can’t go into public spaces,” Haynes said. Libraries, hotels and drinking fountains were all inaccessible to Black people.
The family eventually moved to Harlem, where Haynes’ parents promised things would be better. Haynes saw the dirt and grime of the city, and wasn’t sure they were correct. In those moments, his grandmother would grab his chin and pull his face upward to meet her eyes.
“Better son?” she would say. “Better only if you make it better.”
Haynes did just that — working hard, going to college and building a thriving photography business in New York, but he realized that people were still discounting him because of his race.
“Still you are considered nobody,” he said. “When I really learned that was in New Hampshire.”
Haynes and his wife had been vacationing to Portsmouth, and decided to move to the area to raise their family. Although Haynes had been working as a photographer with major companies in New York, he couldn’t find any paid work in New Hampshire. His children were called a racial slur as they played in the family’s front yard, and Haynes had the same slur shouted at him as he walked into Market Basket.
Despite that, Haynes refused to leave the state.
“It’s an extraordinary place to raise my family and I wasn’t going to let anyone chase me out of there,” he said.
Still, the burden of not being able to provide for his family was so huge that Haynes considered suicide. The day before he planned to kill himself a minister told him she had a message, and she wanted to see him in church the next day — the very day Haynes planned to end his life.
“That message saved my life,” Haynes said.
He vowed to God that if he made it through, he would become an advocate for all the faceless people, today and through history. As he recovered, Haynes began exploring the history of forgotten people, beginning with slaves. It was a way to educate himself and others, drawing attention to a segment of American history that is often glossed over and counteracting popular narratives about African Americans.
“We didn’t have true understanding in society on what the African American’s family or community truly brought to society,” Haynes said. “I needed to visually bring that forth: that we are just as good as anyone else. We all bring value to this nation — every one of us.”
Haynes began exploring that in his artwork. First, he worked on a series of brightly-colored pieces exploring the experiences of slaves. He dove into research, to understand specific historical stories and draw upon them in his art. Later, he created a series called “The way life should have been, as opposed to the way it was,” which depicted individuals of all skin tones interacting together — all of them faceless.
“Faceless people — I want to tell their story,” Haynes said at the event. “When you look at the images, there’s a lot of strength, a lot of movement, a lot of love. Let’s paint it into being. Let’s make the culture.”
Exploring Race and Equity, Through Art
The Culture Keepers, Culture Makers includes four community discussions about race and equity. When that concludes, a pre-selected group of ten people will participate in a ten-week art workshop led by Haynes. The works created by that group will be displayed at 3S, an exhibit that is free and open to the public.
Butterfield-Ferrell said that incorporating art into hard conversations helps to break down barriers and bring people together.
“It’s easier while you’re coloring, just to be chatting with people,” she said.
The series isn’t necessarily about creating instant change.
“It can’t be about healing in the moment. It is about bringing different perspectives to light and being welcomed to consider them,” she said. “We’re planting seeds for growth and healing in the future.”
At the event, Butterfield-Ferrell pointed out that America’s systemic racism and culture of whiteness has been developed and strengthened over generations. It’s going to take generations to dismantle it, too. Conversations like that facilitated at Culture Keepers, Culture Makers can be one small part of that.
In 2017, Sylvia Foster was the project manager for a Culture Keepers, Culture Makers event in Exeter. The event helped kickstart and strengthen a conversation about race and equity that has continued in the years since, said Foster, who is the grant writer and project coordinator for the Racial Unity Team based in Exeter.
“These art projects slow us down and get us thinking about what we do in our daily lives: if we’re contributing to racism or helping to stop that,” Foster said.
People who participated in the program have gone on to pursue their own projects, including researching the history of African-Americans in New Hampshire and working with the Racial Unity Team.
The history explored in Haynes’ work is one that many white Americans aren’t familiar with, said Butterfield-Ferrell. As she began working with Haynes and listening to his stories, she realized she didn’t know the history he was telling. Discussing Haynes’ visual art is a way to open a dialogue about that.
“We need to understand the collective stories of our society,” she said.
Art also allows people to enter the spiritual space that Haynes believes is necessary for true change.
“There is no greater love than to love each other,” he said.
He urged participants to consider others in the room “each other’s angels.” Passing people off because of their race, sexual orientation or even age might cause you to miss a blessing that’s meant for you, Haynes said.
“I have grown to love everyone. I don’t want to miss one blessing.”
This article is part of a multi-year project exploring race and equity in New Hampshire produced by the partners of The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.