Trip through the Southern U.S. Increases Awareness and Understanding of Racial Injustice

by Cynndie Hoff

Known for his gentle spirit and passion for music, the late Kimasi Browne, Ph.D., longtime APU professor of ethnomusicology, continues to inspire his students even after his passing. One of those students, Danielle Harris ’16, M.S.’18, drew upon that inspiration to realize one of Browne’s lifetime dreams—to open the eyes and hearts of all people so that racial injustice can be exposed and then extinguished with love.

Browne had discussed with Harris his desire to take students to Ghana or Ethiopia, where they could see, touch, and feel their heritage. While those excursions never happened during his lifetime, Harris, now pursuing a Master of Science in College Counseling and Student Development and working in APU’s Center for Global Learning and Engagement, found a way to honor her beloved professor, mentor, and spiritual leader by organizing Journey to Sankofa: A Commemoration of the Work of Dr. Kimasi L. Browne.

The word sankofa comes from the Twi language of Ghana and, according to the Carter G. Woodson Center, means “to go back and get; we must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward, and we can understand why and how we came to be who we are today.” The term encapsulated Harris’ vision and set the tone for a domestic trip through key cities in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Washington D.C. that would allow participants to visit the Jim Crow south and begin to experience sankofa on their own terms.

Multiple campus departments and areas collaborated to make the plan possible, including the Department of Ethnic Studies, the Center for Global Learning and Engagement, and the Black Student Association. The 10-day trip took 19 travelers (11 undergraduate students, 1 graduate student, 4 parents/faculty and staff members, and 3 directors) on a journey to learn how the past experiences of African Americans have impacted their present-day reality.

Before the trip began, the students enrolled in The African-American Experience, a 3-unit course that explores the contributions of African Americans to the nation’s development and how that helped shape the dimension of their identity. Throughout the summer session, they studied slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, Brown vs. the Board of Education, police brutality, and the New Jim Crow. In the middle of the five-week course, the group embarked on the journey that would bring their course work to life.

They visited museums, stood where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and talked to people who were raised during the Jim Crow era. “We linked arms and crossed the bridge in Selma two by two,” said Greg Bellinder, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology. “We stopped in the middle and huddled to pray. Suddenly, one of the students cried out to our heavenly Father in the most earnest and visceral prayer--a prayer of praising, pain, and pleading. As we sobbed together, the sky opened up and released a torrent of rain as our Father wept with us. It was a sacred moment I will never forget.”

Those divine moments transformed each participant in unique ways. “As a white male, I became very conscious of my privilege,” said Bellinder. “Many Caucasians think they already know about racial issues because they have a friend of color. Others simply do not want to enter into the stickiness of racial issues. The truth is, privilege blinds us. Privilege makes it so that we do not need to think about others’ issues because they do not directly affect us. This is flawed thinking; people from all races need to be working for racial reconciliation. Those who are not immediately affected by racism need to go into these conversations as learners.”

As each traveler processed the experiences from varied perspectives and backgrounds, many common threads united them—their willingness to listen, their genuine desire to seek understanding that will make change possible, and their commitment to honoring Kimasi Browne’s legacy. “Dr. Browne loved service as much as he loved music, which is why we volunteered at Trinity Christian Community in New Orleans,” said Harris. “It was my favorite part of the trip. We stayed in a mission house for two nights, talked with college students about the lived reality of racism, did yard work, and spent time with the elderly in the neighborhood, all to honor Dr. Browne. Our course syllabus included songs and poems for students to reflect upon each day, such as: “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, “Weary” by Solange, “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, “We Shall Overcome” by Mahalia Jackson and “Glory” by Common and John Legend. This, too, was a tribute to Dr. Browne.”

By all accounts, the trip exceeded the expectations of those involved. “I’ve never been freer or more empowered,” said codirector Norris Spagner III ’18, Master of Divinity student participant. “I have fallen in love with the very thing I’ve been conditioned to hate—-my blackness/my ancestors. I now love me, and I love the way God created me.” And that personal healing impacted more than just the individual, it ignited a passion and commitment for outward action. “If there is no plan to help the condition of Black people, we will not move forward, and the terrible living conditions that I’ve experienced in every state we’ve visited will remain the same—dead. I want to challenge everyone to ask: What’s the plan to uproot racism and uplift our Black brothers and sisters? After all my ancestors have gone through, I remain hopeful. The systems of oppression were, and still are, strategic in the destruction of my people, but I remain hopeful. I know my mission field, and I’m inspired to teach truth and create more opportunities. My journey won’t stop until the day I stop breathing.”

Cynndie Hoff is a freelance writer living in Walnut, California.