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“Being Black In The Berkshires” Talk Friday Night

Drew Herzig
The Stockbridge, Massachusetts gravestone of Elizabeth Freeman, a black Berkshire resident who made history when her successful 1781 freedom suit effectively ended the legality of slavery in the commonwealth.

A forum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts tonight will explore the black experience in Berkshire County. 

For AJ Enchill, the panel discussion is an opportunity to step out of theories about race and into its daily realities.

“History doesn’t start and stop," he told WAMC. "It’s this continuance and this story that we’re all a part of, and it’s a part of our contemporary world.”

Enchill, a Pittsfield native, is the District Aide for Democratic State Senator Adam Hinds. He’s a participant in the talk, titled “Being Black In The Berkshires.”

“I’m black, and this is significant to my identity — it’s how other see me and how they perceive me," said Enchill. "And forums such as this — they give me the opportunity to speak about my own experience.”

He says he’s looking forward to a candid conversation that he hopes will provoke thought and self-exploration.

“When we have to look closer at our own identities and our own places of racial location," said Enchill, "we then have to remove ourselves from just looking at this from a book and then we have to take it and put ourselves into the story — and what are we doing about it?”

“Unfortunately, you don’t have to identify as a racist or be intentionally racist to be part of racist systems and structures, and we need to get that through to people," said Drew Herzig, chair of Pittsfield’s Human Rights Commission. The group is cosponsoring the event with the NAACP Berkshire County Branch, and will bring six members of the county’s black community together to share their experiences. Herzig says that while the event is for everyone, it has particular importance for the county’s white community — 92 percent of the population.

“We need to learn more about the African-American presence in the Berkshires, from the very beginning- from Elizabeth Freeman up through W.E.B. Du Bois to the present, kind of thing," Herzig told WAMC. "A lot of people are just not aware of the contributions that African-Americans have made to Berkshire culture, history, politics, all that sort of thing. So this is really in a sense an informational session, recovering our past, but also saying — where are we now? What is the situation for African-Americans in the Berkshires as they are experiencing it, and where do we need to go from here?”

“For example, yesterday, we had — one of my friends in Lanesborough, he was awakened to his neighbor knocking on his door because she — a white neighbor, very apologetic, very upset, asked him to come outside and on his nicely painted white garage door, there was the n-word," one of the panelists, Shirley Edgerton, told WAMC. She’s a cultural competency coach who works with a number of nonprofits in the county. The incident she’s referring to happened Wednesday, and is under investigation by the Lanesborough police, who described it to WAMC as “an alleged or possible hate crime.”  While racism that blatant is easy to identify, Edgerton says that the daily microaggressions people of color experience living in a predominantly white community take a toll.

“The reality is, if something is repeated often enough, it’s traumatizing," she said. "So often people of color — African-Americans in particular, since, per this conversation, often, we live with trauma, we live with anger, we live with paranoia.”

From being scrutinized while shopping to the tension of a routine traffic stop, people of color can experience unique pressures. One of the things Edgerton teaches in her cultural competency classes is code switching.

“And it’s about how you present yourself as a person of color in a setting that — let’s say for example, in a professional setting," she said. "Because you know already in the Berkshires, that’s going to be dominated by white middle class culture and values. So there’s a certain way that you have to speak. There’s a certain way you have to carry yourself. There’s a certain way you have to dress.”

Enchill, the moderator, expects some hard truths to come out tonight.

“For us to work and see growth in this subject, there’s no way around it," he told WAMC. "You have to have these difficult conversations to advance ourselves.”

“Being Black In The Berkshires” starts at 7 at the Second Congregational Church in Pittsfield.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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