Now what? – A Southern Souls Story; Black Lives Matter Edition

Chester J. Fontenot, Jr., who has a doctorate in comparative cultures from the University of Irvine, is the director of Africana Studies Program and Baptist Professor of English at Mercer University.

Southern Souls is a story-telling series that offers a personal look into the lives of people around us, showing that all souls can relate to one another through our laughter and tears, successes and failures. In keeping theme with the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re temporarily shifting the focus of the series to highlight what some have perceived as racially motivated incidents that have had lasting impacts on Black people living in Georgia. The goal is to discuss, educate and grow as a community, so that we can all come together and create a more inclusive environment for generations to come. *Editor’s Note – the Associated Press recently updated its Style guide to capitalize Black when concerning a race of people. The same treatment of white is under review.

I met Fontenot when he came to speak to one of my classes about the history of race in Macon. He’s the type of man who is so well educated, it makes you feel smarter just by being around him. He’s published 8 books and over 60 articles pertaining to Black studies. On top of that, Dr. Fontenot was also born to parents who were living in the South during segregation – around Lake Charles, Louisiana, to be exact. The family decided to move and  Fontenot was raised in Compton, California, during the civil rights movement, and has had a ringside seat to the Black Power and Black Lives Matter movements. He’s the first person who came to mind when I began to question where we go from here.

Ironically enough, Fontenot agreed to meet on the day that would later be scheduled as the first of three funerals for George Floyd, the Black man whose killing by police prompted this special series. So we both watched it independently and then got on Zoom for our discussion.

“This history that we’re seeing unfold right now, in real time, is something that I experienced partly as a child whenever I traveled back to Louisiana,” Dr. Fontenot said. “Then the things that my parents and grandparents and uncles would tell us, the stories about the interactions between Blacks and whites and how bad things were during segregation, painted a horrible picture.  I even had a grandmother who remembered being a kid when slavery ended. These experiences of my relatives spurred a fire in me for my own culture.”

Fontenot had initially been a math major, studying at Whittier College in California.

“I just couldn’t see myself devoting my life to math or physics when my people needed me,” he said.

For years, Fontenot immersed himself in Black literature, history, and culture studies.

“Young people who neither lived through these experiences nor were able to study Black History should understand that that what made life so bad for Black people was that it was legal to not only discriminate against Black people, but also (for whites) to do anything they wanted to do to us,” he said. “For example, what happening with George Floyd being killed, literally in public with a camera rolling, and (the officer) just chilling with his knee of George Floyd’s neck, during segregation, would have been simply normal.  And Blacks would have had no recourse.  The only thing Black people were able to do was talk about it in the home, talk about it in the church, pray and try to move on.”

That’s partly the reason Fontenot’s parents moved the family out West.

“They weren’t going to abide by the laws of segregation. They knew the Ku Klux Klan was eventually going to kill them or another one of my relatives.  The Klan would kill the whole family, not just the person who was supposedly the offender.  They would come after the whole family, even children and babies. But Black people now have opportunities that my parents didn’t have,” he told me.

From segregation to civil rights to Black Power, and now Black Lives Matter–while it’s arguable that major progress was made during each movement, I thought that we, as a people, must have missed something during each of these attempts for equality for us to keep having to go back and continue to protest for equal rights. To help me understand, Fontenot recalled when Martin Luther King, Junior, was assassinated.

“More than 100 cities went into full riot mode. Some cities just burned completely. A whole section of Washington, DC, literally burned down. In Delaware, a whole section (of town) burned down. Detroit had race riots. There were riots in Los Angeles as well. We weren’t able to garnish the energy from that movement and move it to the next level,” he said.

“What is that next level,” I asked?

“Effecting policy,” Fontenot told me. “We’ve had some victories. Some of us had been able to come through doors that had been shut before,  and attend institutions we previously couldn’t, and graduate with degrees. Then with affirmative action helping us as well, some of us got hired and became professionals. What we didn’t realize though, when we came into institutions, be it politics or universities or banks, etc., that there were so few (Blacks) that we didn’t have the critical mass to sustain change. And if we pushed too hard in our capacities, we didn’t last long. But my generation had tremendous success, we just didn’t know how to turn that energy into something that can affect policy.”

Change, according to Fontenot, is two-fold.

“Young folks now say, ‘I’m gonna vote but I don’t have hope. What’s the use; things have not gotten that much better?’ Ok, so maybe the way is take to the street and start protesting, but (young people) don’t understand that it takes both. That was the shortcoming of my generation and the ones that have followed.  It’s probably a shortcoming of just being young. When you’re young, you don’t really want to listen to older people; you don’t think they know about the current situations. To affect policy,  (young people) need to vote.”

Vote, Fontenot says, with intention.

“A lot of young folks were able to vote in 2016 and their candidate, Bernie Sanders, did not win the Democratic nomination. So they god mad and took their votes home with them, but that’s not how politics works. You don’t take your ball and go home because you didn’t get your way. Many young people either did not vote (again) or they voted for a candidate who had no possibility of winning. They wasted their vote. Your vote has to not only be intentional, but an educated vote as well so that you don’t vote for people who can’t win.”

Does this mean it’s a wasted vote if your candidate is trailing in the polls? Not necessarily, Fontenot explained.

“I have young people who say I didn’t vote for Trump, but (they) unwittingly did. Some voted for the Green Party , or another third party person. Some wrote in Harambe (a gorilla killed inside of an Ohio zoo after a toddler fell into its enclosure). They wasted their vote; they (inadvertently) voted for Trump.”

Fontenot firmly believes in voting to get the right people in place for a better country. But he also pointed out something else that has been of monumental assistance in bringing the call for equality to the forefront: allies.

“The protests that are happening now are a first for our country. I don’t think young people understand what’s happening right now,” he said. “Never before in this country have so many white people protested alongside Blacks. During the civil rights movement, there were some white people, Jewish people, and gay people who marched with Dr. King across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, who risked their lives, but you could pick them out (of the crowd). These young people have gotten to know each other in ways my generation didn’t get to know each other across racial lines. These kids are literally risking their lives for Black people.”

Having run the gamut of the three major civil rights movements, I asked Fontenot if this movement is going to be what turns the tide to a more inclusive community.

He told me: “While some people are saying right now that this country is going to hell in a hand basket, all these racist police are against us and all that stuff, I stop them to say, but do you realize what’s happening now that has never happened before. The few white people that marched alongside my generation were ostracized by other white people. They became symbolically Black so they had to be very courageous. But now, not only has a generation awakened, which I knew they would sooner or later, and I’m sorry a brother had to die in public for them to awaken, but they’re woke now and that’s a good thing because we need them. Thirty years from now they’re going to be (some of the ones) making major decisions, so it’s a big awakening. Now we get to see that there is literally a youth movement that is truly diverse. That is hopeful to me. That makes me really look at things very differently.”

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Southern Souls is comprised of actual, in-person interviews conducted by Amyre Makupson. Some statements may not be in chronological order. Names and locations may be changed to respect the privacy of participants. The views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Amyre Makupson or The Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University.