Dejour Banks, a 14 year-old sophomore at N.C. Connections Academy, a virtual public school serving students throughout the state, is thrilled at what he sees while walking through the “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
The exhibit is filled with interactive tools, historical artifacts, photographs, multimedia presentations and graphic displays designed to give visitors an eye-opening lesson about how the concept of race as a defining element of our being developed.
And the exhibit, which runs through Oct. 22, doesn’t shy away from how purveyors of racial difference employed those differences for financial gain and the justification of brutality against people of color.
“It gives us a lot of background on our history so hopefully we won’t repeat our history,” Banks said of the evocative exhibit that looks at race through the lenses of science, history and personal experience.
Banks, who is from Rocky Mount, became fast friends with Dominick Michael, a freshman from Cedar Point, when they met for the first time on Thursday.
Although the two take biology class together, they do so in front of a computer from the comfort of their own homes.
“I knew schools were segregated,” Michael said when asked if he’d learned anything from the exhibit. “But some of the information, I’d never heard before.”
Banks and Michael were two of about 30 mostly high school students and a dozen or more parents, siblings and teachers who spent Thursday touring the exhibit as part of a field trip for the online school, which enrolls 2,160 students in grades K-11 from across North Carolina.
N.C. Connections, based in Durham, is expected to grow to add a senior class within the next two years.
Robi Myers, 16, a junior from Salisbury, said she’d already studied a lot of the information presented, but liked the interactive exhibits.
“Everybody is generally the same and we need to treat people as equals,” Myers said. “I do that anyway but I know a lot people who don’t.”
From the perspective of parents
Parents also seemed excited about the exhibit and just as eager to learn as the students.
Patrick Hunt, a parent from Durham, attended the exhibit with his son David Beddingfeld, a seventh grader at the school.
Hunt, who is white, was fascinated about how the concept of race developed and how the terms used to describe people based on their skin color came into being.
He said he didn’t know that historically whites were also enslaved until a decision was made by European powers to restrict the slave trade to blacks from Africa.
“It just blew my mind,” Hunt said.
Shequita Banks, Dejour’s mom, moved around the exhibit with daughter N’abria, a seventh grader at N.C. Connections.
Shequita Banks said she wanted to see the exhibit in the wake of the racial tensions gripping the nation as a result of some professional athletes’ decision to kneel during the National Anthem.
“Because of the direction the world is going in, I thought this would be an important field trip, talking about race, what impacts it and how it’s changed over time,” Shequita Banks said.
Teacher sees learning opportunity
Liz Garg, a seventh grade English teacher, also thought the scheduling of the exhibit was timely because of the recent toppling of a Confederate statute in downtown Durham, debate about kneeling during the National Anthem and the national discussion around the deaths of unarmed blacks at the hand of police.
“With current day issues happening, this is just so relevant to our students right now,” Garg said. “Race has just been a huge topic over the past several years. I think helping students see how important race still is in our country, where racial inequality still lie and how we can be better citizens is an important conversation to have in class.”
For Garg, the field trip was the first time she’d met any of her students.
“It’s been great,” Garg said. “That’s why I like to go to these events. The students are a little shy at first but you can tell they also want to put a face to a name. Once they see me and know me, then suddenly they want to come to my lessons more and call me on the phone. They see that I’m friendly and I’m not a robot.’
N.C. Connections Principal Christina Robinson said the field trip was a way for teachers to build more personal relationships with students and their parents.
“We don’t get to see these students every day, so it’s important to connect with them and let them know we’re real people,” said Robinson, adding that the school took more than 50 field trips last year.
She said the field trip to the museum was an important one because of the racial issues being discussed throughout the country.
“They can learn about it here, and how it started and why we’re fighting for certain things and against other things,” Robinson said. “This will help them create their own identity and their own place in the world.”
The closed circle
The visit to the exhibit concluded with a private session at which a handful of students and parents were asked to sit in a circle for a discussion about race.
A facilitator said the session is always closed and would not allow a reporter and a photographer from The Herald-Sun into the discussion.
But Dejour Banks agreed to share some of what happened afterwards.
He said he shared with the group that he does not feel he is a victim of overt racism, but that his dad feels it every day and must survive in a “hostile” environment because of the color of his skin.
He said testimony from some of the participants grew emotional.
And he said one woman said she felt bad because of the way whites have historically treated blacks in America.
“She broke down in tears,” he said. “I kind of felt bad for her because you can’t help what color you are when you come out of the womb.”