AFSC's Keith Harvey, regional director for the Northeast, discusses "redskins," his childhood, and building the beloved community.
A few days ago, an article from the Lincoln County News landed on my desk. The article referenced the work of two of my staff in Maine, both Native women, and the struggle to address the racism embedded in the term “redskin.” When I read the words, “The people who want to change it should be shot,” I was instantly transported to my childhood.
My father, James Harvey, worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers). The important work of integration became the work of my entire family—children and adults. Over the course of my childhood, I would be asked to integrate four schools. My sister and I would be the only Black children in our schools, and our family, the only Black family in our neighborhoods. Our task was to show that we were people, just folks who could keep a nice house and a beautiful yard and that I could go to school and not just attend but excel. Our task was to become neighbors and to make friends.
It was hard. We were threatened with words not so different from the words in the Lincoln County News article. My parents were asked, “Why would you voluntarily put your family at risk like this?” Mom and Dad patiently would explain that yes, it was hard, and yes there was fear, but there was also hope and a strong belief that people could accept our family as human beings. There was an understanding that if we were truly to build that “beloved community” where all can live together in peace, someone had to take a risk. Someone had to take a risk so that others would not have to. We were that family.
It was hard. But, each time, eventually, we were accepted in our neighborhoods and schools. Today, I am eternally grateful to my parents because, hard as it was, what I really learned was—after the hate was expressed, the ugliness would subside and then there was possibility.
And I grew up not too different from the other boys. I loved sports. I played ball. I played football, and I played it well. I was a big guy. Eventually I lost my name, Keith, and became “the bear.” I won a scholarship and went to Miami University, better known as Miami of Ohio, where I played football in the 70s. We were the “Redskins.”
After years of dialogue and education, the university went to pains to make sure the image of the mascot was a “real” Native American and that the dances were authentic. I did not perceive there was a problem. I thought that we were honoring the Miami People who were legendary warriors. I saw no connection between Native civil rights and the civil rights of African Americans.
Until, and there always is an “until,” I met Brian in the school cafeteria, where we talked.
Brian was a scholarship student like me, only he did not play sports—he was the mascot, he was the “Redskin.” Brian asked me to help him, he said, “Keith, things have to change. I just cannot continue like this.” I said to him, “Brian what is the problem, it is such an honor.” I will never forget the way he looked at me, I will never forget and the words that followed, “Keith, what would you say if it were the “black skins” and it were an Uncle Sambo out there dancing?” I said, “Stop, you got me.”
Brian went on to explain that there were only two Native students, both on scholarship, at the university. At that time there were only about 150 Black students and most of us were on scholarship, most of us were athletes. But Brian pointed out that we were better positioned to ask for change. He was right.
That moment, my life changed.
I talked to the players on the football team, and while many supported the work to change the mascot, some teammates didn’t, and there were some uncomfortable conversations.
With Brian’s help, I learned about the Miami peoples of the Ohio valley and their rich culture. I learned about his culture and I learned what white children learned about me. I learned that Native people were people, and whether I understood it or not, if they were hurting because of something I was involved it, I had to change was I was doing. As a better-than-average athlete, I was more privileged than Brian was. It was my responsibility to use this privilege to end his suffering. This was another opportunity to build the “beloved community.”
It did not happen right away. It took six years beyond my graduation, but it did change. We are now the Miami University Red Hawks.
When I read about the Wiscasset students visiting Sipayik to learn about each other’s lives and build friendships, I was reminded of the young white children who visited my church when I was a boy with the same task at hand. These 12 young people from Wiscasset are now part of history, as the “first” who stepped out to build the “beloved community” in a far corner of Maine with people they did not know still existed.
So often it is our children who teach us. Right now, it is crucial that these young people see, in us adults, behavior they can emulate. I knew how to behave in tough situations because I watched my Dad and Mom handle very hard situations with dignity and with confidence that good will win out.
Right now, I want to thank these young people and the Passamaquoddy and Washington County youth for showing us older folks how a creative and problem-solving conversation can take place. But that is not enough.
I ask each of you to take a minute and think hard about what words you can offer them so that they are not left with fear, but with hope that, in the words of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission chair, Jamie Bissonette Lewey, when she spoke to the RSU-12 School Board, “our children can walk together in dignity with mutual respect.”
Building the beloved community is not the work of children alone. They need us to step up to the plate and show them we are walking with them and we do have skills to share.