‘Unmasking Hampton Roads’ series encourages tough conversations about race issues


PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – It’s time to take off our masks and talk, face to face, about race, and racism, bigotry and intolerance in Hampton Roads.

Easier said than done? Well, it soon will be easier, and safer, thanks to a partnership of state and local organizations.

They’ve come together to sponsor a series called “Unmasking Hampton Roads.”

Samantha Willis, a Richmond-based journalist and co-creator of the Unmasking Series, says it’s inspired by the poem “We Wear the Mask” by African American writer and poet, Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

“That poem is about pretense and the person we are, behind who we present to the world,” says Willis, reflecting upon the time when Dunbar, a former slave, wrote the poem. He could have been killed by a white person feeling insulted by his work.

Willis learned first hand how difficult it is to talk about racial issues. 3 years ago, in the midst of heated battles over monuments honoring Confederate war heroes, Willis worked with Richmond Magazine to organize a series of community forums that brought opposing sides together in a “safe setting.”

“When we talk about difficult subjects like race, racism, bigotry and intolerance, we are afraid to offend … We don’t necessarily know the right things to say … so we might put on a mask,” Willis said.

She worked with Virginia Humanities to continue the series in Charlottesville in June 2018 (#UnmaskingCville). Those forums took place about a year after the “Unite the Right” rally when white nationalists brought deadly violence to the city.

And now it’s our turn. “Unmasking Hampton Roads” www.unmaskinghr.org will be the third in the series. And Willis says Confederate monument disputes here in Hampton Roads are just one of many contentious issues impacted by race.

“The decisions we’ve made about or infrastructure, our schools, our elected officials … where to live,” Willis says.

The Hampton Roads Community Foundation is co-sponsoring 6 events along with Virginia Humanities in October and November.

“The foundation really feels like we want to be proactive … and take an active role in convening people together, having real conversations, creating a safe space where don’t feel like they’re saying the wrong things …” says Vivian Oden of HRCF.

The “Unmasking Hampton Roads series focuses on Norfolk and Virginia Beach, October 10, 17, and 19 at Old Donation School in Virginia Beach. The focus shifts to Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk on November 14, 21, and 23 with programs held at the Portsmouth campus of Tidewater Community College.

WAVY-TV’s Anita Blanton will host the forums. For more information contact the Hampton Roads Community Foundation 757-622-7951 or 757-622-1751 or visit their website.

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