Journalists Mark Doremus & Karen Slattery—Using Stories as Gateways

Wallowing in the wake of George Floyd’s horrific, untimely death and the divisiveness in our nation over racism, I emailed my dear African American friend Brad, whom I’ve known since high school. I asked him this:

“What means the most to you when you hear how white people against racism respond? What actions speak to you louder than others? Do you want to see more peaceful protests? Do you want people to donate money to certain organizations? Do you want preachers preaching about it? Or what?”

Here’s a portion of his answer (used with permission):

“The George Floyd case and resulting aftermath have left me both horrified and hopeful.  I’m horrified that these kinds of things are still happening in the United States in the 2020s. One would think that through the rocky history our country has had with race, slavery, civil rights, etc. that we would have overcome this by now. But it is obvious there is still a lot of work to do. 

I am hopeful because as I have watched the protests
it is a refreshing scene to see people of all backgrounds
rally together around a noble cause. 
This gives me hope that maybe it will be in this generation
that strides can be made to provide for equity and justice for all. 

I have been so moved, even to tears, to hear the large number of white people, friends and strangers alike, speak up against racism. The fact that many of these folk are willing to march day after day and demand justice is the most touching part to me. I think the peaceful protests speak the message loud and clear. 

Those will die down as time goes on. I am most interested in seeing what individuals, communities, states, and the country will do to address these issues. And this is true for the church as well. . . . Like when Queen Esther went before the King to save her people, we have come to “such a time as this.” If nothing happens from this, then our country will never fully realize its own dream.  

Above all, I hope that we all will face this together
and speak up every time we see someone else
being treated differently and being discriminated against,
or being ‘bullied’ for the sole reason of what they are.”
—Brad Sheppard

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But how do we uproot such deep-seated prejudice?

One God-given means (besides the Gospel itself) is stories. Case in point: To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), one of the most memorable fictional accounts of racism in the deep South.

That joined the ranks of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), a book that spotlighted apartheid in South Africa. These are followed by African American novelists such as  Alice Walker (The Color Purple, 1982) and Toni Morrison (Beloved, 1987), among numerous others.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 
— Maya Angelou

Untold stories were finally told in Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water; and more recently, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime about his tumultuous upbringing during the last days of apartheid. 

And how can anyone be untouched by Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Bryan Stevenson, 2015)—a true story of a lawyer combatting our country’s broken justice system.

My children grew up on this book: The Story of Ruby Bridges (1995 by Robert Coles, illustrated by George Ford). As a favorite, it made its impact on them early, and still moves them today. In 1960, first grader Ruby was the first black child to attend an all-white school. Every parent withdrew their children that year. Mobs protested on the sidewalks during Ruby’s daily walk to class.

Every child should own this book, as a springboard for discussion about how racism is not dead, and what we should do about it.

Whether the setting is South Africa or the United States, whether the tale is fictional or true, whether we are black or white or any other color, we ALL need these stories. 

In June, Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Ron Howard, appeared on Good Morning America with her dad and spoke about her newest documentary Dads (on Apple TV Plus). Incidentally, she was cast in the film version of The Help (2011). Her words hit home. 

“Stories are so powerful because
they’re a gateway to radical empathy,
and that’s really what stories serve to humanity. . . .
The best stories are catalysts for action. . . .
More than ever it’s essential that we are seeking out
stories from black creators, black story tellers,
who center these stories on their experience.”    
— Bryce Dallas Howard

“Stories . . . a gateway to radical empathy.”

That line kept returning to me over the next several days. It’s something I’ve always believed, but I loved how she put it. How long can a person remain cold, cruel, or indifferent once he’s learned and entered into the story of another? 

Or as Atticus Finch put it, 

“You never really know a person
until you consider things from his point of view . . .
until you climb into his skin and
walk around in it.”
—Harper Lee

What better way to do this than to embrace a person’s story?

Today I’m pleased to feature two guests, a husband-wife team, who have tapped into the stories of a former African American community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By so doing, they materialize the hope that Brad referenced earlier. With their involvement in social justice, they’ve definitely done their share of restoring hope to their corner of the world.

Mark Doremus is a journalist and multimedia storyteller. His wife Karen Slattery recently retired as a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee. (See their bios below.)

Mark Doremus & Karen Slattery in her office at Marquette University. Photo by Elena Fiegen, courtesy Marquette Wire.

Together, they tackled the creation of the documentary film, Remembering Bronzeville. It aired on WMVS, Milwaukee public TV, Oct 31, 2019.

Bronzeville refers to Milwaukee’s old Sixth Ward, a neighborhood where African Americans settled after fleeing racism in the south. They moved north seeking better jobs at the end of World War II. Though racial tensions kept them confined to a handful of city blocks, these folks worked and played together in their own community into the early 1960s—until “progress” took over in the form of Interstate 43.

The corner of Seventh and Walnut Streets, in the heart of Milwaukee’s old “Bronzeville,” in the 1950s. Courtesy of Wisconsin Black Historical Society

Fittingly, the film is narrated by Sheena Carey, a storyteller—or griot, the West African term. She relays Bronzeville’s history to fourteen-year-old Kamani Graham. Read more about them here.  

Karen and Sheena Carey, narrator-host of “Remembering Bronzeville, scout filming locations in the old Bronzeville neighborhood. Photo by Mark.

Join me for some Q & A today with Mark and Karen.

What prompted you to make the documentary film Remembering Bronzeville?

Mark: Bronzeville is the name now used for the historic African American neighborhood in Milwaukee, which was centered around a commercial strip on Walnut Street.

Despite segregation and poor housing conditions,
the folks who lived there built a vibrant community
during the following decades. 

But then, much of the neighborhood was destroyed in the name urban renewal and freeway construction. It had pretty much disappeared by 1970. Similar stories happened in African American neighborhoods all over the country, including cities like St. Paul, Detroit, Baltimore, and others.

Our film about Bronzeville started with playwright, singer, and actress Sheri Williams Pannell. I met her when we were working on an after-school program for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. At some point she mentioned that she was writing a play called Welcome to Bronzeville, about the African American community in Milwaukee in the 1950s.

Karen and I sat in on some of the research interviews she was doing with folks who were children in the neighborhood back then. Their stories of growing up in a close-knit, respectful, and hopeful community were new to us. We wanted to learn more about them, their history and the city’s role in creating the situation African American found themselves in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

What was involved in producing the film?

Mark: I started by reading everything I could find about Bronzeville, from newspaper stories to academic research papers. Then, Karen and I together interviewed people Sheri recommended. From there, the people we interviewed introduced to others who lived in Bronzeville and could add to the story.

Karen interviews Bob Mays, a long-time real estate broker, who grew up in Bronzeville and helped African Americans homebuyers integrate formerly all-white neighborhoods on the northwest side of Milwaukee. Photo by Mark.

Everyone was more than happy
to talk about their experiences as children of Bronzeville.
I think they were proud of the community
and anxious to share the lessons they learned
with today’s young people. —Mark Doremus

Karen: Then we waded through hundreds of pages of interview transcripts, finding the nuggets that told the story most vividly. We also collected hundreds of photographs, from the interviewees themselves and from archival sources. Finally, we pieced it together into a film that we hope tells the story of Bronzeville accurately and sensitively.

We pretty much directed, shot, wrote and edited the film project on our own. Marquette University gave us a generous grant that allowed us to pay costs for licensing images and professional post-production work, in addition to marketing materials. We could not have underwritten the cost of the film without help from the university.

The film aired on Milwaukee PBS in the fall of 2019.

What are some of the things you learned from producing the film?

The history of Milwaukee’s African American community
is often overlooked, but deserves to be celebrated.
People who lived in Bronzeville suffered
economic hardship and racial injustice,
but they had a wonderful vision
of the dignified and prosperous future
they hoped to build for themselves
and for their children. —Karen Slattery

Karen: Unfortunately, that has not been realized for members of the minority community in Milwaukee, and elsewhere across the country. We have a lot of work to do.

Is there any particular story that stood out to you from your Bronzeville interviews? One that perhaps touched you more deeply?

Karen: There were so many wonderful stories told by the people who lived in Bronzeville that it’s hard for me to pick a favorite.

I was taken with their common story of community building.
They knew their neighbors and cared for one another
and looked out for each other’s children.
I heard those stories over and over again.
They really resonated with me.
—Karen

Mark: My favorite story is about the watchful adults in the neighborhood who looked out for the kids, and also monitored their behavior. Pretty much everyone we interviewed told a variation of this story. Here’s Evelyn Williams’ version:

“I came home from school one day and smoked a cigarette, and by the time I got home three people had called my daddy and told him I was smoking. That’s the sense of community. Folks looked out for each other.”

I think sociologists would see those stories as evidence of “collective efficacy” in the old Bronzeville neighborhood.

Scholars tell us that, in healthy communities,
people are willing to enforce shared values and expectations
for public behavior informally, without calling the police.
For this to work, folks must be linked together
in an interpersonal network that’s cohesive and enduring.
It suggests a small-town culture in a big-city environment.
—Mark

As a child, I imagine that those watchful adults, though sometimes a pain, also gave you a sense of safety and security. The adults were there to look out for your well-being, not just keep you on the straight-and-narrow. Our interviewees were proud of, and nostalgic for, the well-ordered neighborhood of their youth.

What takeaway or “call to action” would you like viewers to heed after watching the film?

Mark: As a journalist, I’m not used to including a “call to action” in my work. I’m trained to give a balanced report, and then leave it to the audience to come to decide what action, if any, is demanded of them.

So, going into the Bronzeville project, I wasn’t thinking about persuading people to act, or even change their minds. I just wanted to present them with a—hopefully interesting—account of an under-appreciated chapter in Milwaukee history. But, looking back, I hope “Remembering Bronzeville” gives people a more nuanced view of how the city evolved into the place it is today.

Karen: I would like people who watch the film to recognize that the story is about perseverance in the face of tremendous odds. The African Americans who came to Milwaukee looking for jobs and educations for their children were forced to live in a segregated neighborhood that had white fingerprints all over it.

I hope people who are white will be moved
by the social injustice in the story, enough to take action
toward solving the racial problems that we’re all facing as a result.
Soul searching and honest conversations about race
would be a good place to begin.
—Karen

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I encourage you to watch the 20-minute short version of Bronzeville. Today.

Join me next time for more of Mark and Karen’s ventures into journalism and documentary story-telling.

BIO:

Karen Slattery recently retired as a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Before joining the university, she was a television news reporter and producer. She has been a summer reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio and a contributor to Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. She has co-produced two feature-length documentary films with her husband, Mark. Karen holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Mark Doremus is a journalist and multimedia storyteller. He worked for several years as a television news reporter and photographer, a producer of training films and interactive media, and as the editor of a corporate newspaper before receiving a law degree from the University of Wisconsin and starting a second career in higher education, negotiating grants and contracts for UW System schools. He also holds a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

What stories—novels, memoirs, or documentaries—have stirred radical empathy inside you?

Also, please add other comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,

Laura

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8 thoughts on “Journalists Mark Doremus & Karen Slattery—Using Stories as Gateways

  1. I watched the short version of Remembering Bronzeville and it is a story that everyone needs to know about. To have a tight knit community shredded by a freeway, leaving residents with few housing choices is unthinkable. To have it happen to people with few resources and choices makes it even worse. But, unfortunately, it’s part of our fabric. There is a lot that needs fixing in the city and the greater Milwaukee Metro area, including racism and poverty. Recent events have brought these needs to the forefront, and I hope it truly will prompt people to act against racism and poverty. Awareness through this film is one step in the right direction.

    1. I’m so glad you took the time to watch the film. I hope this film prompts people to action, too. Thank you for your thoughts.

  2. The film was very interesting. What struck me most was the private covenants that restricted Black people from buying homes in “white” areas, and forced them to live in segregated areas with substandard housing. That practice was shameful. It prevented families with decent-paying jobs (in the 40’s and 50’s) from purchasing homes that would be clean, decent, and appreciate in value instead of rat- and insect-infested housing that was slowly falling apart. It’s unfortunate that the segregation caused by past practices has persisted to today.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts regarding the film, Nancy. Yes, it’s disconcerting to see parallels between then and now.

  3. Sounds like a worthwhile and often heartbreaking project. It’s great that they are getting their stories down in writing and on film, a history that many don’t know about.
    I’ll always remember the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird and how I felt for Tom Robinson. More recently, it was the movie Green Book. So much pain there.
    I hope this project brings peace, love, and understanding.

  4. This is fascinating. I haven’t watched the film yet; I’ll let you know when I do.
    Apparently redlining and destroying the communities of those without a lot of political clout was (and may still be?) an all-too-common practice. I actually just learned more of it since the tragedy that instigated the protests, and am shocked, shook, and a bit sick about it all.
    “To Kill a Mockingbird” had a profound effect on me. I’m certain I read it for the first time as a preteen. My mom and I watched a movie when I was about the same age. I remember so little of it, but it centered on a man imprisoned (unjustly maybe?) who served his full sentence. When he returned home—or to the town he chose to make home—he was hounded and persecuted by almost everyone except a black man. So wish I could remember the title. It made me hate injustice and all prejudice.
    On a final note though, I wish it wasn’t so easy to feel radical empathy for those whose stories are told in books and movies, but more difficult for me to empathize with flesh-and-blood people who also may have some unpleasant human characteristics that can make them harder to love. One really needs to be blind to everything except the injustice being perpetrated. Empathy can’t be earned because someone is an attractive or particularly worthy person. If that makes sense at all 🙂

    1. Let me know if you remember the name of the movie you watched, and let me know when you watch the Bronzeville segment.

      I really appreciate your admission about how it’s more difficult to love flesh-and-blood people over the (sometimes fictional) ones in books and movies. As humans, we fall into the trap of determining who is “worthy” of mercy (or justice) and who isn’t–often based on our own criteria, whether it’s color, social status, education, etc. We as a culture give too much consideration to personality (outgoing? engaging?) over character, and put too much stock in appearances. We’re drawn to the more likable people. It’s something we have to consciously resist.

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