Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Facing the Music

By Dennis Freeland

AUGUST 4, 1997:  I spent last week deep in the woods with several dozen Memphis teenagers. Working as the volunteer co-director of a camp called Anytown, my job was to help the young people find their similarities and overcome their differences.

The campers were black and white, Jewish and Christian, from private schools like St. Mary's and public shools like Whitehaven and East. Three were visiting from Israel. Most of the campers were chosen to attend Anytown because of their leadership skills. We hope they will take what they learn at camp and bring the best back to their schools.

Anytown is a program of the National Conference (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews). The camp is conducted from Phoenix to Atlanta to Memphis. Anytown can change people. I've seen it happen. Conservatives might shudder at our emphasis on diversity. Even the songs we sing might give Jesse Helms and his followers problems. Last week we sang "We Shall Overcome," "Puff the Magic Dragon," and, over my objections, "Kumbayah."

Anytown is a cerebral camp. One of the complaints we hear from campers year after year concerns their lack of free time. Most of the week is spent talking -- discussing prejudice and discrimination, gender roles, and the barriers that separate us. For Memphis teenagers, of course, that means race.

It can be emotional. We throw these smart, volatile teenagers together and immediately take them through activities which forge a bonding process. By the end of the second night, strapping 6-foot boys sit before the group wiping tears from their eyes as they recount experiences which have affected them deeply but may have gone untold until now. Suddenly the white kids see discrimination from the inside out. The black kids realize that all white teenagers aren't alike. They all begin to realize that most important adolescent concept, cool, is not limited by color.

Invariably things happen. Just as in the real world. On our next-to-last night at camp, as the staff is quietly congratulating itself for a job well done, we suddenly face an incident. Like so many racial misunderstandings, this one is rooted in an apparently insignificant moment. Given an unexpected hour of free time at the end of an evening, most of the campers gather around a boom box to listen to music and dance. Hot and tired, I sit by myself, happily watching the multi-cultural group dance its buns off to music totally unfamiliar to me. I go to bed tired but happy.

Funny, but in our separate-but-rarely-equal world, music can be a divisive factor. Our music. Their music. Black music. White music. Us. Them. Somehow the music incident slips completely past the boys, who will sneak out of their cabins and play basketball into the wee hours, bonding, proving their love for each other. On the other side of camp, the girls are upset, and in the true tradition of Anytown, they sit up most of the night discussing their feelings.

When I hear about it the next morning, I am incredulous. "I saw them dancing," I protest. "There can't be a problem." But the long face of one of my favorite campers clues me in. At Anytown, we believe open, honest dialogue is the solution for the small sticking points in race relations. Through a couple of private meetings, we talk through the hurt feelings in less than an hour. Girls move from tears to hugs. Anytown surges forward, toward its inescapable return to Memphis.

I go to camp because I learn from it. Because the process allows me to rediscover my humanity. Last week I learned an old lesson about prejudice and discrimination. I hope I left my cynicism in the woods.

After a full week without access to newspapers, radio, or TV, the real world can be shocking. We reenter Shelby County and hear about the black boycott at the county commission. I can't help but think that all our politicians could use a little Anytown spirit. (Dennis Freeland is editor of The Memphis Flyer.)

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