Poet, essayist Toi Derricotte to speak at URI Visit culminates Community Conversations

KINGSTON, R.I.– October 15, 1998 — Toi Derricotte, distinguished poet and essayist, will speak at the University of Rhode Island on Monday, October 26. The occasion of her visit is the recent publication of Derricotte’s widely-acclaimed memoir, The Black Notebooks. Derricotte will share some personal experiences, read some of her poetry, and engage the audience in a discussion about race. Derricotte, who is a visiting professor at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., will speak at 7:30 p.m. in Edwards Auditorium, located on Upper College Road. Her talk is free and open to the public. Derricotte’s visit is jointly sponsored by URI, the State Council of Churches, and the National Conference for Community and Justice. The Black Notebooks is a profoundly personal document in which Derricotte, a light-skinned black woman, delves into her contradictory feelings about “passing” for white and her recurring longings to “escape from blackness.” Her painfully honest revelations shines a telling light on how white skin functions in a multiracial world and what whiteness sees and can’t see. The book shows how whites harm both themselves and blacks when they dismiss black claims that white vision is defective. “Derricotte moves us to think about our own lives, the lives of others, and our life together without asking us to see past race or through race,” says URI Sociology Professor Calvin B. Peters. “Rather she asks us to take our own interior journey with race as a constant.” Impressed with her work, Peters invited Derricotte to URI, asking her to speak to his 500 students enrolled in his sociology course who have read The Black Notebooks, and to share her important message with the general public. “Race is a central factor of our daily activities,” says the URI professor. “It is a presence to be reckoned with. It’s not a matter that ‘they’ have race and ‘we’ don’t. It’s impossible to make sense of life together without taking race into account.” Peters says our history and our lives are shaped by race. As a white man, Peters is free to buy the house he wants, shop in a store without being followed, and join any country club he wishes. Race seems invisible. On the other hand, a black man’s experiences are dramatically different. Prior to Derricotte’s visit, a series of on-going Community Conversations, sponsored by URI, are being held at the URI Providence Center, the Cranston main library, and the Rochambeau library in Providence. Each Conversation is facilitated by a member of the URI community often in collaboration with others. Each consists of about 15 citizens who have been provided with Derricotte’s memoir and other materials. The citizens represent a wide diversity of ideas, backgrounds, and interests. Community Conversations has no agenda other than to bring Rhode Islanders together in free-ranging discussions about what can be done to promote a good and just society. “It’s a time to spend together reflecting on issues that affect our lives to see strengths in others and consider changes. If we are going to build a society that isn’t sound-bite oriented, we need to talk across the boundaries, sensibly, thoughtfully, respectfully. It is our hope that participants in these conversations will share their thoughts with friends and organizations so that a web of conversation emerges and we get the society we all desire,” says Peters. URI began the Community Conversations project in 1996 to encourage discussions centering on issues of social justice, moral responsibility, and the relationship of diversity to the common good. That year, the conversations were stimulated by the works of author Jonathan Kozol (Amazing Grace and Savage Inequalities). Last year, Martin E. Marty’s work (The One and the Many: America’s Struggle for the Common Good) served as backdrop for the conversations. Both Kozol and Marty appeared at URI. The Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities has provided significant financial support to sustain the Conversations groups. Other sponsors are URI’s College of Arts and Sciences, College of Human Science and Services, Chaplains, and the Parents Fund. -xxx- For More Information: Jan Sawyer, 401-874-2116