Conversation: Cynthia Jenkins

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EDITOR’S NOTE – Below is the first of our 6-part Series entitled Conversation: Questions & Perspectives in 2020. Winters Media & Publishing Inc. asked six black community leaders to share their points of view in the worldwide #BlackLivesMatter debate and how it relates to Coweta County. Today, our Q&A is with Cynthia Jenkins.

Cynthia is a lifelong Coweta resident, ECHS alum, Georgia Tech alum currently serving as CEO of Southern Crescent Habitat for Humanity covering Fayette, Clayton and Henry Counties. She’s also former Mayor Pro Tem of the city of Newnan and continues to serve as a council member.

1. When you walk into a grocery store and see “Aunt Jemima” pancake mix or “Uncle Ben’s” rice, what are your thoughts?

As for the controversy, I understand it. We didn’t buy Aunt Jemima when I was growing up in part because of the Mammie image back then. But at some point, the company did a makeover and dropped the slave Mammie image and made her a modern black woman and I appreciated that change. My only question over the years has been if her family ever made any money from the use of her image if she were a real person or if the company in its use of stereotypes actually donated to causes that help the community.

2. How do you respond to the typical white person saying “well, if they (a black person) had just done what they police told them to, none of this (arrest, beating, etc.) would have happened to them.”

In most cases complying does render a better outcome and that is what I and many others were taught and are teaching. Yet, we have seen situations where there was compliance like with George Floyd or no opportunity to comply like the no knock warrant with Breanna Taylor and Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta.  Those individuals should not have died and it’s not because they didn’t comply.

3. Along those same lines, have you ever had an experience with law enforcement that raised concerns for you? 

The majority of my experiences with law enforcement have been fine. But my first adverse one was when I was a college student. I was in the car with four black males on the campus of Georgia Tech back in the 1990s. They were all members of a fraternity and friends. The driver was giving us all rides back to our West campus dorms after a party in the early morning hours. Atlanta PD stopped us at the top of Bobby Dodd Way near the library. We came to a stop right in front of the Office of Minority Educational Development. He approached with his hand on his gun pulled slightly out of the holster. When asked why he stopped us, he said we “looked suspicious.” The driver had his fraternity license plate frame and his Georgia Tech parking permit hanging from the rearview mirror. The officer never said what broken law necessitated a stop. He didn’t even ask if I was ok in a car full of guys. He was rude and after we told him we were all Georgia Tech students, he dismissively told us to go home. The ride back to the dorm was of stories similar to this that the guys had all faced numerous times in the cities they were from. I’d never had such an encounter before. They talked about his attitude but mostly the readiness to draw his gun.  Of course all of those guys are successful, law abiding men who have had that scenario play out numerous times since, despite being a telecom executive, a  lawyer, a career military man, and a consulting firm executive.

4. What should be done with the Confederate Battle Flag? Should it be retired to museums? Should it be banned from public events? Essentially, where does it belong and not belong? 

I don’t like it. I never have. To me, it is a symbol of slavery, oppression, and the battle to maintain states rights to continue the institution.  But I’m not going to tell individuals and private businesses or organizations what to do with it. I and others can choose whether or not to patronize or join those that use it. But in the governmental space, I am of the opinion that it should not be. We are the United States of America and the flag of this country should be the one flying. The  exceptions to this would be for a celebration of an existing country that we have relationships with like Scotland for our Sister city recognition or in celebration of other cultural exchanges with existing countries.

5. Do you see that flag as a symbol of hate speech or a relic of past history for Southern pride?

I see how some may see it as a symbol of southern heritage. I’ve heard the perspective of many who see their families as heroes who fought for their rights as they saw them. I have had robust discussions with them about the causes and reasons for the war. But I don’t see it their way. My thoughts about the Confederacy involve the majority of my ancestors being slaves and the horrible conditions of chattel slavery, my heritage lost only to be approximated by DNA services. There is nothing romantic or genteel about wondering if my Southern ancestors of European descent received consent from my black ancestors. That’s what I see when I see that flag.

6. What should be done with Confederate statutes of Civil War generals and heroes in public places?

I don’t believe the statues should be destroyed. They are historic and they do tell the history from one perspective. But they should not have a prominent place in the most public of government and community spaces that represent all of us. I wouldn’t mind seeing some of the suggestions I’ve seen from the public like having them moved to Confederate cemeteries, or state-owned battlefields where they have a historic context.

7. What about the Confederate statues in downtown Newnan?

I would support the move to the Confederate section of the cemetery or to Brown’s Mill Battlefield.

8. Pop groups Lady Antebellum and The Dixie Chicks are now calling themselves Lady A and The Chicks. Dixie Beer is changing its name, along with many other product names like Aunt Jemima. Where does it stop? What about black coffee or brownies or Cracker Barrel or White Castle? When does this end?

If those companies feel inclined to change, then they will make a change. The government isn’t making them and shouldn’t. So it stops when those companies decide, the patronage of those companies decide, or the conscience of those business leaders decide it’s enough.

9. A lot of people watching the protests on television cannot grasp why blacks would riot in their own neighborhoods, destroy black businesses or businesses that hire primarily black employees. What is your response?

I don’t agree with rioting and looting. I am glad we have not had that here. As for other communities, we have learned that there have been many peaceful protests. Then there were those that began as peaceful protests that have had Interlopers come in and do bad things. Those Interlopers have been black and white causing unrecoverable damage for some of the small business owners and job loss for many. It was awful.

 Yet, we learned from Dr. King that riots don’t “develop out of thin air.” They are born from frustration and the weight of societal pressure. He says, “And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘Other America’

I am glad our community is moving towards meaningful ways to move forward and meet that challenge to achieve more social justice and indeed have progress.

10. Most parents have “the talks” – drugs and sex. It seems black parents/relatives also have to have another talk with their teenagers living in a white world. How does that go? 

I can’t specifically tell you how the many conversations go since they vary based on the situation and the kid. But there are conversations about driving and being stopped by the police. Don’t argue, pull over in a well-lit area, be professional and respectful even if you don’t feel like it was right so that you come home.

There are conversations on racism and how to handle it. There are conversations about self-esteem in a eurocentric world. It’s really hard for little black girls to grow up and not see themselves in commercials or in movies.  I often see people ask why is there a channel called BET. It’s because of the need for more black faces on TV. Television is a window to the world. It is important to see positive images of someone who looks like you in advertising, who are held up as beautiful, smart, and valuable, as someone who matters. It’s important for everyone to see that not just black children.

There are conversations about working hard to overcome other people’s stereotypes of black people and women. Hard work and an education are the clarion calls from the black community to be successful. Yet that path isn’t as straight or attainable as it may seem.

At the same time, I grew up hearing the accounts of my older family members who still carry the scars of discrimination, who remember the whites only signs, who remember having to enter the back door or doctors offices and stores right here in Newnan. My family members vividly remember the balcony at the theater, the takeout door at the local BBQ restaurant where you had to leave the property to eat, and having to use the custodians bathroom at Kessler’s. My sister was born in 1968 and  my mom wasn’t allowed to have her baby at Newnan Hospital.

Each generation has to adjust the conversations based on our experiences and on our hopes for the kid’s future. The kids today have different nuances to navigate in a very similar world. I have a friend from college who is 6’0″ engineer and her husband is a 6’5″ firefighter. They have four boys and he is teaching his boys how to put others at ease with humor and eye contact because he knows they will be big and tall and “scary black men” and wants them to know how to deal with that.

11. So what is correct in responding to race? Is it “black,” “Black,” “African-American,” or “people of color”?

 I use all of the ones listed above. I don’t really have a preference between Black or African-American. I use POC when referring to minorities in general.

12. What is one main thing you wished white people understood about race in America.

 I wish that people would understand that racism exists and that it is not limited to the overt things we think about such as using the N word or assuming every Hispanic person is illegal. It’s the biases (conscious and unconscious) that we carry and act on. I know people who use our relationship as a way to prove they love all people and do not have any racial biases. I try to challenge them to think about how they react to the black person they don’t know as opposed to the person they have built a relationship with. What are your thoughts when you see a black man in a hoodie in the parking lot at night? What do you think when you see a resume with a presumably black name? Does your “gut” say that the white male business is more competent and suited for the job than the ones owned by the black man, or the white or black woman? The intention may not be the same as outright racist. But the effect is the same.

13. What is the most significant thing white people can do to improve their part of race relations.

I believe that the truly transformative conversations happen among those who have real respect and care for each other. So start with those conversations with your black friends. Yes we are tired. But we are motivated to move the needle of progress forward. We have to for ourselves, our children and your children. It’s our generation’s time to stand on the shoulders of the giants before us and prepare the path for the next generation to be better. Also read some writings on race and the real outcomes that we still grapple with as a country. And do a deep dive into your own thoughts and biases. Everyone could do that, not just white people. I have an old friend who laments missing our high school “United Benetton Colors” of friends. We realize that our relationships have gotten more homogenized as we have aged. We don’t have the same level of integration that we had as kids. Generation X was the desegregated generation as the first to go through all of our school years in a desegregated system. Yet we’ve grown up and fallen away from those relationships.

14. Should we focus on being “colorblind” or acknowledge and celebrate our various “colors” as a part of our makeup?

I know it’s well intentioned, but we’re not colorblind. We absolutely see color unless you really are colorblind. I want people to not just see color but appreciate them. That’s how God made us. We are different colors and we should see the beauty in our differences. If you don’t see color, you don’t see me and I don’t see you. Colorblindness creates a cultural default that leaves everyone that doesn’t fit the cultural norm out. It’s a great thing to try to see how we are the same, of course. But, in trying to see how we are the same, we can’t ignore the things that make us different. We need to get comfortable with celebrating some things that aren’t always about the dominate culture. There are many subcultures and racial traditions that are beautiful and we miss out when we just want to be color or culture blind.

15. Every parent has problems with their kids’ choice of music. But how do we deal with certain mainstream Rap music that glorifies gangs, cop killing, degrading of women and more than enough of the N- and other similar derogatory words. 

 I think this question is often asked but the real question is whether we think this music is leading black children down the wrong path. I don’t think it is anymore than Luke or NWA did for my generation both black and white. I have white friends who know more words to these songs than I ever did. Every generation has music that parents think has an adverse effect on kids and some of it did. But, I will say that music doesn’t outweigh community and home influence. The artists of my generation told their stories of real hardship and struggle in their community and home. And that music became their path out of those situations. I can’t speak on the music kids listen to today because I don’t listen to it. But if those songs depict the same situations, maybe it’s because the conditions of their communities are the same.  You write about what you know. Not to mention, there is industry pressure involved when these young artists come through the ranks. Many are directed in this way and won’t receive a deal if they aren’t saying these things. If you are poor and your options are limited, the willingness to say what the label wants to hear is tremendous.

I would love to see a generation of kids that don’t know these struggles, who don’t see these messages in music as a way to get out, and a generation that can’t identify with it. It’s about the community and home influences changing to ultimately give them better stories to tell.

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