Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Award-winning documentary draws attention to race riot, larger racial issues

Dr. Wesley Robinson-McNeese recalled a scene where he was swimming with some Air Force buddies in the waters off Biloxi Beach in Mississippi in the late 1960s.

A stranger pulled up in a pickup truck and, producing a shotgun and hurling epithets, promised that he was going to "blow away" McNeese, who is Black, if he didn't get out of the water.

"My friends said, 'Wes, you’re a soldier, you don’t have to do that,'" McNeese remembered. "I said, 'He’s not aiming the shotgun at you guys. He’s aiming it at me.'"

That is one of several personal episodes McNeese recounted in his scathing poem "Face to Face," which was inspired by an event commemorating the centennial of the 1908 Race Riot in Springfield. It was originally published in Quiddity, a literary journal published by then-Benedictine University Springfield, later in 2008.

McNeese, 72, a retired emergency room physician and executive director of diversity initiatives for the Southern Illinois University System, has periodically given readings of the poem in the area.

Now, thanks to The Storyteller Studios in Springfield, the poem has new life as a three-and-half-minute film narrated by McNeese from inside the remains of Black-owned homes that were burned in Springfield's Race Riot.

University of Illinois Springfield assistant history professor Devin Hunter said he heard McNeese recite the poem on a couple of occasions, including once when he drew a standing ovation at the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum.

"It really made an impression on me, both the words and how it resonated with people," Hunter recalled.

Hunter was working on a project funded by the University of Illinois President's Office collaborating with artists, performers and writers in how they might capture and interpret the Race Riot in their various forms.

This story appeared in The State Journal-Register on December 14, 2020.