Singer, songwriter and actor Kat Williams will lead what promises to be an insightful and entertaining look into ways residents can take a “Stand Against Racism” on May 1.
The two-hour event will be at White Horse Black Mountain starting at 2:30 p.m. Williams will be joined by other panelists. The event will be moderated by Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, instrumental in creating online postings of slave-ownership records.
Since 1998, Williams has become known for her singing and has been compared to legends Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Coco Taylor, Mavis Staples, Etta James and Tryon’s Nina Simone.
Williams, most recently in the news when the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte in early March dropped her from its Gala For Hope fundraiser because she's gay, said she will never leave her roots behind, both figuratively and literally.
A foster child (“the 31st of 31,” as she puts it) nurtured by a couple in Buffalo, New York, she attended the region’s first integrated school. She was homeless at age 17 after her foster mom died of cancer. With just as much emotion, she talks of the 1976 Alex Haley TV series “Roots.”
“Until then, all I knew was that (President Abraham) Lincoln signed something, and that was it — slavery was over,” she said recently. “Until I saw ‘Roots,’ I didn’t know what was done to African Americans during and after the Civil War.
“That’s when it manifested in me. My best friend (a girl of Polish descent) said something innocuous to me — and I slapped her in the face! She screamed and shouted ‘Why?’ and all I could come back with was ‘because of what you people did to my people!’ I didn’t even realize how deep that realization was until that moment.
“And, the more I thought about that history,” she said, “the more it impacted me. In fact, I cried for weeks.”
A more recent incident that reminded Williams of racism’s continued existence happened after her efforts with the global “Hands of Hope” project. The project brings together a community of women to help women and children in sub-Saharan Africa living in destitution.
In 2012, “I got a phone call telling me I’d been nominated for an Emmy,” she said. “Me! I was so excited!” A little later, she had to use a bank ATM machine in downtown Asheville. Next to her was an older white woman with a purse draped over the shoulder closest to Williams.
“When she turned and saw me, she moved the purse to the other shoulder, away from me,” Williams said. “I’d just been nominated for an Emmy. And here’s this woman, treating me like she was suspicious.”
Williams said she appreciates the acceptance she said she gets from most white people. But there are times she feels she needs to assume the role of spokesperson for her race. “Someone will say to me, ‘How do blacks feel about (blank)?’ I just tell them, “I don’t know; go ask them,” she said.
Before launching her singing and acting career, Williams spent more than a decade as a corrections officer, including with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department during the time a new inmate facility was being built.
“I went into my boss’ office and suggested the department start a diversity program to help other officers in their dealings with minorities,” she said. “He just laughed me out of the office. And sure enough, whenever there was a (real or potential) race-related problem, guess who got called in? Me.”
Reisinger said he had a racial awakening of sorts when, jogging in West Asheville, he passed by a cemetery. “In the front, there were tombstones engraved with the names and titles or ranks of Civil War soldiers and others,” he said. “Toward the back, there was a collection of unmarked graves that I later learned were where slaves had been buried.”
Meanwhile, back in 2000, Asheville real estate attorney Marc Rudow found Buncombe County slave deeds while checking on a parcel’s history. He mentioned the find to his wife, Deborah Miles, director of the Center for Diversity Education at UNC Asheville. She obtained a grant that enabled 20 high school students to go through the documents. Their work helped build a guide to local African-American history used in schools called “An Unmarked Trail.”
Tickets are online at whitehorseblackmountain.org and available from members of the Black Mountain Stand Against Racism Facebook group.
Learn more about the campaign at standagainstracism.org. Visit the Facebook page of “Black Mountain Stand Against Racism” for details and updates.
Take a stand
What: “Stand Against Racism”
When: 2:30 p.m. May 1
Where: White Horse Black Mountain
Cost: $10 adults, $8 students under age 21