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The Local Take talks Traveling While Black with Professor Bernard Demczuk

This week on WCLK's The Local Take(Saturdays 8am), we're talking about Traveling While Black, an immersive exhibit at Georgia Tech Ferst Center for the Arts. The exhibition is in open spaces on either side of the lobby box office. 

Following COVID-19 protocols, a limited number of guests can view the short documentary with goggles and headphones. The story of the Green Book and Ben's Chili Bowl, one of its recommended locations in Washington, DC, is part of the immersive experience. The Green Books was first produced in 1936. The book allowed Black/African-American citizens to traverse the country safely. Even though our community could buy a car, we might not be able to buy gas, food, or use facilities in many places. The Green Books included places to be avoided, including sundown towns, rural areas, and small municipalities in the north, south, east and west. 

I reached out to Professor Bernard Demczuk, the official historian on Ben's Chili Bowl, to discuss the exhibit. 

Dr. Bernard Demczuk is the official historian for Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, DC

Professor Demczuk explains how to he came to be the official historian and encourages other restaurants seminal to the Civil Rights movement, including Pascal's in Atlanta, Sylvia's in Harlem, and Dookie Chase in New Orleans to do the same. 

The immersive experience allows you actually to sit with people visiting Ben's Chili Bowl. I asked Demczuk how did they choose the people included in the documentary. In addition to Virginia Ali, a founder of Ben's Chili Bowl, he mentions Courtland Cox, Dr. Frank Smith, and Rev. Sandra Truesdale, all regulars at the restaurant. He shares that the SNCC, Martin Luther King's SCLC, and Jessie Jackson's Poor People's Campaign all had offices in the vicinity. They all ate and strategized together at Ben's Chili Bowl.  

As I experienced Traveling While Black, in certain segments, I closed my eyes. I asked if being unsettled or experiencing discomfort was a necessary part of the exhibition. Demczuk says yes. Being uncomfortable is needed to experience "driving while Black." Demczuk speaks to the irony of the automobile being a symbol of freedom for everyone that isn't Black. 

I ask Demczuk about the reflection area, which is part of the exhibition. Participants write down their feelings about the experience. 

He explains why this was such an essential and much-needed part of the exhibition. He speaks to allowing yourself to understand your emotions so that you can free yourself from their hold. 

For more information on Traveling While Black at the Georgia Tech Ferst Center for the Arts.