When he was growing up in Philadelphia, Ben Gambrell said he had “the talk” with his parents and grandparents.
“The talk” is what Gambrell says many black parents call telling their children about how to act when around police officers.
“Listening to my mother, my father, my grandparents and also my great grandparents. Stories about growing up in the South. Stories that were passed down from family member to family member where you always had to act a certain way or be a certain way when it comes to authority figures,” Gambrell said.
“I’m not just saying cops, it could just be a white authority figure. You just have to be able to talk to them a certain way and carry yourself in a certain manner ... Those conversations are real. Those things are a real fear, I would say in black lives as a whole. I can’t think of too many people who did not have that talk at one time.”
Gambrell said he had a version of the talk with his kids, but since they grew up in the Valley, it wasn’t as pointed as the one he received.
“I had the talk, but it wasn’t on the level that it was with me,” said Gambrell, who is a longtime teacher and coach in the Valley.
Over the past two months, Gambrell and his kids would start to talk more about racism in America as the George Floyd murder in Minnesota and an incident here at home brought the issue to the surface.
Ben’s daughters, Ariana and Breana, were walking down their usual path along the Diahoga Trail in Sayre when they spotted a tree with a racial slur spray-painted on it.
After a couple days, the Gambrell sisters would show their parents a video of the tree. That along with Ariana writing a letter on race to her track and field teammates at Bucknell, inspired Ben to post a message, along with a picture of the tree, to the Valley community on Facebook.
“If you think racism is not real or doesn’t exist in my community take a good look at this picture. It was taken by my daughters three weeks ago. They were walking trails within the community they grew up in. After taking a certain trail numerous times — suddenly that was written on a tree,” Ben’s post read on June 4.
“I am beside angry because I have held back my true feelings for years. I am beside upset because I’ve told myself for years to turn the other cheek and keep moving forward,” the post continued. “I am really angry because I have been quiet about the racism that exist and shielded my children from the ills of some people in this country, county, and community. I’m currently struggling and this struggle is real as I read an earlier post shared by my daughter.”
That post from Ariana read, in part, “I will not be silent. This is my first Facebook post ever, so this is serious to me. I grew up with really no consciousness of what it means to be black in America. I’ve never really faced anything to do with racism because of where I grew up.”
“In K-12 they just teach you the basics. In reality, everything that has to do with black people (slavery, oppression, injustice) was merely just maybe a total of 4 months of my schooling career. I decided I wanted to educate myself more about who I am. The world sees me as black so I thought I needed to take it upon myself to get the education I didn’t receive in my public school education ... What I found was that if I, a black woman in America, doesn’t even know the truth about the history of America, what does white America think of it? How do they see it? How do they understand it?”
Gambrell said he felt a responsibility to say something after Ariana spoke out.
“It just triggered something inside of me because one of the main focal points was she did not understand her true black side of her family in comparison to what she knows life to be up here. That kicked in a lot of things that I didn’t do, but I didn’t have to do when they were living up here,” Gambrell said.
“We’ve had talks with national spotlight things, certain black history things, we’ve had conversations but we’ve never had that talk. I never felt as though I had to instill a certain type of fear in them that was instilled in me when dealing with race relations.”
Growing up in Sayre is a lot different than living in Philadelphia or any large city in America, according to Gambrell.
“Life down there is different. Life down there currently is still different. There’s a lot more anxiety, pressure and fear of misunderstandings down there. I think that’s why you saw a lot of that take place in a lot of your major cities because there’s a lot of people who feel that way,” Gambrell said.
Gambrell recalled one experience he had in Philadelphia as a young man.
“I was home from the service and my brother bought a house right around the corner from my parents’ house ... Me and my youngest brother, we walked around the corner to go back to my mom and dad’s house,” Gambrell remembered. “Just as we got to the steps, a cop pulled up and said, ‘you, young man in (whatever shirt he had on), come here.’ He’s talking to my brother, and I looked at my brother and said ‘stay right here.’ (The cop) said ‘you mind your business.’ I said ‘this is my brother, this is my business.’ He said ‘well, I need to talk to him.’ I (told my brother) ‘go in the house.’”
The Philadelphia police officer wasn’t thrilled with Gambrell’s advice to his brother.
“(The cop said) ‘you better not go in that house.’ I said ‘he’s a minor, I’m responsible for him, we just left my brother’s house around the corner — I don’t care what you have to say to him, it has nothing to do with what you’re looking for,’” Gambrell recalled.
“He went into the house and (the cop) put his hand on his gun and I said ‘call mom and dad.’ He looked at me and he didn’t unbuckle it, but he said ‘I better not see you again,’ and got in the car and took off. I was a grown man he was talking to, but he was talking to (us) like that because (my brother) ‘fit the description.’”
Gambrell was happy that he was there to defend his brother, but knows that the encounter could have gone much differently.
“He was about 15 or 16 and I’m thinking to myself ‘what if I wasn’t here? What would have happened to him?’ I know my brother, he’s a hot-head. What would have happened if he would have went towards him,” Gambrell said. “I think that’s what a lot of black men think about as this progresses — at some point in time that could have been me. And it could have been something as simple of just getting pulled over. It’s just that consistent fear that exists.”
‘A real eye-opener’
Gambrell knew his kids would want to join in on the national conversation around race and support the Black Lives Matter movement.
The family would make the short drive to Elmira to join in a peaceful protest in the small New York city, but Gambrell knew they needed to do more.
“I knew that wasn’t enough. We went back home and we’re still watching the unrest and watching the protests, more and more conversations were coming out, and we were really getting into things. They learned a lot about me and my past and were like ‘wow, why weren’t we given these (stories) before?’ And I was like ‘there was no reason to.’ I blame myself for that,” Gambrell said.
Gambrell would have “an epiphany” after getting back from the Elmira protest. He and his children needed to make the drive to Minneapolis — the site of the Floyd murder and massive protests.
Gambrell, Breana and his son Benny (Ariana couldn’t go because of work) made the long drive to Minnesota — and they took it all in during a short visit.
“I was fine when we first got there, seeing the memorials, seeing the actual place where he died, seeing all the dedications and flowers, it was just so surreal, the calm and peacefulness that was there,” Gambrell said.
The one thing that really hit Gambrell was a cemetery protesters had created in a Minneapolis park with the names of black men and women who were killed by law enforcement.
“It wasn’t until I walked to this makeshift cemetery and they call it “Say Their Names.” It wasn’t until I got there when it really hit me because these were some of the names that I did talk to my kids about,” he said. “These are some of the names that I do know about that hit national news and some of them aren’t. That really took it’s toll about the whole totality of what’s going on.”
While there was plenty of destruction in the city, Gambrell also recalls all of the images of people coming together to rebuild Minneapolis and lift the community back up.
“There were four or five community organizations right there trying to rebuild the city up, trying to rebuild the area up. Looking for volunteers to help clean this up. Looking for volunteers to help do this. There was one group giving out free lunches ... just to do it. That was really cool to see,” he said. “A couple of businesses had signs up that said ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘we will rebuild.’ That was deep ... that was deep.”
Gambrell was happy two of his kids got to witness the moment in person rather than through a television or smart phone.
“They learned a lot just from watching TV and our conversations, but it’s a completely different picture when you see it live and see it for yourself ... It was just that wow factor. It was a real eye-opener,” Gambrell said.
‘I had that opportunity’
Gambrell realizes that if he didn’t have some of the opportunities that he took advantage of, he might have had a much different life.
“There are a lot of people out there that never had that opportunity to get out of the ghetto. Never had that opportunity to get out of their own neighborhood and they are stuck there for whatever reason that may be,” he said.
“That’s where the institutional racism comes in at. Some people just can’t have that opportunity. I had that opportunity. Sports was my outlet out. I played piano when I was young. I got in the Navy when I graduated high school. Those things were my little opportunities where I was fortunate enough to take advantage of. A lot of people don’t get those opportunities. Generation upon generation stuck in the ghettos and never get a chance to get out of there.”
Gambrell also knows that if he had raised his family in Philadelphia, it could have turned out much differently.
“Had I been in the city, life would have been completely different. Who knows if my kids would have been successful. Who knows if my kids would have been top 10 in high school,” Gambrell said. “Who knows because there are so many distractions and so many things that are pulling kids in the cities, that I couldn’t guarantee my kids would have made it all the way through high school and that’s a true black fear. They have to fear a lot more down in those cities than they have to up here.”
Here in the Valley, Gambrell said he has never experienced any racism — especially when it comes to the local police departments.
“I’ve been friends with a lot of people on the police force (in the Valley). I’ve never experienced anything that I can actually go on record and say they need to change,” Gambrell said. “I don’t have any changes or suggestions like that because I haven’t had that experience or heard of that experience.”
Gambrell was thrilled to see some of his fellow teachers hold a candlelight vigil in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s amazing because of the small population and because of the lack of diversity that’s here, it’s amazing that people still want to speak up and still want to talk and share,” said Gambrell, who missed the Valley vigil due to his trip to Minnesota.
One thing that disappointed Gambrell was some of the threats that popped up on social media for a protest that was planned — and later postponed — in the Valley.
“It’s dumb. It’s OK for other people to protest and demonstrate and do whatever they want at any point in time, but as soon as somebody else says ‘hey, I want to do this,’ and you disagree with it, the first thing you want to do is grab a gun,” Gambrell said. “It makes no sense. Look, if you want to protest, protest. If you’ve got something to say, say it. I’m not going to stop you, and I’m not going to get in your way. Will I agree with it? That’s my decision to make, however, I’m not going to verbally go out of my way to say ‘I’m going to do this, that and the other because I disagree with it.’ That’s where the hatred and violence starts coming together.”
Gambrell said it has become clear that change won’t happen without the help of all races in America.
“(I’ve learned) black people can’t do it by themselves. They need the support and help from other cultures. They need (others) to speak up with them because as long as you remain a minority towards an issue, then the powers that be are going to keep it at a minority rate,” Gambrell said.
“The more people talk and the bigger it gets and the more open (it becomes) and more lives it touches, that’s when you can actually make change and do different things. (That’s when you can) make things happen so we don’t have to have these incidents again. We don’t have to have the civil unrest that took place after the fact. We can actually start working on it.”
Gambrell said that type of teamwork was evident in Minnesota.
“There was all different types of people walking around and kind of mourning but also celebrating and sharing in the events of the memorial. It was kind of like a great microcosm of what life could be in this country. That was a great thing to see. That was a great thing to witness,” Gambrell said.
“There were no loud words. There was no hate. Everyone was just sitting there vibing together and sharing in the moment. If you can take that little small section and show everybody else what it looks like and what it should look like, then this country could actually become the greatest thing on earth.”