Edward McFadden – Staff Writer
Daryl Davis, author, musician and activist; and Arno Michaelis, author, humanitarian and former skinhead and white nationalist held a talk Nov. 28 in the Gemmell multipurpose room. The talk was titled “No Place for Hate: Conversations in Black and White,” and the guest speakers of very different backgrounds took turns sharing their personal experiences overcoming racial prejudice and ignorance. As a continuation of Clarion University’s annual, year-long Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, the talk was intended to share stories of real social change, and both speakers offered suggestions for corrective action, on both national and individual levels.
The event was preceded by “Life’s a Sport: Win It!” the motivational talk by professional football player Anthony Griggs, which took place in September of this year, also part of the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.
Davis’s story is one of curiosity and risk taking, and he entered into it fluidly with the air of someone who enjoyed story-telling, and indeed had grown very adept at it. At the young age of 10, Davis was confronted for the first time with active racism when he was pelted with rocks during a Cub Scout march in which he was the only African American. Davis reported that his immediate thought, one that would stick with him through years of work as an activist was this: “how can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” From that time, Davis set about seeking answers through difficult conversations.
One such conversation, the first, in fact, of its kind, was with KKK Grand Dragon, and later Grand Wizard Roger Kelly. Davis recounted the story of holding the initial interview with Kelly on the excuse of garnering research for a book. That book would later be published as “Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan.” But the interview was predictably tense, especially since Kelly did not know he was heading into an interview with an African-American writer.
In the years following, Davis and Kelly kept in contact, venturing into one another’s’ territory. Davis even reported attending a few Klan rallies. Eventually Kelly, a man described as “cemented in his ways” by Davis, began to see flaws in his worldview. Eventually, Kelly quit the Klan. A highlight of the event was when Davis brought out the former Klansman’s robe and hood which had been gifted to him as a show of good faith. The two still keep in touch.
“When talking ceases between people of opposing views, the ground is fertile for violence,” said Davis, of the importance of having these conversations. “We live in a space age of technology, but we communicate as if we had stone-age minds sometimes.
By comparison, Michaelis’s story of transformation dealt with more internal elements.
Out of an alcoholic household and a troubled youth, Michaelis clung to white nationalist ideology when he discovered that it gained the ire of authority figures and peers. It was a rebellious time for Michaelis. As front-man for the metal band “Centurion”, a favorite among white power groups at the time, Michaelis gained influence after selling over 20,000 records by the mid-nineties. Reportedly, the strain of this ideology began to weigh on Michaelis when people in his life, a Jew and a lesbian, surprised him with kindness that did not fit his worldview.
Michaelis left the “movement” as he called it when a breakup left him as a single father. Aware of the incarceration and death rate for people in racist groups, Michaelis elected to let go of his skinhead and white supremacist identities, which he ultimately described as “exhausting.”
Now, Michaelis is the author of “My Life After Hate,” recounting his story of transformation, as well as involvement in Serve 2 Unite, an organization founded in response to the 2012 attack on a Sikh temple, which, through school chapters, provides students with the exposure and community necessary to form tolerant citizens.
Michaelis asserted that progress, like prejudice, is based on practice, and encouraged audience members to make inclusive, understanding actions part of their daily practices.