Panel explores being Black in Glendive

Hunter Herbaugh
Sunday, February 28, 2021
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Cynthia Johnson, a travelling nurse serving at Glendive Medical Center, participated on a panel called “Black Voices” Tuesday evening at Dawson Community College. Associate Dean of Students Jon Langlois facilitated the discussion and helped organize the event. Hunter Herbaugh photo

As part of Black History Month, Dawson Community College hosted a panel featuring Black members of the student body and the community who shared their experience with race on Tuesday night. The panel was organized by several members of the DCC faculty.

Associate Dean of Students Jon Langlois, an organizer and moderator for the panel, said the idea for the event was inspired by the diversity of the student body, knowing that they have likely had a variety of experiences. He noted that the main goal of the event was to give Black members of the college and the community a forum to share their experience in hopes that it would start a larger dialogue.

“Most people don’t just sit down and talk with someone and just say, ‘hey what’s your experience with this?’ And it can be simple things. What’s your experience walking down the street? If you talk to some of the students here, they have a very different experience from what you or I experience. They think about things that we don’t because these are things that have shaped there lives,” Langlois said.

Panel participant Cynthia Johnson, a travelling nurse at Glendive Medical Center, has lived in Glendive for about a year.

Growing up in North Carolina, she was introduced to racism in her home state. She said it was a difficult thing to learn and live with, saying just being Black in the South was “hurtful” and difficult, as attitudes towards Black people were generally spiteful.

She related how things got even worse when the show “Roots” premiered.

That show followed a Black family during the earliest days of the nation and followed them throughout the years, beginning with a Black man being abducted from his village in Africa and ending with emancipation following the Civil War.

“When ‘Roots’ came out, it was absolutely horrible for Black people in North Carolina... When Roots came out I remember being spit on, in my face, just walking down the street and I was a young adult. I just didn’t really understand why people were so hateful because of the color of my skin,” she said.

Johnson eventually attended college in her hometown of Greensboro and joined the army looking for adventure.

After leaving home, her experience with race changed quite a bit. Johnson explained that she didn’t encounter as much racism in the army as the whole organization was “like a big melting pot,” made of so many different people. As a registered nurse, she has also travelled up and down the East Coast and when she had the opportunity to take an assignment in Montana a year ago, she took it as she was happy to have an opportunity to see a new place.

When she arrived in Glendive though, she said the change was “shocking” as the community has a relative absence of diversity compared to what she has been used to.

“I was just shocked, the reason being I’m just used to seeing people of color... that’s what I’m accustomed to so when I don’t see any people of color, it didn’t shake me too much because I’m a pretty grounded person, but I was like, ‘wow, this is really going to be an experience for me,’” she said.

However, Johnson explained that people in the community haven’t been hostile or offensive to her, but rather they’ve seemed more curious. She said that many people have seemed genuinely confused or unsure when she is around.

“I can tell people are shocked. It’s like ‘there’s a Black person here. What do I say? What do I do?’ And that to me is just so amazing,” she said.

Still, despite the general lack of experience in dealing with diverse people that some parts of the community may have, Johnson said she has felt welcomed by the community and even when someone does have questions for her about her experience being a Black woman, they are usually asked respectfully.

“I’ve had comments like ‘how does your hair turn gray?’ As if my hair turns gray differently than a white person’s hair. Some of the comments I get are really amazing, but you know what I like about it? When I am confronted with questions like that, it is done on a respectable level and I love that,” she said.

As Johnson shared her story, it seemed to resonate with a member of the audience, a young Black woman, who asked Johnson if being alone in a community so different from the one she was used to made her afraid.

Johnson said she wasn’t afraid but did initially have a sense of anxiety. She said she faced it by simply walking down the street.

“When I found out where I was, I said, ‘Let me walk the streets of Glendive and give them a real good shock.’ And that’s what I did,” She explained. “When I walked the street, it was amazing. You would think there was something on the street that no one has ever seen before. Really, I guess I was hoping to see some color too. I said, ‘I can’t be the only person here, I can’t be,’ and when I found out I was, I was like ‘okay.’”

Other than being one of the very few Black people in the community that wasn’t a college student, Johnson also noted the size of the community was a vast adjustment she had to make. Being from the East Coast, she said that she is used to having a lot of different service, like fast food and shopping malls, within relatively close proximity. Though she laments the lack of large shopping centers, she said it has helped her grow as a person and she has at least found a spot to get her hair done and is genuinely happy about that.

“It helped me identify really just what I’m made of, you know what I’m saying, as a person and I’m going to say I’m made of some pretty good stuff because I’ve been okay right here in Glendive,” she said.

Still she has also seen spots where the community can improve. One thing she noted is that just at a glance of the community, there are no indicators that it is Black History Month and she finds that conversations on race are hard to get started, as there just aren’t many examples of diversity in the community.

“I really don’t get into too much discussion about racism here because nobody really talks about it to me, but when it comes up, it’s the most awkward it’s unreal,” she said.

With the wider social climate currently being more observant of issues such as race, Johnson noted her belief that talking about the issue and having an open conversation is something that has to be done for things to change for the better for everyone.

“I think it is very important that we tell our stories, it is important that we communicate, it’s important. That’s how change happens, communicating each other’s story, learning from each other, that’s how it happens,” she said.

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“Some of the comments I get are really amazing, but you know what I like about it? When I’m confronted with questions like that, it is done on a respectable level and I love that,” Cynthia Johnson, GMC nurse