READING – As introductions go, this one was a little rough. It was June 13 and Kevin Dua was one of 12 speakers on the Town Common during the Reading’s Rally for Racial Justice.
Over the course of 20 minutes, he said he didn’t feel safe surrounded by white residents, he didn’t trust any of his white neighbors, and on top of that, he didn’t care if we were uncomfortable with anything he said. The history teacher and two-year Reading resident summed up his feelings, along with other Black neighbors in attendance that day. “We are sick and tired of your bull[expletive].”
Nice to meet you too.
But Dua, along with other Black speakers, wasn’t there that Saturday to make Reading residents feel good about themselves as they gathered in support of racial justice in the weeks following the death of George Floyd.
“I think the common thread that we all had, even though we all didn’t congregate prior and say these are the talking points, it’s that we each knew as Black individuals the discrimination, racism, the bigotry, the prejudice that has happened to us. Whether it took place in this community or within our lives, it is something that is painful, it is something that is traumatic, it is something that a lot of individuals, especially white individuals do not grasp or recognize.”
In a summer where a health pandemic competes with racial unrest for the daily headlines, the 32-year-old Dua was happy to sit down with a 62-year-old journalist, one of those neighbors he didn’t trust.
Born in Alexandria, Va., Dua graduated from T.C. Williams High School, the school made famous in the 2000 film “Remember the Titans.” Then it was off to William & Mary, where he graduated in 2009 with a degree in history. Following college, he volunteered thru the AmeriCorps Service Program for two years as a teacher’s aide in the Boston Public Schools. He got his master’s degree from the Donovan Urban Teaching Scholars Program at Boston College in 2012 before taking a teaching position at Somerville High School, where he spent five years. In 2017, he joined the staff at Cambridge Rindge & Latin.
That first year in Cambridge was a good one for Dua. He became the first Black educator honored as the Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year and was one of 10 finalists for National History Teacher of the Year. He also was honored by the Mass Council for the Social Studies with the Don Salvucci Award for Excellence in Promoting Civic Education; as well as sharing the Kathleen Roberts Creative Leadership Award, part of the Massachusetts Teachers Association Human and Civil Rights Awards.
But the most important event in 2017 came when, “I married my best friend” and in July the couple celebrated their third anniversary. In 2018, after a brief stay in Wakefield, he moved with his wife and dog Finney to Reading.
Talking to Dua makes you feel like you’re one of his US History students, listening and learning as the teacher explains his opinions on everything from civil war monuments to his favorite football team growing up, the Washington … Football Team. Dua is happy to “tackle” the topic of racism on any level. For example, that $1 bill in your wallet.
“When you live in 2020 and you look at even our currency, the paper we all use to buy items and we see individuals who literally protected, and enabled the dehumanization of other humans. And they’re prominently on this piece of paper,” said Dua of George Washington on the $1 bill. “I can say my favorite animal is a sea otter. I can say, why not just put a sea otter on all the currency? Someone would say that’s ridiculous, why would you do that? I said, what’s more ridiculous, a sea otter on a $1 bill, or a man that enslaved humans? Out of the two options, what is the most absurd thing that makes sense for us to use?
“Someone can say, if you change it you erase history. But that literally doesn’t make sense. Your argument is that you’re willing to debate with me for as long as you want to, why the face of an individual who literally owned humans, why that face is so needed on that piece of paper versus an animal, simply because that face represents history.”
If you’re like most white Americans, changing the face on a dollar bill never crossed your mind. Why would it? Washington contributed much to the founding of our country. But Dua believes that’s part of the problem. What reminds Black Americans of slavery, is never a thought to white Americans.
Why stop at our currency? How about a mountain?
“We look at Mount Rushmore. People say that these are individuals who led the country. This is a great national monument for people to see,” said Dua. “Historically speaking, there are two slave owners up there and there are faces of individuals who were carved into nature, on land that was never theirs in the first place, because it’s the land of indigenous people. The fact is, this nation is existing on land that never belonged to the Europeans that came here to colonize it.”
Despite what you might think about him at this point, it’s dangerous to make assumptions about what Dua believes. Chances are you’ll be way off the mark.
Prior to the death of civil rights giant John Lewis last month, an online petition urged that the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., be renamed in Lewis’ honor. The bridge was the site where Lewis was assaulted during a 1965 protest march and later the subject of the 2014 film “Selma.” Edmund Pettus was a confederate general and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But Lewis disagreed with the petitioners, saying, “We must tell our story fully rather than hide the chapters we wish did not exist.”
Dua, however, thinks Lewis was wrong.
“There is a historical reality that is not universally acknowledged in our country and that is the honoring, commemorating of institutions, whether it’s a street, a school building, a mountain, a statue, with the name of a profile that embodied, that had an existence, centered on oppressing, dehumanizing, supporting, enabling, perpetuating, bigotry, racism towards other humans. And the fact that it is real in our country’s history and up for debate has always said a lot about what this country tries to justify in the first place.
“Because, in other spaces, outside of the US, we would view that as non-negotiable. The idea that there could be a statue, there could be a bridge, some people want it, some people don’t, as the United States, how do we debate about this. If this were Germany and we’re debating as Germans this statue, this bridge, this street name for a holocaust survivor, for a Nazi soldier. Do we want the Nazi soldier to have their own street? In the US, people would say, what are they doing? Why is there even a debate that this street should honor a Nazi soldier? We would be furious here in the United States. So here in our country, that hypocrisy is not seen as a universal hypocrisy. It’s our history. It’s ok for us to debate about this. But it would not be ok for another country, like Germany, to debate it as well.”
In other words, Dua thinks Lewis was wrong.
“That’s not only fine but it also calls into the fact there’s a debate about this in the first place. Regardless of how anyone may view the bridge, right now there’s a bridge named after a Klansman. A bridge, a structure that exists in the United States of America, is named after an individual who supported cross burnings, who supported lynching, who supported that their race was superior to our race. That should say something about our country in general.”
That Saturday in June, Dua didn’t have a prepared speech and seemed comfortable speaking to the crowd. You’d never know he grew up with a speech impediment and still has a lisp today.
“I’m still as nervous every single time that I do speak in a classroom setting because of my speech impediment and because of my responsibility that people may look at me as a Black person.
“I know comfortably who I am as an individual and how I have spoken in the past. For me to comfortably speak with a microphone in a public setting, amongst white folks, and use profanity, and direct my grievances, not to anyone directly, but in terms of the community, without feeling nervous, without stuttering in a public forum says a lot about the authentic message that I was trying to convey.”
It was important to Dua that his message reflected who he was and that there were no punches pulled.
“For so many Black children, children of color in this country, indirectly or directly from their society, they’re told, they’re influenced not to show their true selves … to mince your words, to dress a certain way, to go to a certain school, to move in a way that doesn’t call attention to you. The reality is, that if you don’t fit a particular mold, if you don’t fit this particular image of being respectful, especially in a white space, especially in a society that was founded that certain individuals can comfortably move around as they please, that can comfortably be entitled to a Bill of Rights … then your life may be or will be threatened.
“So, if you’re able to play the game, if you’re able to know what you should be doing there’s a chance you could be ok. It’s not guaranteed you’re going to be ok. You could follow all the rules and by default, if just how you look, can still get you harm. Follow the rules, and maybe you’ll be ok. For a lot of individuals that has been embedded in our DNA, myself included. And history shows that when that is comfortably challenged, as draining as it is, it does illuminate the bravery, the resiliency of individuals.”
Two years into calling Reading home, he is warming to 01867.
“In many ways I don’t mind it. What I mean by that is that I’m grateful that my family and I have a home, I’m grateful for the individuals that I’ve connected with, the businesses here. I consider this my home.”
But on June 13 Dua said he was a visitor here, making a cameo appearance. Does he still feel that way?
“Ya, and I say that because it’s not exclusive to Reading. Just being a Black person is this country and not feeling comfortable to just be. I feel like I have a cameo existence. That is my reality. If I comfortably said, ‘I don’t have to worry about anything. I can walk down any street in America and be fine,’ I’d be lying to myself. I’m not afforded, not guaranteed the rights and freedoms that are in the constitution, 100 percent guaranteed. This is not an opinion, it’s a fact. The Bill of Rights wasn’t intended for every single human being.”
Dua will soon be teaching the Bill of Rights to his Cambridge students, whether via Zoom, in class, or some combination of both. This fall he’ll also be recognized with 39 other educators across the United States in the inaugural Uplift Legacy Cohort Awards, an award that celebrates Black male educators.
The two-hour socially distanced interview ended with Finney back in Dua’s arms. Did the teacher get his point across? Dua may not trust his white neighbors, but is there still time to teach us about racism?
“Why should this avenue on how to be anti-racist be different than how you learned by trial and error with other aspects of your life. There’s nothing mysterious about you connecting, listening, and supporting someone who doesn’t look like you.”