Mary Brebner is an educator, writer, journalist and graphic designer who uses her skills to engage journalism students in the active pursuit of balanced stories that affect them and their community. A member of the Journalism Education Association and South Carolina Student Press Association, she holds a Master’s Degree in Divergent Learning, advises multiple publications, teaches high school creative writing, and is in her 18th year in the classroom.
Jonathan Thomas: When people ask you what Two Cities is about, what do you say?
Rico Racardo McDaniel: I tell people that Two Cities is about taking two different perspectives that would not come together and forcing them to interact with each other.
JT: How would you describe those two perspectives?
RRM: There’s the perspective of those who are here on this end of North Main, the people who live here, work here, and play here, and the other perspective is coming from people outside the North Main area. It’s marked by what they think the North Main area is, or what they’ve heard about the North Main area, or what they’ve seen the one time they visited the North Main area. Those are the two different perspectives.
JT: Has there always been this tension?
RRM: Well, I don’t know, because growing up around here I’ve always been in a mix of white and black. So the typical misperception about the North Main area is that it’s a just bunch of black folks, when it’s not. It’s always been a mix. So from the outside, yeah, that’s probably been the case.
JT: I just moved to Columbia in June. In July, as I was driving past the State House, I saw a rally of people in Confederate uniforms who had raised the Confederate flag on a pole. They were protesting the state government’s decision to remove this flag two years ago, and they were protesting the removal of Confederate moments in other cities, like New Orleans. This happened a month before all the white supremacists marched with tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Confederate flag is widely perceived as a symbol of racism, so I was surprised to learn that here in Columbia the South Carolina State House flew the Confederate flag from 1961 until 2015.
RRM: There’s a lot of fuss over the Confederate flag, but for me that isn’t the key issue. I’m more interested in the whole history of the American flag. On the one hand, my people, Black people, really get hurt, and mad, and upset when they see someone riding around with Confederate flag stickers or license plates or any kind of memorabilia. They get really upset about that. But we need to think about the whole history and not only the Confederate flag. If we’re talking about how much hell Black people have caught under a flag, then we need to be talking about how much hell Black people have caught under the American flag. Now that’s a flag you should have a talk about. But when you do, white people feel like they are under attack, like people are attacking them and their heritage. They say “heritage, not hate,” but when you look at it, their heritage was built off of hate. So what are you saying with that flag? That’s why Two Cities has to be a conversation, because there are two different perspectives, but nobody is talking. This project invites them to talk, or at least to think and listen.
JT: So in the framework of the Two Cities project, what are some of the questions you’re asking as one of the participants?
RRM: My main question is this: Why isn’t there better representation, positive and accurate representation, of North Main and the people here in North Main? If you knew who was here, why they are here, how long they have been here, and what they do here, then there wouldn’t be so many misconceptions and stereotypes. This place has a deep history, and not only a deep African American history because there’s a deep white history here as well. So we have things that we all should be proud of, but we’re not, and we’re not even talking about it. Everyone is taking sides, and nobody is listening to each other. And nobody really wants to talk. It seems like everybody wants to be upset, or hurt, or offended. Okay, you’re offended. Why are you offended? Why are there these stereotypes?
JT: When you say representation, what sort of representation are you talking about? Political representation? Media representation?
RRM: I’m thinking about images. I’m thinking about community. When you drive down Monticello Road, why are there no representations of the people who live there on the billboards, doing something positive, in a positive light? I mean yeah, there’s some crime, there’s some poverty, but if you can change they way people in this area think about themselves and view themselves, I believe you can change the way they operate in their community. They may pick up a piece of trash on the side of the road. They may be more inclined to speak to their neighbor, because they see themselves in a positive light. So when I say representation, that’s what I mean.
JT: Last time we talked you mentioned you were partnering with a vegan restaurant to develop a project for Two Cities?
RRM: Yeah, yeah. Last time we talked I was in the process of partnering up with Universal Love Vegan Café. I’ve had plenty of talks with them. I’m very proud and happy to say that I know them. They’re an important part of this community in more ways than one.
JT: Are there many vegan or vegetarian restaurants in Columbia? I was curious about the distribution of healthy food in the city. Would you say there’s a disparity in terms of access?
RRM: Yeah! It’s terrible. I’m a vegan, so I have to get what I need to eat before a certain time. There’s no late-night munchies for me. There’s no, Oooh, I’ve got a cravin’… If I’ve got a cravin’ I either got to hit Lamb’s Bread or Universal Love before they close, otherwise I’m not gonna eat. I want to spend my dollars in this community, to support this community, and it’s hard when there are only two healthy options for food.
JT: Why do you think there are only two healthy options? Does this raise questions about food education?
RRM: Sometimes I think people don’t care, or don’t know, or do know but don’t want to try it because it’s too new, or too taboo, because they need to have their chicken or pork or beef. I mean hey, to each his own, but at the end of the day, your health is your wealth. Even if it’s just once a week or once a month, give it a try. Don’t shoot it down before you try it. In my experience if you tell people you’re vegan, they’re like, “I can’t do that. I need my meat. Where you get your proteins from?” And I say “Sir, ma’am, I get my proteins from the same place your proteins get their proteins!” They don’t understand that the proteins are in the plants. Food education is definitely important, and I don’t think there’s enough of it.
JT: Can you tell me about Gentri Juice?
RRM: Yes, my project is the creation of a beverage company, Gentri Juice, which will be marketed to the people of North Main. We create the positive images that I was talking about, using the people of North Main.
JT: Is Gentri Juice a fruit or vegetable juice?
RRM: It’s a fruit juice with a watermelon base. The reason I chose watermelon is to destroy another stereotype about Black people and watermelons. The ice cream song, which used to be the standard ice cream song you hear when the truck is approaching, is actually called “Ni**er Love a Watermelon.” Black people have always been associated with watermelon. And it’s always been a negative stereotype. But coming out of slavery, that used to be one of the only crops a black man could secure himself to provide for his family. That’s where that stereotype grew up.
JT: With the title of your project you’re also offering a satirical response to the process of gentrification. Do you feel like gentrification is an issue in the neighborhood?
RRM: You know, I’ll put it this way. It’s an issue for me in the neighborhood. But if I walk through the neighborhood and talk to people, they have no idea what’s about to hit them. The thing is, this process has been going on since 2005. If you put a frog in a pot of water, you don’t put him in boiling water. You put in him in water and turn the heat up little by little. You don’t notice it’s getting hot, and by the time you notice it’s hot, it’s too late — you boil, you cook. That’s what I feel is going on now. The heat is getting turned up little by little, and little by little I notice changes within this community. I look around and I talk to people, and when I talk to people, they look at me like I’m crazy, like I’m some kind of conspiracy theorist.
JT: What happened in 2005?
RRM: In 2005, when Bob Coble was Mayor of Columbia, the City of Columbia commissioned The North Columbia Master Plan. I’ve read the whole report and I know what areas they are targeting and what they are going to do in those areas. The most insidious thing about this is they actually had people from the community come to their meetings and talk about what they need in the community to improve the community. But what they’re actually doing is making it beautiful for someone else. The City of Columbia’s Master Plan is what spurred my project, because when you see these things happening, it feels like a personal responsibility to respond.
JT: Do you feel like satire is a useful critical tool in responding to issues like this?
RRM: Yeah man. I think satire can be very, very effective. If I can get you to think, if I can throw you off, then you’ll start to think about how you are involved, or how it affects you. I just have to get you to think first. I don’t like to use a lot of highfalutin words or verbiage. I like to put it straight in your face, but in a unique way. I’m not going to speak over your head, because I’m talking with the language of the people, I’m talking to the people, and so that’s the language I use.
JT: What do you think is needed to keep these conversations, these experiments, sustainable? You’re asking a lot of important questions about images and representation, healthy food, and gentrification, and these questions are vital to the well-being of the community. How do you keep the energy alive after the festival is over?
RRM: This is what I have been thinking about for I don’t know how long. What’s going to happen when it’s all said and done? It’s going to take people like you and me to actually want to sit down and talk, and not just talk but come up with solutions, and not just come up with solutions — but implement them. Get out, get in someone’s face, and talk. It’s going to take a certain type of bravery, it’s going to take people who are willing to do this because there’s going to be some negativity, some backlash, but that’s how you know you’re going in the right direction. So for me, it’s going to take those sorts of things: talking, thinking, acting. It’s going to take some work, but it can be done.