Let’s Talk Race: George Moonlight Davis speaks to preconceived notions about African Americans

  • George Moonlight Davis and his wife, Morning Star Chenven, outside their Erving home. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Erving residents Morning Star Chenven and George Moonlight Davis say being in an interracial marriage makes them vulnerable targets of bigotry, and people treat them differently when they see them together. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2020 6:52:36 PM

Editor’s note: This week, the Greenfield Recorder has dedicated a series to sharing the stories of local people of color and their experiences with racism and prejudice.

ERVING — The novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, but Erving resident George Moonlight Davis says there is another deadly virus that has plagued this planet for much, much longer.

“(Racism) is a world pandemic,” he said last week.

The 73-year-old, who is Black, has experienced discrimination because of his skin color in different pockets of the globe, from his hometown of Philadelphia, to on board an icebreaker during his service in the U.S. Navy, to his adopted home of Franklin County.

“It is to my benefit in every life situation ... (to) be on my best behavior,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s on the streets of Boston or in the rural South or on an airplane in Europe — you will always find me behaving. People always think the worst of African American people, so I have to be on my best.”

Davis came to Massachusetts from Philadelphia about 33 years ago, living in Holyoke and Northampton before settling in Erving about 11 years ago. He met his wife, Morning Star Chenven, at a Friday night dance in Hadley, and the two formed the group Moonlight and Morning Star in 1992. They have since recorded two albums, “Thank You to Life” and “Fantasy.”

Davis composes and arranges much of the group’s music. Its repertoire includes original songs, spoken word/musical compositions, and arrangements of traditional music of the African American and Jewish traditions. Chenven is white and Jewish.

Davis said being in an interracial marriage makes him and Chenven vulnerable targets of bigotry, and people treat them differently when they see them together.

“I do remember one incident (when) Morning Star and I were trying to find a place to move into, without children, and the landlord saw me and told Morning Star that he couldn’t rent us a place because we had children,” he recalled. “We went and got a lawyer and he said, ‘If you don’t rent them this place, they will own it in two weeks’ time.’ So we had no problem from that point on. That was about 25 years ago.”

Chenven, who grew up in Manhattan and has been in Franklin County since 1978, said that was the first time she and Davis faced discrimination for being a mixed-race couple.

“That was a real eye-opener for me,” she said. “That had never happened to me before.”

Davis said he has encountered racism from police and even people he saw in a grocery store who “would think I was a shoplifter.”

“As an African American, I have had to put up with stuff like that and worse for a very, very, very long time,” he said. “You can bet your bottom dollar that I have been through the mill. They have taken me for a ride, the system. But I’m happy. I’m doing better now. I have a good family. I have a lovely wife.”

Chenven said she moved to this area because of its liberal environment, and though she recounts how she and her husband have been followed around in stores or pulled over by police for no apparent reason, the community has still lived up to her expectations.

“I think that it’s a really great place to live. I have a lot of people that are like a second family,” she said. “We’re lucky that we’re here, we’re grateful that we’re here, but we’re not totally immune (to being subjected to racism).”

Davis and his wife have nine children from previous relationships (he has seven; Chenven has two), and they have produced 24 grandchildren.

Davis said he was raised in a slum area of Philadelphia, singing at the Jones Temple Church of God in Christ, where his mother spent 40 years as choir director. He experienced racism growing up in the city that recently had a reckoning with its political past. A bronze sculpture of openly racist former Mayor Frank Rizzo was removed in June following protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Davis called Rizzo “one of the worst mayors the city of Philadelphia ever had.”

Davis left Philadelphia to join the Navy, following in the footsteps of a white friend who enlisted on the promise of three meals a day and a chance to see the world. Davis spent two years in the service, as a boatswain’s mate and as a photographer’s mate. But even though Davis signed up to serve his country, he still endured horrific racial discrimination.

He recalled how he and the dozen or so other African American service members were not allowed to go on liberty when docked in Iceland due to an agreement between that nation and the United States, which in exchange for the ability to establish a military base on the island in the early 1950s had agreed to limit the number of Blacks stationed in Iceland. Davis said this was due to the Icelandic government’s discontent over native women previously forming romantic relationships with Black troops.

Davis has since served his adopted community on the Erving Planning Board as one of only two African Americans in town government. Davis said he can appreciate the area’s more progressive atmosphere when it comes to race. He and Chenven said discrimination from the police and their fellow citizens is not as omnipresent here as it can be in other places.

“(Erving Police) don’t give me any trouble,” Davis said. “I haven’t caused any trouble to anybody and that’s why they elected me to the board.”

Still, no region is free from the poisons of racism, even if unintentional.

“‘You sure are intelligent for an African American,’” Davis recounted. “Somebody said that to me last week. And the person really wasn’t trying to be insulting. But they didn’t have any idea how insulting it was that they said that. ... It’s painful.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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