Let’s Talk Race: Local artist, educator says being Black ‘something I think about every day’

  • Rodney Madison, an artist and educator, says even in Western Massachusetts, an area considered socially progressive, people experience life differently based on the color of their skin. File Photo

  • Rodney Madison, an artist and educator, says even in Western Massachusetts, an area considered socially progressive, he’s been stopped by police for little or no reason dozens of times over the years. File Photo

  • Danny Monster Cruz and Rodney Madison work on a painting together on the Greenfield Common in 2016. Staff File Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 7/16/2020 4:37:06 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.

In the 3½ decades he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley, 60-year-old Rodney Madison, a local artist who has worked in the region’s school districts for nearly 20 years and who previously owned a gallery on Avenue A in Turners Falls, estimated he’s been stopped by police around 30 times.

To someone who identifies as white, being pulled over dozens of times might seem exorbitant — but to Madison, who is Black, it’s normal.

“One time, I was drinking a Coca-Cola. Maybe he thought I was drinking a beer. He wrote me a ticket anyway,” recalled Madison, who holds a master’s degree in education from Cambridge College and works in special needs. Besides working in the Northampton, Framingham, Greenfield and Amherst school districts, Madison is an accomplished artist who sells his paintings in Northampton, Greenfield and Brimfield, and at the Kmoe Gallery in Provincetown.

Even in Western Massachusetts, a region considered to be more socially progressive by its residents when it comes to issues of race, Madison said people experience life differently based on the color of their skin.

Past experiences with prejudice have left scars and are a driving force behind his present-day activism.

Growing up in Hyde Park, an especially diverse section of Chicago, “there were boundaries, certain places on the west side, and we knew we wouldn’t go out in the suburbs. It was very divided,” Madison recalled. “Chicago is just about the most segregated city I can think of.”

Once, for example, when he was about 13 years old, Madison was playing basketball at a park near where he attended school at Shoesmith Elementary School.

“All of a sudden, these cops come up to us (looking for) two people with shorts and a T-shirt — everybody had shorts and a T-shirt,” Madison said. One of the police officers pushed Madison against a car and groped him “for what seemed like 30 seconds.” In the back of his mind, Madison said he was thinking, “as long as you stayed quiet, you wouldn’t be hurt.”

These years since then, “we’re finding out the Chicago police are notorious — Black cops, white cops — the whole system is messed up,” Madison said, referencing a report released in 2017 by the U.S. Justice Department that found the Chicago Police Department “violated the constitutional rights of residents for years, permitting racial bias against Blacks, using excessive force and shooting people who did not pose immediate threats.”

It’s traumatic instances like these, experienced by people of color that sometimes rise to public attention when they’re captured on video, that create a disconnect when it comes to perspectives on racial injustice and law enforcement.

“It’s been 400 years in the making,” Madison said. “It’s something that I think about every day — just the fact that I’m a Black man. In almost every circumstance I find myself in, I’m just so aware of that. And that will probably never change.”

Daily reality

For those unaffected, modern-day racism in America is sometimes perceived as a non-issue. But for those who it touches, whose parents and grandparents experienced it as well, it’s a daily reality.

“As a whole, most people are nervous, of course, when police are behind them — they don’t want to get a ticket,” Madison said. “Black folks have a totally different fear. I remember, once, when I did get a ticket, I was so relieved (to only receive a ticket), I said, ‘Thank you, sir.’ … When I’m driving at night, I don’t care where it is, if police are behind me at night, there’s still terror, there’s still fear. In reality, I know that if I’m in my community, I’m somewhat cool. But I can’t count on that.”

The problem isn’t specific to law enforcement, though. Madison said Black Americans have faced an uphill battle in every area of life since the country’s inception.

“White families have 10 or 11 times — not even an exaggeration — net worth than Black families do,” he said, which was reported by the Washington Post in 2017.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recently reported that COVID-19 is twice as deadly for people of color.

“We can look at the inequities in medical care — that would manifest itself in many more people dying from this virus,” Madison continued. “Look at the number of people of color in prisons. … Look at how schools are largely funded in the United States. ... In almost every institution.”

A more equitable future

Madison, who lives in Amherst these days, has dedicated his life to creating a more equitable future for everyone. Recently, for example, he met with the president of Greenfield Savings Bank to talk about ways the organization can better serve people of color.

“I was happy to hear they’ve already taken some initiatives,” Madison said, noting a hiring goal the bank has undertaken to bring more people of color onto its payroll. “My concern was how many mortgages do Black families get? He candidly said, ‘not very many, but not many people apply.’”

Among other topics, Madison said they talked about ways to reach out to minorities. However, outreach can only do so much.

“Even the credit score system is an (inherently) racist system,” Madison said. “Many Black families will never reach the score the bank is looking for.”

He also recently met with the police chief in Turners Falls, where he previously lived. When he started his business, Madison on the Ave, a number of years ago, Madison said he was one of the first people of color to own a business in town. They talked about policy changes and ways to implement antiracism training within the department.

“Generally, at least 99 percent of the time, I’m in lockstep with what the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to do and I like to stick close to that. (However), I didn’t really agree with defunding the police. I feel like it gave (opponents) political fodder. … I’ve never seen defunding of any institution make that institution any better,” Madison said. Based on his past experiences, “It’s really hard for me to trust and believe the police will ever do things they are absolutely forced to do. … We met for a little over an hour. … He feels like things take time. I feel like there’s no time left.”

As to what Western Mass. residents can do to create a more equitable society, Madison said there’s a lot within institutions such as banks and businesses that can be done.

“I think people of color are not well represented in any administrative roles in Northampton, in Greenfield,” he said. “I work in the Amherst school system now. They have their own issues, but they have made a push to hire people of color — and I commend them for that.”

In this, white Americans, who often hold more power, can affect change.

“Another way allies can help is by recognizing their power in asking for change in banks, in schools and in our institutions,” Madison said, “to make sure Black folks are represented.”

Reach Andy Castillo at 413-772-0261, ext. 276 or acastillo@recorder.com.

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