Race In America

How ‘The Conversations Project' highlights the Black experience

NBC Universal, Inc.
  •  Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on Saturday, September 30 at approximately 9:30 p.m following "Giants Postgame Live."

America has been hampered by racism for centuries, with even incremental progress meeting with varying degrees of resistance. Here we are in the 21st century and even in sports, a supposed meritocracy, this social illness remains stubborn.

Those on the vanguard continue to experiment with creative ideas to nudge us closer to the yet undelivered promise of true equality.

Veteran sportswriter Marc J. Spears, currently of ESPN’s Andscape, and renowned chef David Lawrence are breaking new ground in this regard. They want to expose everyone – even those who are reluctant – to take a few minutes eavesdropping into the Black experience.

Their bait? Food and wine, two elements that invite dialogue.

“For me, conversations always start at the dinner table,” said Lawrence, who operates 1300 Fillmore at San Francisco International Airport and, more recently, Goodnight’s Prime Steak + Spirits in Healdsburg.

With that as their starter, so to speak, Lawrence and Spears, along with journalist Elaine Welteroth, host of “The Conversations Project,” currently streaming on Hulu.

Spears and Lawrence recently took a few moments to discuss their endeavor in an episode of “Race in America: A Candid Conversation” on NBC Sports Bay Area that premieres Saturday evening, following the San Francisco Giants-Los Angeles Dodgers game.

The setting is the dinner table, with three hosts and five guests. Among the guests for the unscripted sessions are comedians Roy Wood Jr. and Ian Lara, actress Naturi Naughton, rapper Jim Jones and former San Francisco 49ers lineman Solomon Thomas, now with the New York Jets. The original test pilot featured two members of the NBA Los Angeles Clippers: assistant coach Brian Shaw and guard Terance Mann.

“My hope is that people watch it and basically (feel they) are going to dinner with Black folks,” Spears said. “Whether they are Black or not, they’re coming to dinner with us. They can see what brings us pain, what brings us joy. Things that we are trying to work on.

“Through that, maybe there’s somebody in West Virginia that may not have an opportunity to be around Black people. Or for somebody that is racist, this is their opportunity to really see what we’re going through and hopefully they can grow on it. I hope we bring everybody to the table with us.”

Described by The New York Times as “a hybrid of talk show and dinner party,” the goal of the project is to open the eyes and reach the ears of all colors, ethnicities, ages and genders. The creators seem to realize one of the surest ways to reach a broad audience is to use audiovisual mediums to educate and enlighten.

Filmed in New York, the dialogue here is by turns hilarious and somber, with moments of conflict and insight. Among topics are entertainment, culture and, of course, sports. “The Conversations Project” is, in short, a family gathering of folks meeting for the first time and sharing a gourmet meal while discussing real that reflect on the way we all live – and the way we’d all like to live.

Lawrence, of Jamaican heritage but born and raised in London, trained at the famed Michelin-starred French restaurant Le Gavroche, which also launched fellow British chef Gordon Ramsay to a worldwide audience.

“We show Black excellence at work, but this is our norm,” Lawrence said. “These are our people that we work around. They come to our restaurants or come to watch a game and then they are our friends. This is the normal atmosphere that we’re in. We just wanted to project that out to America and make them realize this is normal America – it just happens to be people of color.

“But we’re Americans here. I consider myself American now. We’re all Americans.”

The search for a creative way to reach an audience with varying degrees of interest landed Spears and Lawrence on Hulu, with six episodes completed. The emphasis is on dialogue, exchanging ideas and communicating in groups within an elegant setting staged for entertainment.

We’re still building bridges that not everyone cares to cross. The more they learn, the more likely they are to engage. Tear down those invisible walls that have existed since the dawn of mankind.

The walls that have political reactionaries determined to suppress voting, ban books and restrict studies of non-white culture are not much different from the walls that keep Colin Kaepernick out of the NFL.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Spears said, referring to some of the ignorance about Black culture. “And if all you see is negative, negative, negative, that they’re thieves and they’re selling drugs and they’re bad people and scary, people can start believing that narrative.

“Hopefully, when they watch this, they can help but realize how many amazing Black folks there are. And we can dispel a lot of those stereotypes with this show.”

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