At one couple's table, much disquiet
By MARY JOE MELONE
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000
You have to wonder.
A black man is shot dead by a white man. In front of a suburban house, after a fight before several witnesses, with the n-word peppering the air, deputies say.
Detectives charge the white man, a dentist, with the lightest possible offense under the circumstances, manslaughter. The Hillsborough state attorney won't even say if the killing of Jemale Wells last Sunday will go to a grand jury so citizens can decide if the charge ought to be more serious.
You have to wonder.
In other cities, black politicians would be clamoring for justice for Jemale Wells.
This is Tampa, though, and the silence in high places is deafening.
There is no silence at the dining room table at the home of Keith and Sadahri Berry. They could talk forever about Jemale, their friend and fellow FAMU alumnus. Talking pulls out some of their grief. It stings like a thorn under skin. Talking gives shape to their carefully modulated anger. "Jemale didn't rob a liquor store and get killed," Keith says. "He (had) owned one."
The talk turns from their dead friend to the town he died in. Their talk turns to what they live, day in, day out, in Tampa.
Keith, 35 and a doctoral candidate at FSU, has gotten used to the odd challenges from his mostly white students in his American history classes at Hillsborough Community College. When he lectures, he says, "I weave black folks into the story . . . this is too much for some people."
He gets asked questions like, "Why do you talk so much about black folks?" or "Where did you go to school?" or "Where did you get that information?"
The resistance to some of what he says is so profound that it affects the books he relies on. To teach civil rights this year, he is asking his students to read a biography of a white woman, Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker killed by the Klan in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
"I had to choose that book, because a lot of my students would recoil at anything else," Keith says.
Sadahri, 28, has her own story, about the Christmas she went to Dillard's in WestShore Plaza for a belt that she wanted to get her husband as a gift. Instead, a salesman accused her of shoplifting.
"When I did manage to ask the guy why he thought I was stealing, he said he had asked me if I needed help, and I said no."
Little did the salesman know he was challenging a banker, then on her way to an MBA at USF. "I'm quite a paranoid shopper now," Sadahri says.
You've got to wonder. Keith and Sadahri Berry do. They wonder what would have happened if the dentist had been black and his victim had been white. A black dentist, they figure, would be facing a murder rap.
The Berrys have lived here five years, since they married. Maybe they'll have children some day. They like this town. But they could like it more.
Sadahri describes their life as a kind of double-track existence, during the day in the integrated world of work, at home at night, and in between longing for a place that is as much psychological as physical.
If they could go into a restaurant and not be the only blacks in the room. If, when they were slow to be waited on, they were sure it wasn't the result of their color. If they heard jazz and R&B when they were out and about, not just candy cane rock and country. If there were lots more young black professionals in town like them. If they didn't have to search for the defacto underground of house parties and barbecues thrown by the handful in Tampa, people searching for the same thing, a place to be comfortable.
Sadahri, still speaking through her sorrow at the death of Jemale Wells, says: "In other cities, it's easy to find that comfort zone. Tampa doesn't have a comfort zone."
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