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Tagged with " African Americans"
17 Oct
2017

Learning More About My White Privilege

Eyes and Perception of the Word

I have opposed discrimination and racism beginning when I was in high school at the time of the lunch counter boycotts in the South. I wanted to ask retail and service establishments if they would serve “Negroes” in our very white town in Montana with only three known African American families. I was conducting this survey because I was afraid it might create problems for those families.

Later in my thirties, living in Detroit, I was confronted daily by the impact of racism on the population in this majority black city. I volunteered with an organization that provided anti-racism education workshops to churches, community groups, non-profit organizations and businesses. Through interactive workshops, deep discussions and sometimes painful feedback from black colleagues, I learned about my white privilege, how much prejudice and racism I carried and the many ways our culture has institutionalized racism. I also learned how much I didn’t know about the African American experience in the United States.

I now live in California and find myself learning more and again. Not only is there so much I don’t know about the black experience, I am pretty ignorant about the experience of being brown (Mexican, Hispanic and Latino/a). Although I did have one personal experience…as a high school student when I was asked to leave a restaurant because the staff thought I was Mexican. (I tanned easily and my hair wasn’t gray as it is now.)

I was reminded of that humiliating experience recently when I attended a one-woman show, performed by Irma Herrera, “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name.”  She taught the audience the correct pronunciation as “Ear-ma.”  Proud of her Mexican and American heritage, Irma recounted experiences from her life requesting nuns, professors and strangers to accept the Spanish pronunciation of her name. Through poignant stories and humor, she told us how pronouncing her own name had often resulted in insults, pain and the denial of her identity. She recounts experiences of rejection and humiliation which brought back the memory of my lone experience of rejection based on an assumption and stereotype. I remember being so embarrassed and mortified in front of my friends. However, I refused to leave and my friends stood up for me. That experience so many years ago certainly increased my sensitivity to discrimination based on color and stereotypes.

I left Irma Herrera’s show with my own emotional tenderness. But most important, I had a clearer understanding of the historical context of the discrimination and racism experienced when growing up brown in this country. With the mirror she offered, I was forced to re-evaluate my thoughts, actions and biases once again.

Latino woman with catrina

Last weekend, I saw the film “Dolores,” a provocative documentary about the civil rights icon and labor leader, Dolores Huerta. The film provides a personal story of Dolores Huerta’s involvement in the founding of the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez in the context of the economic, social and physical violence experienced by the farm workers in California.

From these two recent experiences, I recognize again how my white privilege contributes to my ignorance of what it is like to be brown or black in the United States (or Native American or Asian American). I am grateful to have financial security, respect and a supportive community. I don’t have to worry about the police response to me because of my color. I grew up with a good education. I have been able to purchase homes without redlining. I have not experienced discrimination based on color in my career.

I continue to learn that my life privileges have protected me from the institutionalization of our country’s racial biases. My experience of gender bias, however, is more direct and personal. But that is a different blog.

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23 Feb
2016

A Town Built on Opportunity and The Pioneering Spirit of Former Slaves

In recognition of Black History Month, I wanted to share this background from my research for my novel inspired by the lives of my grandparents. 

 “No, my parents homesteaded here after the Emancipation.  They came up here from Mississippi. It was a long and hard journey but they made it and settled on this land.” Alida responded proudly…

…your husband?”

  “Oh, George is in town, in Nicodemus .  He runs the General Store.  His father helped establish the town.  George’ll be home for supper. And if your baby don’t get better, George’ll get the doctor in town.”  (Excerpt from: “Trust, Betrayal and Forgiveness:  A Family Story”  a novel in process)

I discovered the town of Nicodemus doing my research about Kansas.  Nicodemus is the only remaining western town established by African Americans during Reconstruction after the Civil War.  To many freed slaves, Kansas was a symbol of opportunity and freedom associated with the “underground railroad” and the abolitionist John Brown.  Nicodemus survives as a symbol of opportunity and the pioneering spirit of former slaves.

A Town Built on Opportunity - 1

In 1877, six former slaves from Kentucky followed the leadership of one of their own, Reverend H. W. Smith and a white man, W. R. Hill, an experienced land speculator.  They believed the stories Hill recounted of a “Promised Land” with abundant game and rich soil   available through the Homestead Act.  They came with the goal of establishing the first all-black settlement on the Great Plains

Several stories are told about why they named the town Nicodemus.  One claims that the town was named after the biblical figure “Nicodemus”.  Another tells about an African prince taken into slavery and later bought his freedom.  And, yet a third story suggests it was named after an escaped slave.

A Town Built on Opportunity - 2

This is the Williams Family. Most people living in Nicodemus are descendants or related to this original settler’s family. The caption is left to right. Charles, Henry (first baby born in Nicodemus), Clara, bottom row Charles Sr., Emma, Neal. (Click picture to read more)

 

They recruited through posters distributed all over the South and by word of mouth.  In the late summer of 1877, 308 railroad tickets were reportedly sold to desperate families wanting land and freedom.  Early settlers were very poor and often arrived without tools, horses or provisions.  As I wrote in my last post, the shortage of timber forced these settlers to build their homes out of sod or in dugouts like many other pioneers. One story is recounted by a woman who arrived very sick.  Looking around after hearing the cry, “There is Nicodemus,” she could only see smoke coming out of the ground.    Although the location of the town was chosen along the bank of the Solomon River, and considered an area suitable for farming, many found life there to be too challenging.  This barren land was hardly the paradise these former slaves had been promised.  Many families returned to the green hills in Kentucky.  Additional groups of settlers arrived with more resources and the population grew.  Those that settled and stayed showed resourcefulness and hard work.

Nicodemus remained a small thriving African American community through World War I.  In 1910 the population is recorded at 600.  As with many farming communities, the Depression and the Dustbowl were devastating. The population reached a low point of only 16 people.  Several other black settlements sprung up in Kansas after the Civil War, but Nicodemus was the only one to survive.  Revitalized in the 1970’s, Nicodemus was recognized as a National Historic Site in 1996.

The story I am currently writing, is inspired by the lives of my grandparents, Sarah, a widow with five children, traveling by wagon through Kansas in 1911.  She is desperate to return to the homestead of her parents in Nebraska to have the comfort of family nearby.   Before they can reach Nebraska, her baby daughter becomes seriously ill.  She needs help.  She rides one of the wagon horses down a rutted path, leaving her other children with the wagon.  She worries if she is safe, if she can find aid and support or if she will be turned away.  She knocks on the door of a small house with smoke curling from the chimney.

The door opened a crack and a Negro face with black searching eyes peered out.  “Yes, ma’am?”

“My baby daughter’s very sick.  We’re traveling by wagon to Nebraska.  I need some help.”

The door opened wider to reveal a tidy room with handmade wood furniture.   A small woman, with dark brown skin and a kerchief tied around her head motioned me inside.”

In the story, this family, descended from former slaves who settled in Nicodemus, welcomes Sarah and her children to stay until the baby is well.

Do you know other stories of settlements by African Americans (or other ethnic groups) who homesteaded in other states?

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