400 years later
Tuesday is the 400th anniversary of the date commonly recognized as the day when the first ship of African people landed in the United States to be sold as slaves in the colonies.
Four-hundred years later, people of color in the local community say as a country we have made progress, but not as much as possible.
Sharifa Johka, director of equity at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, has been tasked with recognizing the racism and oppression of minorities in the country and state and creating company policies and programs to help mitigate that climate.
She said American society was founded on oppression, and 400 years later it lingers in every corner of the country. It is a pain felt everywhere.
“There’s a historical connection to racism and oppression that we, as an organization, try to undo,” Johka said.
The Oregon Constitution was written in 1857 and contained exclusionary language banning African Americans from the state. The ban was lifted from the constitution in 1926, but the racist language was not fully removed until 2002, according to a press release from the Oregon Secretary of State regarding an Oregon Archives Exhibit “Black in Oregon 1840-1870.”
Also enacted during the period were laws prohibiting African Americans from owning property, having interracial marriages, and sundown laws which said they could not be in certain towns after sundown, as well as lash laws, which subjected them to public beatings if they didn’t leave.
The echo of these laws continue to shape Oregon’s racial structure, community organizer Kokayi Nosakhere said.
“There’s not a lot of people of color who live in the Rogue Valley, because we don’t feel welcome on the structural level, such as the passing of (policing) ordinance 3176, such as finding housing, such as finding employment,” Nosakhere said. “On an interpersonal level, we have fantastic relationships and friendships with people, but we don’t feel welcome on the structural level.”
Mahalath Wealthy, an Ashland resident for 10 years, said her 17-year-old daughter was frightened Monday night by a man yelling about “f---ing n-----s in Ashland” while walking toward her at Shop’n Kart. Her daughter, Mahari Bryan was in the car waiting for her mother to finish shopping, and the man eventually walked away. Wealthy said they were the only people of color in the store, so she’s confident that the comments were directed at her family.
Bryan said she laid in the backseat and waited for the man to pass.
“I told her you can’t lie down, you have to watch those people, and you should have called us,” Wealthy said. “What if he had smashed the car windows?”
Wealthy said the family, which moved from Miami, a culturally diverse town, had never experienced racism until moving to Oregon.
She said she finds police officers in Ashland to be kind and helpful and has had positive experiences with the department.
“The only thing that kind of bothers me living here and being of color is fear for my daughter more than anything else,” Wealthy said. “I don’t even want her walking out after dark. There’s a lot of racist people hiding, and you don’t know where they are.”
She said she feels more welcome in Ashland than other places in Southern Oregon.
“If I’m anywhere outside of Ashland, if I have to get out to use the bathroom or go in the store, I am on guard, because you don’t know which of these people hate you because of your color,” Wealthy said.
She said there’s a cultural gap in Southern Oregon.
“Even the kind people who are conscious and loving have no understanding of our cultural differences, so there’s not a lot of people who understand where I’m coming from and my culture,” Wealthy said.
Bryan, who is entering her senior year, has lived in Ashland since she was 9. She is home-schooled, but she has attended Ashland public schools in the past.
“It’s hard when you’re surrounded by people who don’t look like you,” Bryan said. “Typically, when you live somewhere that has a lot of white people, holding people accountable for their racism is not easy. Some people don’t even realize when they’re saying a small racist comment because we live in such a bubble.”
She said it’s hard to bring it up to other kids because it’s jarring.
“It’s shocking, and I don’t know what else to do because everyone else is cool with it and I feel like I should be cool with it,” Bryan said. “Especially in middle school you don’t want to be the odd one out. There’s a certain amount of just letting it go.”
Nosakhere said living in Southern Oregon as a person of color “is to swing through microaggressions on a regular basis dealing with persons who are so socialized to the American standard that they don’t know that they are engaging in microaggressions.”
He said it’s a constant balancing act between educating people on racist tendencies even if they don’t realize they’re doing it.
“There’s a certain level of grace that you have to cultivate so that the persons around you can enjoy your presence,” Nosakhere said. “You’re expending such energy at all times that is created by the ignorance of the whiteness that people operate from. It’s the unspoken elephant in the room that’s not addressed, and by not being addressed the blind spot causes harm.”
He said white people need to understand the social structure and the position of being white in America, they need to understand what it needs to be a non-white in America and that we all need to understand what it means to be American.
He said millennials don’t understand that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. couldn’t just knock on a white person’s door to talk to them about race because it’s not taught as much as it should be. He said there was not a teacher for Caucasians after the civil rights movement.
“Dr. King taught Africans that not all white people were racists, but there was no Dr. King for white America,” Nosakhere said. “There was no teacher to teach our white friends and family how to live in a non-racist way.”
Gina DuQuenne, an Ashland resident for 11 years, said until we recognize bias and have a conversation about racism and oppression, nothing will change.
“We keep doing what we’ve always done, and it’s not alright,” DuQuenne said. “And until we have that conversation and teach real history and put that all out there on the table, we will not move forward.”
She said the constitution needs to be rewritten because it was written by slaveholders in the 18th century.
“I believe it is so important if we can just be honest with each other and move forward,” DuQuenne said. “Sometimes it’s very simple to move forward. I don’t hate anyone because of what their ancestors did to me. Right now, we’re stuck, and I want us to recognize where we’re stuck, and until we get real with each other we’re not going anywhere.”
She said racism is everywhere, and the current political climate doesn’t help matters.
“With the culture of the world today, we have people who are co-signing bigotry and racism and hatred,” DuQuenne said. “That’s a scary thing. History is not taught everywhere, and we really missed the mark. We are all one race.”
Johka called the American political climate a nightmare.
“It is challenging for people of color to live in the USA,” Johka said. “There’s a leadership that has a white supremacist in the White House. Right now, there’s a city council entertaining a bill by the police chief who wants to criminalize. The community said we don’t want that, and they’re not listening. We have to be diligent on the local level and vote in people who are prepared to serve us.”
Ashland Culture of Peace Commission Development Director Irene Kai, who has been a U.S. citizen for 54 years, said she feels racism in the Rogue Valley, and eliminating it is one of the goals of the Peace Commission.
She said she attended a function recently, and when she sat at a table, the woman beside her moved her chair away, asked her if she was working the event, and why she’d sat down.
“As an Asian, we are typically treated as a servant class,” Kai said. “The Chinese immigrated to America, and we work as servants. The whole culture of the white class in America is to own people of color, and we cannot deny that, and it is so ingrained. It is 2019, in Southern Oregon I am still treated as a servant.”
Kai, who worked for the World Peace Flame Foundation the last few years to install a world peace flame in Ashland, recently presented her work to the United Nations and is planning to host dignitaries from the U.N. next month in an International Peace Conference in Ashland.
She said one of the main reasons racism is ongoing is because white America doesn’t experience racism, therefore it does not affect them and they tend to not see it. She said in predominately white places such as Oregon, people are often racist without even realizing it.
“People don’t think about it, and it’s difficult for me to speak to Caucasians because it doesn’t happen to them. They don’t think about it, and it just goes under the rug, and you don’t talk about it unless they ask, and they don’t ask,” Kai said.
“The people of color, we have to be the ones that say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you really need to look at this,’ and we always have to be put in the role of educating, and frankly most Caucasian people aren’t interested, they like it the way that it is,” Kai said. “Ashland is a conscious town, they use the word compassion and the word equity, but do they practice that? Practice is key. Awareness is key.”
Bryan said if she could say one thing to white people it would be to think before they speak.
“It’s easy to say whatever comes to mind and not even think twice how it might affect someone, and I think in a place that is praised for being so conscious like Ashland there should be more people making these efforts to think before they speak,” Bryan said.
Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at email@example.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.