Black History Month is time to reflect on minority

Posted: Monday, February 19, 2001

February is national Black History Month. But don't expect a big public observance on the Kenai Peninsula.

"The truth is, we have almost no blacks here," said David Carey, a white history teacher who grew up in the central peninsula.

Only about 200 peninsula residents are black, about one-half of 1 percent, according to the 1990 census. New census numbers are due out this spring, but the percentages are unlikely to change much.

But established black families live in the area and some have lived here for decades.

An informal committee manages a foundation that offers an annual Martin Luther King Scholarship based on an essay contest for area high school seniors. The scholarship dates back to the mid-1980s.

Those involved express a concern that people in the majority community are woefully oblivious to racial realities that occur -- even here, even now. Black residents of the central peninsula described a mixed situation for them, living as a small minority in what is an overwhelmingly white area.

Jocelyn Wells is an accountant in Kenai. She grew up in a predominantly black area of Texas and remembers times in her childhood when she and her friends were not allowed to sit in the white section at movie theaters. Her family moved to Nikiski in 1977, when her husband's oil industry career brought him north.

"We didn't come up here going, 'Oh my goodness, where are the black people?'" she said. "The people were absolutely wonderful."

She said she feels at home in Alaska and the state offers opportunity for people of all colors.

"Nobody is looking at you for the color of your skin," she said. "I think the opportunity is here for people to just come, live, work and be successful, if that is what they choose."

But she said that peninsula residents' general awareness of black history is minimal. On a scale of zero to 10, she said she would give peninsula people an average score of 0.5.

As a parent, she expressed frustration with lack of education about black history in area schools. Her son graduated from Nikiski Middle-Senior High School in 1997, the only black student in his class.

"I don't recall that there was ever, in his 13 years in the school system, a unit on black history," she said.

Iola K. Banks agreed. She is a retired school teacher who taught in Kenai for 20 years and has children and grandchildren in the community.

"Would I like to see more? Yes," she said.

She recalled doing class plays on themes linked with blacks in America, but events linked with Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Black History Month always have been more likely to occur in Anchorage or Homer than the central peninsula. Over the years, some teachers have taken it upon themselves to do bulletin boards or projects, she noted.

"Whoever taught them, the kids do have an awareness, at least of Dr. Martin Luther King," she said.

Former teacher Ron Arnold is another who would like the schools to do more on the subject.

Arnold grew up in Seattle and has lived in various parts of Alaska, including several places on the peninsula, over a 20-year span. He now lives in Cohoe and works for Central Peninsula Counseling Services and the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska.

Black history is only part of the broader issue of minority and women's issues, especially the Native history of Alaska, that should be taught, he said.

Alaska is a vast, multicultural place, and its education system is missing out on opportunities to teach about that diversity, he said.

Fear is the root of racial problems, he said.

Schools are a good place to bring issues into the open by tackling things such as children naively incorporating racial slurs into schoolyard name calling. Such problems should not be dealt with discretely behind closed doors, but brought into the open by the school leadership.

"If we don't do it, shame on us," he said.

"You cannot let fear be the guiding light. Knowledge will always outshine fear."

Carey is one teacher tackling the subject.

For the past two years, his junior U.S. history classes at Skyview High School have focused on the role of blacks in the nation's history. The students view the movies "Amistad" (about a slave ship and the legal standing of blacks in the early years of the nation), "Glory" (about an all-black regiment in the Civil War) and "The Color Purple" (about the condition of black women early in the 20th century). The movies are a starting point for discussions and projects.

"This is a major theme," he said.

Carey recalled an incident in 1969, when he was in high school in Kenai. A black student enrolled and tried out for the new football team. Some people wanted him banned from participation.

"It was just a major controversy," Carey said.

"They did agree he could be on the first football team. But there were people who did not like it."

The race issue remains a difficult one for his white students to fathom. Some are appalled by the use of the word "nigger" in movies about previous eras. Others shock him with their casual acceptance of racism. But for many, the whole concept is fuzzy.

"It is difficult for us to have a discussion. They just don't understand," he said.

Arnold said this area is not immune to racism. As a black man, he has problems few whites ever encounter.

For example, he believes racial profiling can occur here.

Once a trooper stopped Arnold, who was driving with his white girlfriend. He asked why they had been pulled over. The trooper said it was because the sticker on his license plate was on the wrong corner. His companion was astonished and furious about the incident, he said.

Wells said growing up on the peninsula her son, too, experienced a few incidents. Bus she described them as minor.

"We handled them," she said. "It was no big deal."

Arnold is more concerned about what he calls "institutional racism."

He described it as a subtle and inertial system that allows inequities to persist. He and others said that in Alaska, it is more of a problem for Natives than for blacks.

"How do you remove institutional racism? I don't know," he said.

"I wish I had a nice, little clean answer for it. Have I given up? No."

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