Black Culture Endures

UO’s new Black cultural center is a reminder of the uphill battle

We attended, my wife Cheri and I, the opening of the University of Oregon’s Lyllye Reynolds-Parker Black Cultural Center, a place first demanded 50 years ago. While it was a time for celebration and joy, it was also for remembering a hard-fought uphill battle on many fronts, in many smoke-free rooms. 

Not only was a cultural center requested, but also courses of study in the tradition of Dr. Carter G. Woodson. A course of study we call now, as we did 50 years ago, Ethnic Studies. It would take 30 years for the UO to implement Ethnic Studies. Like we have an “ethnic” section in the supermarket, a limited special selection, neither designed to upset wandering palates, nor to nourish native stomachs. A course of study designed to create Black leaders who could display excellence, despite and within a segregated context — a context like Oregon. 

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Frederick Douglass reminded us. 

“Freedom always entails danger,” W.E.B. Dubois warned us. 

It was as dangerous centuries and decades ago, to make demands of those with power. But as the elders said, “Free your mind, and your behind will follow.” Part of the lessons those ancestors and elders taught by precept and example is how to endure when oppression and injustice are commonplace. And as in a redlined, sundown town like Eugene: How to stay where you belong, when you are not wanted. 

The Black community, here before the creation of the state, here before they were allowed to live in the city limits, had invisible exemplar pillars, persons holding it up. One of these, Lyllye Reynolds-Parker’s older brother Bob, transitioned home on Oct. 20.

While the Black community was never allowed to create geographical centers, they were allowed to create physical, spiritual and cultural centers to sustain them. Bob’s celebration of life, his home-going celebration, was a classic old school Black church like I grew up with. Funerals are dignified, solemn, but also joyous — singing, clapping, old-school preaching scripture and inspiration. As with the Black Cultural Center, the Black community turned out, and talked story about one of its pillars and patriarchs. 

Prayer, hard work, discipline, education, helping others in need, inspiring and teaching by example, unconditional loving service to country and community, even when — as it so often is unmentioned in America and Eugene — the country and community don’t unconditionally love you back. 

I often wonder why people stayed in this Southern state in the Northwest. In Bethel Temple Oct. 26, I could clearly see how. Part of the why, for me, is this is such a perfect learning laboratory for studying institutional racism and other normalized systems of discrimination. Like Black Vulcans in Star Trek would say, Oregon is “fascinating.”

 Fiendishly clever in the innocuous ubiquity of toxic discrimination, which spreads like a viral infection, across the classic lines, I can simply say, what was once done to us because of race, is now, or is going to be, done to you for the money.

Is Trump going to save the opiate-addicted, out of work coal miners who voted for him? He can’t. I could, if they accepted the answer from a person with an excellent suntan. I’m not sure they will. 

No matter. I came to Oregon because President Ronald Reagan ended my gang drug counselor job, and Oregon was a cheap place to collect unemployment. I fully intended to leave in the ’80s. My grandparents left the South in the 1940s, as sharecroppers. They met Jim Crow in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. They endured, and we became educators, doctors, technicians, architects, police officers, despite of, because of, the barriers they put up to stop us. Black people in Oregon encountered the same forces. 

Well, salmon swim upstream too; only dead ones go with the flow. Many Black Ducks can let racism roll off their backs and fly with their own wings. Black culture is older than America and building complex urban civilizations is our thing — since before the pyramids. I hope the Black Cultural Center can embody and support the spirit and the memory that exists in the community.