Racism in New Mexico
Excerpts from Charles Becknell's forthcoming book No Challenge, No Change
By Steven Robert Allen
Born in 1941, Charles Becknell grew up in rural southeastern New Mexico, attending a segregated school until 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court found such schools to be unconstitutional. After finishing graduate school, he founded and directed the Afro-American Studies Program at UNM and later served as Secretary of Criminal Justice under Gov. Jerry Apodaca.
Becknell will self-publish No Challenge, No Change in the next couple of months. The book is an account of his experiences growing up in the racist atmosphere of segregated New Mexico, illuminating how racism continues to be an active force in our society. In honor of Black History Month, the Alibi has decided to print some excerpts from the introduction to No Challenge, No Change.
This book is designed to open up a window for others to look into and see what it was like growing up black in an atmosphere of racism and segregation in southeastern New Mexico. This is not an easy story to tell because not all memories are good, yet the good ones are those that we readily remember. ... Racism is a dehumanizing, cruel and unpleasant experience. My childhood was in part shaped and defined by the racial atmosphere that existed in our country at that time. How I saw the world, and how I tried to make sense of that world as I grew into adulthood, would be defined by my childhood experiences while growing up in Hobbs, New Mexico.
My childhood years helped shape my personality and my character. I thank God that I had Ebenezer Baptist Church in my life. ... In numerous sermons I heard that God's people must be His agents for change, and if we don't challenge the system, there will be no change. If we don't challenge the system, most people, black and white, will feel as though the way things are is the way things are supposed to be. Even though I heard those messages about challenge and change as a child, the fire of activism did not really ignite until right after college.
In February, 1965, I moved to Los Angeles, Calif., to attend graduate school at Pepperdine University. I went to California to seek opportunities that I knew were not available to me in New Mexico. At that time, if there was one person who was a prime candidate to become a conservative Republican, it was Charles Becknell. I earnestly believed that people were poor, not because of race but because they were lazy and did not work hard enough. I believed that all people were the same and if you went to school, prepared yourself and worked hard society would be fair and treat you fairly. I also believed that the American dream was equally available to all.
Then an event occurred that changed my life forever. In August of 1965, the Watts riots erupted. This was a tragic occurrence and it caused me to look seriously at the economic and social disparity between blacks and whites; the haves and the have nots. The whole concept of privilege began to surface and influence my way of thinking. Some people never think of the word privilege and many are in denial regarding this social and economic advantage for white people. Some of the big advantages were that whites could choose where they wanted to live, they could choose the schools they wanted to attend and where they wanted to sit on the bus, and they had institutions that backed up their choices. Whites could choose the restaurants they wanted to dine in and could stake them out for themselves by excluding others. They had the absolute authority to do so. I learned at that point that privilege means to be comfortable in your surroundings and have the power and authority to protect that comfortable environment. This reinforced the notion of haves and have nots and made it painfully clear at that time that there was a place for whites and a place for blacks. As long as everyone stayed in their place, everything was fine. Problems would occur when blacks attempted to come out of their place.
Also in 1965, I was fortunate to be selected for the Sears Company Management Trainee Program in Long Beach, Calif. Five people were selected and I was the only African American in the group. I worked hard (I believed that this would make me stand out), and I put more into the effort than was expected (as I was taught), and I excelled above the others. When the program was completed, the four white trainees were given the choice departments to run and I was given the least productive one, in terms of commission overrides. I decided that hard work was not the main criteria for advancement—it was about race. After a year in California, I moved back to New Mexico and began to teach school. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
As I reflected on those flames of activism that continued to well up inside of me, I remember a workshop for teachers that I attended in 1968, sponsored by the University of New Mexico. The theme of the workshop dealt with cultural awareness in education. Throughout the morning I heard references being made to the "three cultures of New Mexico;" that New Mexico is a tri-cultural state and how we needed to enhance educational opportunities for these "three cultures."
I looked around the room and I saw Hispanics, Anglos, Native Americans, African Americans, Jews, Italians and a few other cultures. My immediate thought was that somebody was being left out, and I needed to find out who and why.
"Excuse me, I have a question."
"State your name, position and your question."
"Charles Becknell, teacher, Albuquerque Public Schools. My question is, to which three cultures are you referring?"
The response was, "The Anglo, Hispanic and Native Americans."
"Sir, I have been in New Mexico all my life. I know of many other African-Americans that were here before me. Are we not worthy of recognition? Do we not possess a culture that should be included?"
The response that came from the workshop presenter was, "Oh, no, you have not been excluded. We see African-Americans as part of the Anglo culture."
My eyes were opened and my life was changed. I became angry, hurt and confused. I then went on a mission to ensure that New Mexico would never be referred to as a tri-cultural state again and that not only would my people, but all people, be seen as a part of the cultural mosaic of New Mexico.
Racism can wear many masks, because racism has many faces. Racism goes beyond dislike. It even moves beyond hatred. Dislike and hatred by themselves, without the power or authority to act, can be benign. When racism is backed up with power and authority, we find segregated and unequal schools, lack of equal employment opportunities, and the haves and have nots.
Growing up in Hobbs, New Mexico in the '40s, '50s and the front end of the '60s has given me a unique experience, an experience shared by very few people. I lived the '40s and '50s. I experienced the limitations and the degradation of segregation. I felt the uncertainty and uneasiness of integration. I observed, lived and participated in civil rights activities, and I navigated the minefields of equal opportunities that I was told I had access to. I worked for three governors; only one earned my respect. This book is based on my own observations and experiences. As you read it, you may reject what I have to say. You may not agree with the conclusions I have reached or the assumptions that I make, but all I ask is that you respect my right to say what I think and feel. We may have traveled down different roads and along the way have seen and interpreted things in different ways. But when all is said and done, we are all God's children and we should all be trying to get to the same place—a place where race, ethnicity, color, gender or physical limitations will not matter.
Someone said that once the mind is expanded to the dimension of new thought, it never returns to its original form. I hope this work expands your thinking about race and race relations in New Mexico. We all search for that place where peace prevails and all people can live with dignity and respect. My prayer is that we will continue to search for that special place.
Vamos a Leer Book Club at Bookworks
This month's selection is He Forgot to Say Goodbye by Benjamin Alire Saenz.
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