Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Conversations About Race

Conversations About Race

"Roots" by Alex Haley

“Roots” by Alex Haley

I was pleased to get an email from my college classmate and friend, Judy. She said, “I’ve just finished reading Roots. I can’t believe I hadn’t read it.  Nor have I seen the series.”

She said, “My daughter remembered that there was controversy about it. . . I wonder if you remember what any fuss was about . . . I’ve thought of you because you span those two continents and I’m sure have thoughts.”

Judy and I talked on Monday. “I do remember reading the book, but I don’t recall the controversy,” I said.

The book came out in 1976. From September 1975 to May ’76 I was in Sacramento working on my Master’s Degree in Education. I’m sure I bought the book to take back to Nigeria with me.

I probably read it that summer as I got resettled. Did controversy come later with the TV series? Do you recall? If so, please tell us.

Between the World and Me

Coates' book, "Between the World and Me"

Coates’ book, “Between the World and Me”

We also talked about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. It is the ‘class read’ for our reunion in May. Judy is leading the discussion about it. She said that was what led her to other books on Black history and Black issues.

She felt she got a deeper perspective on racial issues from Coates. He conveys so clearly the message that those of us who are white can avoid issues of race if we wish, while people of color cannot.

“Why do we not want to take responsibility for the change, the healing, we need?” Judy said. I wonder that myself. It leads me to conversations about race, including the “Beloved Conversations” we are having at The Unitarian Church in Westport now.

I blogged about Coates’ book in January 2016. Both my book groups read and discussed it.

Kathleen is a member of Baker’s Dozen, one of the groups. She is Black, and an Episcopal priest. She couldn’t come that day but sent a message. She wrote,

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of "Between the World and Me"

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “Between the World and Me”

“Black Americans are undermined, devalued, dismissed, ridiculed, disrespected, subjected to hardships and limitations that others are not. Most profoundly, this web of evil is virtually invisible to those who are not its victims! And so the title of the book is appropriate.  The chasm between those who see and understand (because we are presented with these systemic barriers and challenges and assaults constantly) and those who don’t understand (because, for them, the barriers actually don’t exist and the system works as it should) is profound.

“It is easier to devolve into questions of intent ( I am not intending to be racist) or denial ( I don’t experience it so it’s not there ) or critique of the messenger ( he’s too angry when he speaks of it) or denial ( just because things are hard doesn’t give people license for special treatment) or dismissiveness ( at least blacks aren’t killed in this country by the thousands as in other countries). . .
“And in 2016 as we watch wave after wave of killings of black citizens, and as we watch our brave and good President suffer the disparagement and disrespect at a level that has never been matched, we have a lot to think about. Most importantly it’s my prayer that we will renew our efforts to unmask this evil in all its forms and unravel the sinful and evil effects.”
Thank you, Kathleen.

Madeira and Technology

I follow the blog Africa In Words. They often issue a Call for Papers, or CfP. This one intrigued me.

CfP: Strategic Narratives of Technology and Africa, 1-2 Sept 2017, Madeira, deadline: 1 May 2017

Funchal, the capital of Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal

Funchal, the capital of Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal, and site of conference

Why? Because I lived in Madeira with my parents and my two children from September 1968 to May 1969. After that, I visited with my family nearly every summer until 1986.

My mother had died there in 1989. My dad came back to the US and died in Chicago in 1998. In 2004 or so my sister and I went to Madeira to bury our father’s ashes beside our mother.

Madeira is beautiful. I hadn’t thought of it as a place for technology. I don’t know what “Strategic Narratives of Tech and Africa” would be. But going to Madeira would be fun.

I sent the notice to our son Sam who runs a media and entertainment company in Nigeria. Our older son Chinaku advises him on financial and structural issues. Maybe they could present a ‘Strategic Narrative’ together!

Women’s History Month

Today I honor Virginia Apgar, a Mount Holyoke alumna. On LinkedIn a couple of days ago, I read about her.

Virginia Apgar, picture from Mount Holyoke Alum Association via LinkedIn

Virginia Apgar, picture from Mount Holyoke Alumnae Association via LinkedIn

“Virginia Apgar, class of 1929, was the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. During that time, she also performed clinical and research work at Sloane Hospital for Women, where she developed the Apgar Score, an assessment for the health of newborn babies.”

I knew her name from my daughter Beth who learned about her in medical school. And I notice that Apgar graduated from Mount Holyoke the same year my mother graduated from Vassar.

Wikipedia tells me that the Apgar score ranges from zero to 10. “The five criteria are summarized using words chosen to form a backronym (Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration).”

I learned about the test, and I got a new word to boot! A backronym is the opposite of an acronym – an ‘acronym’ created to fit an existing word.

Any nominees for women to honor in the next two posts during Women’s History Month?

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.


  1. Yes, there is a lot to be done to educate our citizenry about the terrible injustice of racial discrimination, and to
    abolish the color line. And there is a lot to be done to teach all Americans about the need for inclusivity and
    for genuine respect and tolerance for all people.

  2. I do remember one thing that happened after the TV series “Roots,” African American high school students walking the halls chanting, “Roots,” and sometimes assaulting white students. It didn’t last long and I don’t remember anybody being seriously injured. I also remember people talking about the awful treatment the slaves received, and a man having to choose which body part would be chopped off. That horrified me, and I didn’t feel like I could handle watching it. I don’t like to watch or read anything with gruesome details about violence, even if it is not shown. I once read a bio of Peter the Great, and had to skip the chapter on torture. When I was older, I happened on a portion of a rerun of Roots. It included the rape scene. Again, I was horrified, and didn’t continue watching.

    • The African American students chanting “Roots” and sometimes assaulting white students would have caught people’s attention, I think. Maybe I’ll Google the episodes. Or my friend Judy might have done that already. I assume the book and series did at least make white people more aware of the horrors of slavery. Did it lead white people to begin to understand how shameful our country’s history on slavery, race, and injustice is? Clearly not enough. There is so much work still to do.