Minority no more
From scholars to entertainers and politicians, five prominent African Americans define Ventura County’s new black history
By Paul Sisolak 02/25/2010
Think of black history in the United States, and our thoughts invariably gravitate toward people and events in America’s Deep South — from the Civil War and the fight to end slavery to heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.
African Americans in California have experienced a myriad of social inequalities as well as racial victories. The Watts riots of 1965 and L.A. riots of 1992 exemplified a weakening of the bond whites and blacks had worked to strengthen through advancing Civil Rights legislation. Yet through the 1960s and 1970s, people like Mervyn Dymally, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Douglas Dollarhide and Ron Dellums became the first blacks to hold public office in the Golden State.
Still, there’s very little, if anything at all, documented about blacks in Ventura County.
But the local history of black people is indeed storied and rich, and as we entered the 21st century, and now a new decade, that history continues to unfold every day. To commemorate Black History Month, the VCReporter spoke with five of the county’s most prominent African Americans about the experience of being black in Ventura County: the transference of knowledge in a classroom, the responsiblities of fulfilling a city’s vision, the nuanced performances that teach us a little more about ourselves, no matter what color we are.
Demitri Corbin was born in the Midwest during the civil rights movement and found his way to Ventura County’s arts community via New York City. When the children’s outreach theater program he was working with placed him in Santa Monica, part of the assignment was a week-long residency in Ojai. After two weeks, Corbin decided to stay, where he is now known as one of the Ojai Valley’s most visible and important black people in the arts. Corbin, who chairs the Ojai Arts Commission, also runs his own Peachtree Theater Company for young actors.
In television and theater, Corbin refuses to be pigeonholed and typecast, actively seeking out roles that present the complexities, humanity and tribulations of the modern black man.
VCR: What was it like for you being black and growing up in Chicago?
Corbin: I guess you could say “Chicago” and that says it all. (Laughs.) I grew up on the south side of Chicago, a really rough neighborhood during very tumultuous times. I was born in ’61, so I was very young during the Chicago riots and the Malcolm X assassination, those things like that. It was very [much] part of growing up and being prepared for a new future. There was arts education in schools, very good education in every school. A lot of the music and art that was in the schools then is not so much so today. And I think that’s something that gives me the ambition to do my theater program, that there’s art to be passed on.
How important to you was your heritage, and being black, when pursuing an acting career?
For me, I only got into acting in college just to see if I could do it, and was taken under the wing of a mentor who changed my life by getting into acting. Growing up singing, I don't think I would have gotten the work I did at first if I couldn't sing, though I was classically trained as a dramatic actor. My first musical, my first professional job where I got my union contract, was a huge, Broadway-bound musical that didn’t make it, called “Shout up a Morning.” It was the story of John Henry, the steel driving man, the folk tale. As far as black heritage, it was a musical that was written in the ’60s, set right after the Emancipation Proclamation. The music spans all music through American, spiritual all the way through jazz and pop. That just gives me an appreciation for how strongly African Americans have affected or are a part of America, and it’s a great deal through the music.
And it’s still, to this day, influential. Hip-hop, a few years ago, I don’t know if it was rap music, but now everybody’s using the phrase “bling.” Music has affected America in a strong and powerful way.
Are there any black singers/actors/playwrights whom you've always admired or who've influenced you in your career?
Oh yes, many. Being able to work with Nat Adderley. I worked a few times with Ntozake Shange. She's a great influential poet. Working on the works of August Wilson, I've done his plays, and that's really great, to have worked with black authors and their pieces. Being a black actor and finding, especially in the theater and movies, too, finding worthy material to do. You know, is there something I can do that doesn't involve holding a gun? Really looking for those fine writers who have a social point of view. Working with George Wolfe. To do things that haven't been done before and take on social issues.
Do you find, in 2010, that black people are still stereotyped and unfairly typecast in movies as criminals, and not given that more socially relevant point of view?
Yeah, I do, but at the same time, even in the last 10 years or so, there’s so much more variety of different points of view. For instance, Lee Daniels with “Precious.” It’s a very hard story, it’s going to take a strong stomach to go and see that. It gets a lot of flak for presenting a stereotypical type, but it goes into the belly of the beast. You’re talking about somebody who’s going to take that subject matter and take it a step further, which you see a lot more in theater than you do in film, the breaking out of the stereotype, or the diving deeper.
Have you ever encountered, or been a victim of racism, in your life?
All the time. And I think that it took me a while to understand that this is everywhere. And I grew up in Chicago, still one of the most historically segregated places in the nation. It’s not pretty at all. But being an actor and going all over the country, and saying, “Oh, it happens everywhere.” I can stand at the corner of Ojai Avenue and Signal Street at the heart of Downtown Ojai and have somebody drive by in a truck and yell, “Nigger!” at me. And people go, “Jesus!” but don’t realize it’s nasty, and it’s all over the country, in one way or another. And if it’s not against blacks, it’s against Jews, against Latinos. In one way or another, it’s ingrained we have to hate someone else. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a fact of life.
In your opinion, do you think black people could play a greater role in the Ojai Valley and Ventura County, or is there a good, healthy representation?
No, there isn't a good representation. And I'm not thinking specifically of blacks. I'm thinking of the Latino community and the Indian community as well. Especially here in Ojai, I don't think people realize the diversity of the community. Their representation in our arts world is not as strong as it could be. I think more arts organizations should work on bringing more diversity into the art they bring to the community, understanding how rich the culture is around us all.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
I like that it’s an appreciation of the history of African Americans to the culture of our nation, and it’s just nice that it happens. It’s a good thing because people forget. As far as our culture, the celebration is overcoming the adversity that has stricken our first step on this land. It is in February, but I don’t think a lot of people realize [that] within the African American culture, we celebrate our heritage on the Fourth of July. That is a time of family reunions; and most family reunions, you’ll find most African Americans are traveling from the north to the south and go celebrate. That’s how it’s been with my family. Because my parents are from the Depression era, they came up during the Great Migration, when all the blacks left the south after the war (World War I) to go north for a better life. That’s when black heritage, when I really look at it, you’re in a room of up to 300 people and you all share the same blood. That’s a very powerful thing.
“I’ve always been attuned to the civil rights movement,” proudly states Dr. Greg Freeland.
It seemed natural that Freeland, with his acute perception of the pulse of blacks in 1960s America, would become Cal Lutheran University’s pre-eminent political scientist, where Freeland is a leading voice on the local electoral system, currently leading the efforts of a committee in charge of redrawing district boundary lines for Assembly, Senate and Board of Equalization.
But Freeland’s involvement in politics came about through more than just studied observation. Freeland hailed from Durham, N.C., and spent a childhood growing up through segregation and a burgeoning freedom for blacks, becoming the first member of his family to earn a college degree. He’s been affiliated with groups such as CAUSE (Coastal Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy) and the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. He started teaching at CLU in 1992.
VCR: It’s well-known that you’re an expert in ethnic and minority politics, and you’ve written extensively about the U.S. civil rights movement, too. How important to you was your heritage and being black when entering academia?
Freeland: Well, for me it was very important because I was the first in my family to go this far. Neither my mother nor my father had a college degree. My sister was younger — she ended up getting a college degree — but I was the first one. And growing up in Durham, N.C., which was very progressive for the south. My great-grandmother, I remember her being able to vote, so that was a big deal. But a lot of places in the south you could not. I felt it was quite a milestone.
On county residents who are black, do you feel there's a strong sense of community amont them?
Yes, I do, because the community is so small. And when you get a small community, you find that they're coming together. You do have the NAACP, and Martin Luther King celebrations, and there's also a group who take people to the south on tours of black colleges. They may not be as visible, but they're there.
In your life, have you ever encountered, or been a victim of, racism?
Not overt racism. I haven’t had anyone call me derogatory names. Racism now is more of a covert nature. In the South, it was overt, because those were the rules. When Civil Rights passed in 1964, it sort of forced a lot of that racism to go underground, to become more covert. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen just because it hasn’t happened to me. There may be other blacks in Ventura County who have experienced some form of overt racism.
What are some examples of covert racism?
Housing is probably the best example. You go to rent a house or an apartment, and all of a sudden it’s not available. You may go into a bank for a loan and you can’t get it. Jobs, you go to get a job, you can’t get the job because they won’t hire you because you’re black. But they can’t say that, because it’s against the law; they have the power to just say no.
What are some of your views on affirmative action?
I think affirmative action, if done right, works. However, I think in some instances, it fails. When you say things like quota, it puts people off. But I do believe that affirmative action has helped black people get into jobs. If you look around in Ventura County, you don’t see black farmers, black policemen, black plumbers. Those are the kinds of jobs where affirmative action was supposed to do something but it has not. It’s a testament to the fact that there’s a type of discrimination going on, and affirmative action has not worked. But you have to be able to prove it in some kind of way. I think affirmative action as a practice needs to be done other ways.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
It’s really good because it does highlight blacks. And a lot of people find out things about blacks that they would have never known. But you really don’t need a Black History Month. This kind of sensitivity goes on all year long. Yes, Black History Month is good, let’s continue to have it, let’s continue to educate people on the roles that blacks have played locally and internationally. But let’s make it a situation that happens all year round. You can hear very good stories about black history and achievement in September, and so on.
Having had a lifelong career at schools in Los Angeles and Oxnard, one of the most important things Dr. Irene Pinkard feels she can teach the black youth of today is that an education is possible. For the past 21 years, Pinkard and her husband, Bedford, have taken college-bound black teens on university tours with the message that academic success depends on one’s intellect, not one’s color, a far cry from the segregated schools Pinkard attended as a girl growing up in Los Angeles.
Additionally, the couple was responsible for forming the Ventura County branch of the Black American Political Association, with a similar intent: to give blacks a collective voice in local government.
Pinkard, who previously sat on the Oxnard Union High School Board of Trustees and the Oxnard Planning Commission, was elected to the Oxnard City Council two years ago. She is currently the only black city council member in Ventura County.
VCR: The opportunities you’re exposing kids to today, how different was it for you growing up during the civil rights movement?
Pinkard: I think the main thing was not being able to have the kinds of jobs I’d have liked to have, or having the freedom to go to various pools in the city where I lived. For instance, there was a time that the pool we normally would go to in my neighborhood was closed for repairs. And so my dad said he would take us to the pool which was on the other side of us, in another direction. When we went to the pool, we found out when he went up to pay for all of us — he took a lot of the kids in the neighborhood as well — they wouldn’t let us in. They said African Americans weren’t allowed in the pool. I mean, that was like, I couldn’t believe that. I think it hurt my dad more than it hurt me. I think it was an “Aha!” moment for him as well as for us. And he decided that we were going to go swimming anyway, so he took us to a canal and sat on the banks to watch us swim. I don't know how safe it was, but he was determined that we were going to get to swim that day. This was in Riverside.
I know one time when I was looking for a job as a high school student, I was a junior, on the phone I guess they couldn't tell who I was, and they said ,"Oh, yeah, the job is open, come on down." It was a shop to buy clothes, a boutique. And I told my mother I was going down there, and she said, "I don't think you should get your hopes up." And I didn't know what she meant. When I got there, the lady told me, "I'm sorry, they just hired somebody." Those were the little things that were my introduction into what it was like to be African American in the real world. This was in the 1960s.
I remember when I was at Cal State University, Long Beach, they were having the rush for sororities, at the Soroptomist house. And my girlfriends and I said, "Well, let's go over there and see what it's all about," and it was all white sororities. That Monday, when we went back to school, the dean called us in and asked us what we were trying to do. "Are you trying to start trouble, or what?" That was the farthest thing from my mind. I had just walked around and asked questions about what the sororities were about. And the newspapers showed up, because the word had gotten out that I was trying to break the barrier. So those are the kinds of things I was exposed to as a youngster, just doing things that come natural and finding out it's a big to-do, when really, for me, it really wasn't. They were things I thought were available for everybody.
Would you consider those examples of racist behavior?
Yes, I would consider it racist, especially when they wouldn't let you in the pool. And a lot of it seems to be fear, because none of these examples should've brought fear to anybody. So I'd have to say those three examples are racism, period.
You founded with your husband the county chapter of the Black American Political Association. What was the inspiration behind that?
I didn't see where our voice was being heard, or that we'd had enough representation, or that the African American community had come together to work in concert together to do something. Our thinking was that we needed to pull the community together, talk to them about our collective power as a unit instead of separate, and explain to them how we can make more of an impact in the community through a political organization.
Does the black community have a strong voice in Oxnard?
I think we do. Sometimes we get complacent every now and then and have to be prodded into continuing to make our voice heard. But I do think we’re pretty active in the Oxnard community. And I see Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks becoming more active, as well.
According to city statistics, Oxnard’s population will be up to 250,000 people in 20 years. Up until then, will the number of black families moving into the area increase, and how can that be achieved?
I think until we have more employment opportunities and more activities for young people, we aren’t going to find a lot of African Americans moving into the community. I say that because we’re very family oriented in terms of doing things with our kids and for our kids. And sports aren’t the end-all and do-all, even though the sports aspect of Ventura County is excellent. I can’t think of any other county that produces more quality athletes, including my own grandson. But there has to be more opportunity educationally, artistically and performing arts kinds of things that would also bring the families in, because they’ll say, “They have arts throughout the community and my kid is into music and dance.” We don’t have a dance theater or a dance studio, which are some of the things I think families look for. So I don’t see our numbers increasing substantially; I see them holding the same as some families move in and others move out.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
It’s an opportunity and a month for others to be made aware of the contributions of African Americans in the United States. It’s a time for exposure, it’s a time for recognition, and it’s a time for giving respect. But it should be done every day of the week, not just one month. If it were integrated into our society, it wouldn’t have to be done the way it is as a one-month thing. I tell myself, “It’s the month of love.” It’s the month to show love to one another.
As an actress and singer, Ventura County native Nicole Pryor is attracted to parts that offer a more substantive, serious portrayal of blacks. In addition to releasing two solo albums of her own material, Pryor produced and starred in a musical revue last month at CLU entitled “Our Voice: A Celebration of Black Women in Music.” The show, one of the only events this year to acknowledge Black History Month, was infused with its spirit. When preparing the show, Pryor made use of music spanning all eras of blacks in the United States, from the arrangements of the traditional slave work song, to the newer sounds of black women singers in today’s pop world.
Pryor, a soprano, has played the ingénue for major productions like “Ragtime,” with companies like the Conejo Players, and currently resides in Las Vegas, where she is one of four African Americans to star in a production of “Phantom of the Opera.”
VCR: How important to you was your heritage, and being black, when pursuing an acting career?
Pryor: As an African American pursuing performing arts as a whole, it’s quite difficult, because there aren’t a lot of roles, not only in television, but musical theater. I am mainly in the musical theater world because it’s easy to do an audition. I can go to any audition, even if it says “Blond hair, blue eyes,” I would show up. With television and film, it clearly says your race. It’ll be very specific. Even for the shows that I produced for Black History Month, I needed African American females. And I’m not being racist; it’s just what that show entails. And that’s just kind of how the business is. I don’t think it’s against any particular race; it’s just what’s being produced. Producing “Our Voice” was because there aren’t a lot of roles for African Americans.
It's interesting that Black History, in general, is like one paragraph in our history books. It's essential that we still talk about how we got to where we are today. The fact that I'm in "Phantom of the Opera," a Broadway show, "Phantom" has predominantly been a Caucasian show, and there are four African Americans in our show, that shows progress.
The other reason I love these shows is also the stereotypical aspect of who we are as black people. I went to Pepperdine University, I grew up in Ventura County, I don't act stereotypically "black," I was one of maybe 11 black people at Moorpark High School. A lot of people would like to call Oprah Winfrey, people like myself, sellouts, because we don't act the stereotypical way that a black person is "supposed" to act. And that's incorrect.
Being African American has nothing to do with the color of your skin. It's a part of who you are, but it doesn't define who you are. When I went to college, it was the same dynamic. I had to prove myself to the black kids on campus as well, because they didn't understand me at all. They thought I was selling out and pretending to "act white." I had to basically let them know this is who I am. I'm not going to change or pretend I'm anything other than who I am. My experiences and where I grew up doesn't make me any less or more black than anyone else. It's just who I am.
There are very few roles for African American females, especially ingénues. It makes it difficult. I go to an audition and they want me to be this big, belting, gospel singer. That's the stereotype.
How do you think Hollywood or local theaters can change a stereotypical image of a black character?
I think they need to write new shows. We need to move into 2010, where we have a black president, where there are educated black people, where we’re not just basketball players and rappers. We need to acknowledge that we have a whole group of African Americans who speak well, who’ve gone to college, who have a whole different perspective on life. I didn’t struggle in the ghetto. It’s time to find those stories and create stories of different black people.
Have you ever encountered, or been a victim of, racism in your life?
I have felt a victim of racism, but not necessarily in this business. Now being on the other side of the table, I need a specific type of person for my show. I can’t cast a white person in a Black History Month program. I used to get so angry. “The Lion King,” for instance, I’ve never gotten into that show, and people say, “You’re black. You should be in that show.” But they’ll cast a lot of lighter-skinned African Americans in that show. It’s really difficult, and I’m realizing now that it’s their vision. I can’t blame them for their vision.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
It’s a time just for me to pay tribute to the people who came before me to make it possible for what I’m doing. Black History month is a time to pay tribute to that struggle, from slavery to where we are today. There’s still reason to say thank you to the people who came before us. Thank you for fighting for our civil liberties.
For Dr. Cecelia Travick-Jackson, the true experience of being black isn’t relegated to one region or place in the United States. She has lived in many different parts of the country, having been born in Chicago, raised in Indiana, and having resided in Connecticut, New York and New Mexico, before coming to Southern California and Cal Lutheran University in 2003, where she remains a professor of education.
Travick-Jackson is a vocal proponent of African American advancement in academia and the arts, and holds a doctorate in language, literature and socio-cultural studies.
VCR: You authored a dissertation comparing the relationship between religion and academic success among African American scholars, too. What were some of your findings?
Travick-Jackson: This was a qualitative study that I conducted with four women who worked in academia. Surprisingly enough, their ages span from their 30s to the 70s. In the four women I interviewed, not only was religion and spirituality an integral part of their lives, but education was always an expectation in their homes, too. It was never “If you will go to college.” They were just expected to attend.
How important to you was being black when entering academia?
Travick-Jackson: It was not because I was black. Education was always important in my family. So it was never "If you go to college," it was always "When you go to college." It was an expectation. I have two sisters, both of whom are college graduates, so it was never discussed that this wouldn't be. You know, you finish high school and you go on.
Are there any black people historically, or people in your own family, whom you’ve looked up to and admired?
I have to acknowledge my parents, and looking back on it, the love and support both of them gave to us as a family. I’m very proud of our family structure, the things that we did, what they instilled in us as children.
Have you ever encountered, or been a victim of, racism, and what have you done about it?
There are times maybe you feel you’re being judged by something other than your skills or your character or content.
But you don’t stop when that happens. You learn from it and you move on. I think that all people have probably felt it at one time or another, that they were treated unfairly. But you don’t stop progressing and living and doing and achieving, because someone or some group treats you unfairly.
When you did finally did have the chance to attend a school where all races were mixed, how did that feel for you?
I did my undergraduate work in a historically black university, and my first teaching job was in a primarily Jewish school. But, you know, each group of people are so unique and so special in their own ways. I can't say one part of the country is better or prettier or anything than another. I think there's so much to learn from one another, if you're open to learning and be a part of.
What does Black History Month mean to you? What special significance does it hold?
I grew up in segregated schools. I don’t know that it was called Black History at that time. The history I learned from the schools I attended — and I grew up in the Midwest — it was history. There may have been a greater, or as great, of an emphasis on those who were African American as those who weren’t. I don’t know what was taught in the white schools. My teachers were African American. My schoolmates were African American. You go to church and your teachers were your Sunday School teachers in church, so I don’t know what they did. This was a part of my life.