UAA visit leads to dialogue about family history and the prevalence of racism

Photo by Tim Brown
Yvette Johnson speaks at the UAA bookstore Feb. 20. (Photo by Tim Brown)

It’s hard to imagine that dreaded end-of-semester projects and final exams could ever turn into something meaningful.

Yvette Johnson took a family history course at Arizona University in 2007 in hopes of learning more about where she came from. She knew very little about her family history and wanted to be able to pass some of the information down to her two young sons.

One of the course assignments was to interview a relative over the age of 60, and Johnson chose her maternal grandmother. Through the interview, she learned about her grandfather, Booker Wright, and developed a desire to piece together the story of his life and the mystery of his untimely murder.

“It sounds a little kooky, but I always tell people that I feel like this project was much bigger than me, and I just didn’t have peace about it yet,” Johnson said. “I wanted to find the footage. I wanted to learn what that dialogue was about, what that language was, but I also wanted to understand why it mattered so much … I really felt an absence of peace when I let it fall by the wayside and focus on other things.”

Last week, The Northern Light reported about Johnson and the documentary her research helped create, “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story.” This week, we caught up with Johnson at an event at the UAA Bookstore Feb. 20 — two days before the documentary showed at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium as part of the university’s Black History Month celebration.

In 1966, a documentary aired on NBC about racism. Johnson’s grandfather, a black waiter in an all-white restaurant in Greenwood, Miss., was featured in a two-minute monologue. The documentary aired across the country, and Wright lost his job of 25 years because of it. He was pistol-whipped by white police officers for speaking his mind about racism and how it made him feel. Eventually he was murdered.

Before Johnson’s class project, she had no idea.

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“No one in my family knew until I found the footage. Most blacks at that time didn’t own television sets, and he didn’t tell anyone that he’d done it,” she said. “Looking back on it, it’s all kind of comical, and at the time it was emotional. But initially, people in my family thought that I had the wrong Booker Wright.”

Zeynep Kilic, adjunct sociology professor and friend of Johnson, couldn’t believe how much family history was lost over the course of two generations.

“I remember thinking, how is it possible that we get disconnected from our histories, literally one or two generations ago, and so quickly we have no idea that these things even happen,” she said. “Then of course, I called my mother and realized that I really have no connection to my grandparents’ history either.”

The talk at the Bookstore began with an explanation of how the documentary formed from the initial project and led into Johnson reading a chapter from a book she is writing about her journey to uncovering the life of her grandfather, which is entitled “Booker’s Place.”

In the chapter, Johnson describes her meeting with a white man who’d also been in the documentary her grandfather appeared in. Johnson wanted to “deconstruct” a racist to his core and discover, as she said in the chapter, the seed through which it began in this man. What she found was a lonely, old Mississippi man who wanted nothing more than company, and in humoring his need for companionship, left her questions unanswered.

After reading from her book in progress, Johnson opened the floor to questions and discussion. Conversation lasted for almost an hour, with a focus on how racism has changed faces over the years.

Johnson described how much Greenwood has changed since the 1960s and how in many ways it hasn’t.

“I was shocked to go to Mississippi and find that it’s almost like a caricature of something you read about in a book,” she said. “It is segregated. The public schools are 98 percent black, the private schools are 98 percent white. The blacks live south of the tracks; the whites live north of the tracks. And there are efforts to change that and friendships between the two. But the white side of town has a Wal-Mart, nicely taken care of roads, the south side doesn’t have a store that you would recognize the name of, potholes … I mean it’s just, I can’t make it up.”

Jacqueline Williams, general support services staff member, went to the lecture and was surprised by this.

“It made me feel like we’ve come a long way but that we’ve got way to go yet,” she said. “Racism is still here, but it’s underneath the layers.”

In the end, Johnson’s talk illustrated something very familiar for those who’ve seen the footage of her grandfather’s original monologue. Wright lived his every day life despite constant humiliation so his children could have better lives than he did. He spoke out about racism on camera so that a dialogue could, hopefully, begin.

Johnson began her project so that she could pass something along to her sons to be proud of. And she stands up before groups of people and on camera, spreading the word of her grandfather’s story so that a dialogue about racism can continue.

Through speaking engagements and documentary showings, such as the one at UAA, she continues the legacy of Booker Wright.