I was raised in Muskogee, Oklahoma, primarily by my divorced, single mother, Rubye Carter. My mom was one of the first pre-integration black teachers at an all-white high school, and I sometimes wonder how she managed to successfully nurture, raise and champion five kids on a meager teacher’s salary, while adeptly deflecting the overt racism and sexism she encountered on a daily basis during her 31-year career. Upon her death in 2008, I wrote “The Hand That Rocked My Cradle,” a tribute song explaining how her unwavering support was the powerful example that “shaped my world.” And though mom was the undisputed CEO of our household and her classroom, she also created a strong village for us that included extended family, friends and the larger-than-life pastor of the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, Rev. J.A. Reed, Sr.
I’m not sure how much formal educational training Rev. Reed received, but he created a positioning statement to define and empower us. Every Sunday, the church bulletin had a slogan that read, “Mt. Calvary is the church were everybody is somebody.” By every possible material standard, we were poor, but the richness of my upbringing laid the foundation for my life’s work.
This past January marked my 32nd year as a New Mexican. I was 23 when I rolled into town from Chicago, looking for happier times and better weather. I planned to stay for two years before heading to the Big Apple and Broadway. Like so many others who become enchanted by the beauty and spirit of these ancient lands, I chose to stay. After working in the public and nonprofit sector for more than two decades, six years ago I started the New Mexico Black History Organizing Committee (NMBHOC). The NMBHOC most notably produces the New Mexico Black History Festival, held annually in February, and the Roots Summer Leadership Academy, with the goal of increasing the visibility of and raising awareness regarding the contributions of blacks in New Mexico. Our endgame is to promote true multiculturalism and to debunk the myth that New Mexico is tri-cultural (Anglo, Native American and Hispanic). According to the 2010 Census, blacks comprise just over 3 percent of the total population and for a number of reasons are often left out of the political, social and cultural landscape. In many arenas there is still much work to do to ensure that multiculturalism is routinely practiced. The NMBHOC exists to be of service in this area—our youth must have a clear sense of belonging, regardless of race or socioeconomic background.
This year at our academy, I met a little girl who reminded me of me when I was 8 years old. She absolutely knows everything, and every single teacher has written in her assessments either that she is a little “bossy boots” or “Teacher/Director #2.” Of course, they all go on to say they love her and wouldn’t have it any other way. When I look into the face of this child, I see myself and I remember why I do the work I do. I remember Rev. Reed’s imperative and my mother’s voice captured in the words of my tribute song: “Hold Your Head Up High. Remember where you’re from. Stand for what is right; hear the beat of your own drum. No matter what the circumstances, do your best, and the good Lord up above will take care of the rest.” I want little girls (and little boys for that matter) of every race and socioeconomic background to know that they are born to be leaders and to learn to deflect negative stereotypes that would discourage, silence or shame them. I want them to understand and celebrate who they are and where they came from, knowing that this knowledge alone can be the source of their lifelong prosperity. I want them to understand the importance of Marcus Garvey’s quote, “A people who lack the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture are like a tree without roots.”
In the summer of 2012, a few minutes before I needed to leave for the very first iteration of the Roots camp, I remembered that we needed a theme song and I sat down at my piano and scribbled out a title, a melody and these words that, unbeknownst to me, would completely define the essence of the work we do with youth and, indeed, with the entire community.
I Believe in Me
I believe in me cause I believe in you cause I believe in we
Our whole community
And my roots are deep to keep me strong
I stand proud and I know I belong
Everybody hear me when I say that I am somebody
I am somebody
I am somebody
And so goes the story of why I stay in New Mexico. I love this land and will do my part to ensure that New Mexico is a place, like my old church back home, where everybody is somebody. I hope you’ll join us in celebrating the goodness, the richness and the power of continuing to create a community where we all have a place at the table; where every single one of our voices is heard. I sure do miss my mom, but I think she’d be proud of the work I’ve chosen. Through it, I pay homage to her legacy and the way she shaped my world.
Cathryn McGill is the founder and director of the New Mexico Black History Organizing Committee.