harlayne Hunter-Gault was the first black woman to enroll at The University of Georgia. She, along with Hamilton Holmes and Mary Frances Early, integrated UGA in 1961. Ms. Hunter-Gault returned to UGA this past January to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of desegregation at UGA. Poetry Managing Editor, JoyEllen Freeman, spoke with her via Skype in February 2011.
JoyEllen Freeman: What does the concept of "reconciliation" mean to you? How does it contribute to strengthening individual and national identities?
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: When people have been at odds with one another, whether it be in a marriage, a familial relationship, South African apartheid, or American segregation, reconciliation is the "something" that has taken place enabling us to get past the bad part. Many times, reconciliation involves a system trying to amend the horrific toll that it took on others in the past. Reconciliation, however, does not mean forgetting the past, but rather helping people to learn from the past. Leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela helped us to understand this concept. Even at UGA, reconciliation has taken place. Former Governor Ernest Vandiver, famous for saying that "no, not one" African American would attend The University of Georgia, came and apologized to me forty years later for the statement that he made. He had repudiated the past in which he took the position against blacks attending UGA. He changed his mind, and that meant a lot. Reconciliation often involves a forgiving heart and being able to move on from the pain of the past in a more positive way. Once we move on, we can learn to connect with others. I do not necessarily mean assimilate. Even though I live in South Africa, I do not try to be South African. I try to connect with my fellow South Africans because they have faced struggles similar to my own.
JF: South Africa initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the abolition of apartheid. Do you think that a commission like this would be beneficial in the U.S., and what kind of effects do you think that it would have?
CHG: It would be difficult to do that in America, as many of the staunch racists of the 1950s and 1960s are dead. Honestly, the Commission was not so effective in South Africa either. Granted, it helped South Africa get over the hump, giving leaders who committed crimes sanctioned by the state a chance to acknowledge what they did and accept amnesty. Unfortunately, many of the leaders who committed these vicious crimes did not come forward. The Commission served as a model to the world, but if it is to be replicated, other countries would need to learn how to make it more effective. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that many people were supposed to receive restitution, but they never did. Likewise, many people today cannot rest because they don't have the bones of their loved ones due to crimes committed in the past. People cannot go to the graves to talk to their ancestors because they don't know where they are. Another initiative like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could work, but there would need to be improvements to better ensure justice for the victims.
JF:Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that "my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." How do you think that this quote fits into the context of reconciliation?
CHG: This concept is called Ubuntu. It means recognizing every other person as the same as you are. In order to do this, however, we don't have to be color blind. We have to recognize one another for our distinctiveness but at the same time, remember that we are all human. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "let people be judged by the content of their character," not merely by their skin color. Ubuntu is recognizing the humanity in all of us; it means waking up in the morning and realizing that everyone breathes. As humans, we possess an innate connection between the body and the soul. In order to reconcile with others, we must first fulfill our own humanness, meaning that we must begin to live Ubuntu.
JF: I know that you still have memories of the racial bigotry that you experienced at UGA. How have you dealt with this?
CHG: I never saw such racism as my problem. I came from a strong family background, so this gave me confidence and helped me to realize that the racial prejudice and bigotry that others held was not my concern. When I entered The University of Georgia at nineteen, I was very self-confident, maybe even a little arrogant. Like most teenagers, I thought that I knew everything. This confidence served me well though, because if I had not had the amount of self-confidence that I did, I would have had a much harder time at UGA. My confidence provided me with strength. While I have always been sensitive to race and racial discrimination, I do not let it consume me. I do not look for racism, but I know it when I see it, and I know how to move on. I don't want my life to be guided by racial concern or paranoia. I like to strive for a balance.
JF: I am in the process of reading your book In My Place, and I know that even as a young child, you had a love of words. How can we use words as a means to reconcile?
CHG: It depends. In journalism, words help to portray people, so we have to be careful about the words that we use as they shape the world's impression of this person. Words also affect our relationships with others. Just recently, South African Minister for Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande used the word 'darkies' to refer to black people in the government. He probably thought that because he was black he could use this word, but it tainted his relationships with others. Likewise, the use of the n-word in America is a similar situation. Many rappers use this term now as a means of endearment, but we must be conscious of the implications of our words, especially those that have painful histories. The key is to be aware. If we are trying to reconcile with one another, we must choose our words carefully, and again, this relates to the concept of Ubuntu. In short, I don't say offensive words to others because I don't want people to use words that are offensive to me.
JF What is your favorite memory from the fifty-year anniversary of desegregation celebration?
CHG: It was such a positive experience overall; so it is hard to condense it. I have many fond memories of the celebration, but I did particularly love the opening reception when my eyes panned a room filled with a rainbow of faces all celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of desegregation at UGA. It also touched me to know that people walked two miles in the snow and ice just to hear my lecture. I also had the opportunity to give a lecture in Myers, my former dormitory, and that was special. Even though they had to move the time of that lecture due to the weather, students poured into the room to hear me speak. The beauty of the desegregation celebration even extended beyond the campus. At the airport, a TSA worker recognized me and gave me a hug. Additionally, a black man in the airport came up to me and said that he graduated from UGA in 1979. He said, 'I am a heart surgeon because of you.' That was amazing to hear. I was just running into black Dawgs everywhere!
JF: What advice would you give to a budding journalist?
CHG: It's a little more difficult to give advice now because the field is at such a crossroads, and journalism is having a rough time defining itself. Nevertheless, I just give the same advice that I gave before these challenges began, which is to first understand the craft and then understand the world. Understanding the craft involves learning the basics such as how to write a lead and using basic subject/verb agreement. It may sound silly, but at the end of the day, the people who will be recognized and respected are those who have mastered the craft. On the same level of importance, journalists need to be educated about the world, understand it, and interpret it. World policy cannot exist in a vacuum - that's why revolution begins - because at some point policy makers failed to understand and listen to their people. Also, a journalist should examine his or her own motives. Do you want to help people understand the world, or do you just want to be famous and make a lot of money?
JF: Thank you so much Ms. Hunter-Gault! This has been amazing.
JoyEllen Freeman is a sophomore at The University of Georgia. She is pursuing dual degrees in English and English Education. As an undergraduate researcher, she conducts research for the Civil Rights Digital Library. In her spare time, she loves to watch movies, listen to music, play the piano, and talk about the Civil Rights Movement.