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Being Black in America: Sheila Johnson

In her words, an African American with local ties shares a first-person story about what it looks, feels and sounds like to be black in America.

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Continuing a conversation we’ve hosted since June, The News-Gazette asked African Americans with local connections to share their stories and solutions in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

Featured today: 1970 University of Illinois alumna and Black Entertainment Television co-founder SHEILA JOHNSON, who in 2000 became the first Black woman to make Forbes' Billionaires list.

If you’d like to share your story, email jdalessio@news-gazette.com. To view the entire series, click here.

Sheila Johnson

'Before we can fix race, we first have to fix ourselves'

By SHEILA JOHNSON

It’s what most everyone learns on day one of couples counseling. The key to any relationship is honest and open communication. Yet when it comes to the most nagging issue in our country’s history — race — it seems the very last thing we are able to do is communicate honestly.

If you get two people on the opposite side of the issue together, I promise you, within minutes, their conversation will spiral out of control, with both sides raging.

Yes, I am an African American. And, yes, I grew up the victim of racism — both overt and institutional. But I am also an American success story. When we sold the company that I helped start and I walked away in search of my next mountain to climb, I immediately became the star-spangled/red-white-and-blue poster child of the American Dream come true.

As such, I’ve long had one foot in either side of the line. I know racism, to be sure. I’ve felt it. I’ve heard it. And, as a young girl, I watched it slowly break my father’s spirit and rob him of his dream.

I know, too, however, that America is, at its core, a meritocracy, and that it rewards those who rise the highest and go the farthest. And I truly believe such merit-based success is one of the secrets of our greatness.

I am, in other words, something of a moderate on many issues.

But the reason I point this out is that I’m going to say something now that will upset a number of you — especially many of you White readers. Which is exactly why I’m going to say it. Because in order for us to fix racism, we first have to agree on (and come to grips with) certain historic absolutes.

We are a racist country, and we always have been.

Consider, while some may call slavery America’s “original sin,” what about what our forefathers did to countless Native Americans back in the day? How about some 12 million Native men, women and children killed through a combination of disease, slaughter, trickery and genocide?

You think the Native Americans scalped White settlers first? Think again. They did it much later in history, and only in retaliation to the bounty Connecticut and Massachusetts had placed on them — first for their heads, but then, for convenience sake, just for their scalps.

Or how about the GI Bill after World War II? Even though tens of thousands of African American soldiers shed blood, sweat and tears in defense of Whites back home, many of whom would have rather lynched them, the vast majority were legally excluded from receiving the kind of low-interest mortgages that many of their White war buddies used to buy their first home.

And even though some would have you believe it was through grit and determination that those White war veterans achieved such great success and wealth, in reality, it was the exploding equity in the house they’d bought with the government’s help so many years prior that catapulted them to such heights — the same help systemically denied many of the Black soldiers, sailors and flyboys who’d fought, and often died, side by side with them.

And this, of course, doesn’t even take into account the disproportionate number of Blacks now locked in our prisons, the outsized number of men and women of color killed each year by police, the idea that the Blackest city in our country (Washington, D.C.) and our most Latin holding (Puerto Rico) still have no representation in the U.S. Senate and only a single member in the House, or the truly bizarre notion that, in my lifetime, it was illegal for a White person to marry a Black one, but that (still, to this day) it is not a federal crime for a White person to lynch a Black one.

I bring these things up because, I promise you — and I believe this in my heart of hearts — before we can fix race, we first have to fix ourselves. We first have to come to grips with the extent to which we have always and continue to allow a mix of hatred, ignorance and generational racism — White and Black alike — to define us and how we view our fellow man.

We have to be willing to stand in front of the mirror and to be completely honest about who we see staring back at us.

Look, I love this country. As a classical musician, to this day, I cannot listen to Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land” and not be brought to tears by the image of a rich and bountiful land being settled, while behind it, homestead by homestead, a great and noble country is formed.

But please, my friends, we must stop kidding ourselves. We are not without sin. And at least one of those sins continues to haunt us to this day. It is the sin of denial. It is the sin of self-delusion. It is the sin of buying into the myth of America without also buying into the reality of America. Because it’s in the marriage of those two important and historical concepts — American’s myth and its reality — that our future greatness lies as a country.

We can and will get there. I know it. But first we have to be willing to accept our current flaws and our racist past, learn from them, and then move on as one, a better, stronger, more united nation.

Because at the end of the day, I ask you: How can we ever fix a problem if we’re not able to even talk about it?

If you’d like to share your story, email Editor Jeff D’Alessio at jdalessio@news-gazette.com.

UI School of Music alumna Sheila Johnson received the university’s Alumni Achievement Award in 2008. Among the Salamander Hotels and Resorts CEO’s claims to fame: becoming the first African American woman to be an owner or partner of three professional sports franchises (Washington’s Capitals, Wizards and Mystics).