Interviewer: Louis Massiah
Production Team: C
Interview Date: April 18, 1989
Camera Rolls: 3094-3096
Sound Rolls: 343
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Karima Jordon, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 18, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
When did you first begin to think yourself as an American of African ancestry? You're first sort of consciousness of being and African American?
When I was in fifth grade and I had my first Black teacher, ah, that's Mr. Sorese[SIC].
Could you just make sure you rephrase it as a question.
OK, the first time, I, ah, really realized that I was an African American not a Negro American was when I was in the fifth grade, ah, I had a Black teacher named John Sorese[SIC] and he would tell us that we were not Indians. We were not Negroes. We were African-Americans. Caused a lot of controversy with my grandmother who went up to school and told him, I was not an African-American, I was a Indian, but, ah, he convinced me I was African-American.
Can we stop for a second.
Remember to rephrase the questions.
OK, once again, when did you first begin to think of yourself as an American of African ancestry? When did you first think of yourself as an African American?
The first time I thought of myself as a African American was when I was in the fifth grade and I had my fist Black teacher, John Sorese[SIC] who told us we were not Negroes, because Negroes didn't come from anywhere. We were not Indians because our cheekbones weren't high enough. And we were African. And he told us we were African Americans. It caused a lot of controversy between him and my grandmother but he convinced me I was an African American.
How did you get your name? If you could tell the whole story about your first name, the first name you choose for yourself, and the name you have now.
Well, somewhere at Pratt, when we were learning about African culture, there's a book on Mali-Songhay and another African, ancient African civilization. And it had a story about Nabaweya, Black woman prophet, and my name was really Nabaweya Wayusi and Weusi just meant Black. Ah, I met a Muslim brother one day who told me I was not a Black woman prophet, because I couldn't prophesize[SIC] anything, so he called me Nab- Karima. So, my name went from Nabi, Nabaweya to Karima. Because no one said Nabaweya, everybody called me Nabi.
Could you tell the story of wearing your first Afro at the Halloween party. Just, just start from the beginning.
Well, we had a Halloween party and I wanted to come as a African American or African really. And, ah, my mother really opposed that because that meant I had to wear an Afro. So, in order for me to wear an Afro, I had to have shorter hair. So I took the curl, the straightening curl and fired it up to as hot as it can get and just brushed it all over my head and it all fell off and I washed it and instant Afro. It didn't look great but it was an Afro. I didn't care.
And then what happened after that?
Well, she was a little upset and I had to wear it like that until my aunt had a beautician just cut it short and made it an Afro. And it's been like that since.
OK, when did you first become aware that there was a struggle going on at your school, that is there was an effort to have more control by community?
When the teachers went out on strike.
OK, and make sure you rephrase the question once again.
OK. I remembered, my first awareness that there was a controversy or that there was community control or anything was when the teachers went out on strike and the Black teachers decided to keep the s- schools open, um, when I saw the police outside the school and they turned our playground into a police precinct, when I saw the police across the street on the row houses on top, they were on top of the roofs and the helicopters and, that's when, it comes pretty fast that there's something going on.
Was there any time before the strike that you became aware of the struggle going on at your school?
Not really. It wasn't really a struggle that was brought out to the students. It wasn't until the teachers decided that their security and their pay meant more than whether I passed the, ah, Regents Exams or not, that it started affecting me and then I became aware of it.
Could you describe the events at Junior High School 271 around the death of Martin Luther King? Your assembly, just sort of talk me through that.
Well, the assembly, what happened is, I think previous to that we had had a teacher's strike and, ah, at that point you're more aware of your Black leaders, ah, and Martin, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X was one of them. And one of the things that I, ah, had a chance to listen to was Malcolm X, A Ballot and a Bullet. And to me that differentiated, well, that was the difference between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King was the ballot and the bullet. And when they killed Martin Luther King, they killed the ballot, so they left no other thing for us to do but to go for the bullet. And that day we had a big riot in school. And, ah, I remember Les Campbell in the assembly. Everyone was angry. We wrote on the wall, "Avenge King", "Kill Whitey," ah, teachers got upset. They, the White teachers claimed that they were being beat up some of them and some of them was hit by flying debris. I never saw anyone throw anything but maybe it did happen. And, ah, I remember Les Campbell telling us, "If you're going to riot this time, don't, ah, don't steal toothpaste because that won't stop a bullet." I'm sure that's the, the most famous thing from that whole assembly.
Actually we may go back to that again.
Yeah, he'll kill me.
All right. Fall of '68, that's when the big strikes were going on, what was it like going to school? Could you talk about, you know, how your day began.
OK, fall of '68, what was it like going to school then? Could you describe your morning and what you saw in and around that Junior High School 271?
I was totally amazed to know, get up in the morning, walk, meet my friend Cia. We get to school and first thing, on the block is the school on Howard, We came in from the Howard side, Howard Avenue side, and, ah, we had to go through barricades to get to the school and we'd look upon on the rooftops, across the street from school, the cops were with their helmet gear and riot, their riot helmets and their night sticks and helicopters and, and the playground was converted into a precinct and walking up to the school you have just mass confusion. You have the community people out there. You have the UFT. You have the Black teachers on the inside. It was, you were just amazed. You couldn't believe this, this was happening, you know and you just went to school.**
Are there any particular scenes or incidents that you remember seeing inside the school?
The scene that I remember is in front of the school, the main entrance, ah, the police keeping out the community people, me standing on the stairs looking down into this crowd and just seeing all the police and helicopters. I mean they had their guns ready to fire, ah, it was just, you just couldn't believe it. It was just amazement. It was like someone was filming a movie or something.
Who do you think the police were protecting?
The UFT teachers.
If you could rephrase the question.
The police were protecting the UFT teachers, that's who they were protecting. They definitely were not protecting me or the community people. We belonged there. UFT teachers decided to be the outsiders.
What was the difference between the new teachers coming in, the teachers from the African American Teachers Association and the old teachers? What was the difference in what they taught, their attitudes?
Well, you have to understand, the difference between the new teachers and the old teachers, number one, you had very few Black teachers in the school, at that time. Number two, this was, ah, the end of the second strike. There was a lot of activity going around. So basically, as a student, you were more curious as to why this was happening than you were as, ah, you didn't really, the curiosity was more to why it was happening rather than who discovered America, you know, Christopher Columbus. So the teachers were addressing more and more those questions and also you, as a student, were willing to believe them more than UFT teachers because they were the ones who were conc- the Black teachers were the ones who were concerned as to whether you passed your Regents Exams or your classes and not, not the UFT teachers that, that point, they were very hostile toward the students too. All of them, they were very hostile and they acted like automatically we were hostile towards them. But they made their choice, not the Black teachers.
Again, further, what was it like having so many more Black teachers inside Junior High School 271?
Well, you learned a lot more, there was a lot more, you learned a lot more. Ah, you, you identified more. You learned that teachers were human beings, not some abstract, ah, something. They stayed after school. At 3 o'clock they didn't run downstairs and punch out. You know they gave you more time. I mean it was, it was more of a, You felt more accepted. You weren't an outsider in your own school. They were part of your environment. I mean they were Black. You can identify with them and they can identify with you. It's as simple as that. There's no big mystery, you know**.
Could you talk about the bulletin board that you and Cia created? Just describe that.
Well, the bulletin board was, ah, very graphic, very nice, ah. It had a Black Uncle Sam, saying that the Liberation Army Wants You. Ah, had a lot of, ah, Emory from the Panther Party, a lot of his, it was a collage of Emory's work, ah, poetry from Cia. She had her poem, poem about "Hey, Mr. Jew man with that yarmulke on your head," ah, had Guns Baby Guns and out of everything that was there that was the thing that was opposed, that we had clipped out the words, Guns Baby Guns from the Black Panther Party and that was the whole controversy behind that bulletin board.
OK, what were some of the other, extracurricular activities that you sort of took, that you were involved in, mainly as a member of the African American Students Association?
Well we did a lot of things like we, ah, got out a lot of mailings about meetings in the community. We, we were really assisting mailings, clerical things, things of that sort. My activities at African Students Association, Student didn't really start manifesting itself until I went to high school at Franklin K. Lane. Then we started organizing, ah, demonstrations and things of that sort.
Could you talk about some of your memories of any classes? You were talking before how a math class and science class and shop class, there was, you know, an African consciousness and a consciousness generally. So, what are some of your memories of classes during the strike?
Some of my memories of the classes during the strike were, ah, you try to have science, you know, but there, just can't have a science, ah, biology class with all the political science going out so you basically have a political science. Because you, as a student, you have to know why these, these things are happening. So, everything became more a political thing no matter what it was. If it was Miss Magnere's[SIC] English class, either she'll, part of the class is talking about that, the other part now is focusing on Langston Hughes. If it was Mr. Magnere's[SIC] shop class, you know, part, even while you're constructing whatever your constructing in shop, your still talking about what's going on outside, why is it happening? Ah, no debate, it's, just, just discussion. History class, with Al Vann, became more of a political science. And it was healthy. This information was needed. You know, we, you know, I don't think the White teachers and, and matter of fact, with the White teachers, you didn't discuss these things. You didn't, didn't bother to even ask. They didn't volunteer any information either.
Great. Good. How was the strike, you were an eighth grader, or were a ninth grader by then.
Eight and ninth grade.
Eight and ninth, how was the strike affecting your plans? How was that affecting your studies?
Well, we missed, the strike affected our studies because we missed a lot of school. Ah, we did take, we still were responsible for the Res- Regents Exams. But you didn't see any further than what was happening then, because, ah, what was happening right then, during the teacher's strike was telling you that no matter what you did as a Black kid, it really didn't matter. So, I really don't remember any aspirations from that point to the next point. I knew I had to go to high school. I remember getting my final report card home in the mail. Ah, very few classes did I go to really. There weren't any. There really wasn't a formal school. So we really didn't have, there was just too many in, interruptions to have school. Your school was what's happen, was happening in the community. Every single day was a new day, was a new thing. You didn't know what to expect and that happened every day.
I'm also going to ask you again. I don't know if we'll have a chance on this roll but we'll try it.
You were born Theresa Jordon. How did you, how did you get your name?
I was born Theresa Jordon that's true. But slaves names was out. You know, you remember, Jordon was the slave master's name and Theresa was some, I don't know. So everybody adopted African names. I adopted mine from a book that I, in a summer program, I read a book on African civilizations and one of the women in that book was Nabaweya and so I though Nabaweya was a great name and was woman prophet. And Weusi, my name was Nabaweya Weusi, Weusi meant Black. So, ah, I adopted that name. Everybody called me Nabi. But I met an African brother who said to me that I was not an African prophet, a woman prophet, and that was sacrilege, you know, so he decided to name me Karima, which is a person in the Koran who did good deeds for the prophet Mohammed. So I didn't oppose to it. One name to me was better, just as good as the other, as long as it was African. So I kept the name Karima.
Great. Wonderful. Could you talk about the day you, Martin Luther King died and how you heard about and then what happened in school?
What happened when Martin Luther King died was, ah, pretty devastating to us. I knew the moment I got into school, something was going to happen. And I think, right after home room period, was when all hell broke loose and, ah, we just throw chairs around, wrote on the walls, "Avenge King", "Kill Whitey" and they, ah, a big assembly was called and I do remember Roy Innes being there, Les Campbell, I'm not sure but Rhody McCoy was there. It was a lot of, like, we all gathered in the, ah, assembly and of course everybody is, is devastated from the news and, ah, we were told not to riot. Ah, we were told if we were going to riot not to steal toothpaste because toothpaste don't stop bullets. And that's what I remember from that.
OK, once we're inside the auditorium. Could you describe, this is the day after Martin Luther King has been assassinated. Could you tell us what happened?
Oh, there was a lot of screams about Black Power and, ah.
And if you could rephrase the question, I'm sorry.
What happened inside the assembly was, ah, was electricity, there was a lot screams of "Black Power" and "Kill Whitey", just a lot of, just a lot of hurt and, being expressed, ah, ah, Les Campbell gave a long speech. I can't remember everything that was said in the speech. I remember Roy Innes was there. He said a few words. And I think Rhody McCoy was there. A lot of, ah, Sonny Carson[SIC] was there, ah, just a lot of people were there and one of the things I do remember from that assembly is that "If you're going to riot, don't steal toothpaste because it doesn't stop bullets." And, ah, I think that's afterwards we dispersed. I don't remember going into the community and breaking windows or anything. But, ah, I'm sure we just went home from there. I'm not, can't remember any other activity.
OK. Could you tell me about some of the activities that you and Cia did in the school? I want you to tell the bulletin board story again.
OK. Cia and I had a very unique situation. We were two students who had access to the school when all of the students could not have that access. Ah, we, we, ah, we, one of the things we did was we, ah, put up a bulletin board. Ah, the bulletin board had, was a collage of different poetries, different clippings from the Black Panther Party. We had a picture of a Black Uncle Sam that says, "The Black Liberation Army Wants You." We had, ah, a little clipping from the Black Panther Party, Party paper that said, "Guns, Baby, Guns" and something by H. Rap Brown. It was just collage of poetry and art and things of that sort. That, out of everything that was on that bulletin board, the "Guns, Baby, Guns" is the part that made the newspaper and they didn't, they wanted us to take that down. We took it down because if we didn't take that down the whole, ah, bulletin board would have to be dismantled. But we did things like that. We had access and no one questioned our access. We kind of ran the school.
OK. You had a number of new African American teachers in the schools then. Some people have said that these teachers were teaching hate. Was that true?
Did these teachers teach hate? They didn't teach hate. They didn't have to teach hate. Ah, the police, the UFT teachers, the media, how they reported what was going on, they taught us that, not to hate, but they taught us that, ah, we weren't worth anything. What the Black teachers did do was to broaden us, our perspective of looking at things. We were no longer members of the small community called Ocean Hill-Brownsville. We were broadened to W.E.B. DuBois, his readings, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, ah, Marcus Garvey, ah, ah, H. Rap Brown, ah, ah, Mao Tse-Tung, The Red Book. I mean we became international and it was a good thing because Black people are the Third World. The Third World is much larger than European history**. They brought us back to ancient, ancient African history, I mean ancient world history which didn't any longer start at Rome. It started with the Benin society, it's smelting of ore and silver and gold and things of that sort. Ah, we became much larger than just the community and, till today, when I look at things, I look at it from an international perspective. And that was what those teachers taught us. They, hate was like, that was the least, I mean, why worry about hate?
OK, wonderful. Once again could you just tell the Afro story again. Just start, when did you first decide that you wanted to wear your hair in an Afro?
Well, we had a, ah, a party, a Halloween party and I had bought some African material, well it wasn't really African material, it was just some material. I was going to wrap it up and I needed to have my hair in an Afro and my mother would not let me wear an Afro, absolutely not. So I decided that the only way I can wear an Afro is if my hair was shorter. So I took the straightening comb and fired it up till it was real red. And I just burnt all the hair around to about ear length and washed it and I had instant Afro except that it was not really well kept at all but it was my first Afro and I wore it with pride. And my aunt, who is a little hipper than my mother, and her beautician really saw and felt sorry for me and cut it down to a real nice Afro. But my mother today still has not forgiven me for, you know, burning out my hair. But I still wear my Afro with pride.