CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Ro Ane will speak of the changes in racial relations that he has observed over the decades since he was a schoolchild in Chicago in the 1930s.
Ro Ane relates stories of the civil rights struggle, from a personal perspective
Fifty-one years have passed since the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. Forty-four years have gone by since Martin Luther King Jr. wrote "Letter from Birmingham, Ala.," from a county jail. It has been 41 years since President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the legislation intended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of color, race, religion or national origin.
Black History Seminars
Class times: 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, and Feb. 16, 23 and 28
Place: African American Education Cultural Center, 1311 Kapiolani Blvd., Room 610 (in the Hawaiian Life Building, corner of Piikoi and Kapiolani)
Cost: $10 per session
It has been nearly 80 years since the first Black History Month, then called Negro History Week, was celebrated, on the second week of February in 1926.
Some would say not that much has changed socially: We still have a long way to go. Many of those who have lived long enough to witness these events over several decades still struggle to come to terms with past and present injustices.
As Ro Ane, nearly 80, has been fond of saying since childhood: "It don't make no sense."
Ro Ane, who only uses his surname, calls his life story one "of working up." Give him enough time and he could probably tell you of every monumental event of his life: meeting his first girlfriend, his experiences in Europe and Africa, his military stint, his divorce and remarriage. The same for African American history. He's been making notations of important events ever since elementary school in 1930s Chicago, a notoriously segregated city that has seen its share of racial tension.
Ro Ane will moderate a series of seminars on the African American experience this month, and it's his own ethnic group he would like to talk to most, especially young people who he says are often surprised at what he has to say or, worse, can't be bothered to listen.
"But if (young people) think I'm so unique, the problem is that there a lot of other people like me. You just don't know them. But I bet you have an uncle just like me."
RO ANE is not a Frederick Douglass or a Carl Stokes. He is just one individual of African American descent -- one who has seen many changes in the quest for civil rights.
He can tell you of all he's witnessed, and his own aspirations as a youth, carving out a life for himself in Chicago.
"I wanted to have a lot of firsts," he said. "I wanted to be the first African American makeup artist (in the mainstream); the first African American salesman in a men's clothing store." He actually began selling clothes out of his own living room, but went on to own a number of clothing stores.
Ro Ane grew up in Greater Chicago, one of nearly 240,000 African Americans living in the area. "We were poor like everyone else, it was the depression," he said.
Chicago was a city with a lively jazz and blues scene that had been receptive to blacks up through the early 1900s. The climate changed, though, with ethnic groups unofficially separated by neighborhood boundaries.
Past experiences with racism have stuck with him, though he wished they didn't. He saw a variety of attitudes toward blacks across the country during the years of segregation -- with the best treatment still not very good. In his early years, he worked for a band's road manager in the South. In Dallas he remembers a room with blacks and Hispanics standing on one side, Caucasians on the other. And there was a small Southern town where a white musician had to play behind a curtain while the black group was on stage.
"You could see the psychological division," he said.
Obstacles to racial equality aren't as obvious today, just more subtle, he said, with disparities in the workplace and other routine parts of life.
"Some lies are still perpetuated ... affirmative action never helped anything," he said.
Ro Ane grew up in an area of Chicago derogatively known, but accepted, as Jew Town. There was also a German Town, Little Italy, the Polish area -- and it was not so much an embracing of cultural identity.
One did not really cross lines in Chicago in those years, he said, but he did anyway, even if no one else knew it or cared about his routine.
"I expected to have some enjoyment," he said of traveling to movie theaters more than 30 blocks from home. "I was a curious person, adventurous. I wasn't afraid of things. I would go alone because I wanted to find out why things were the way they were -- but people wanted to beat you up."
Despite his talkativeness nowadays, Ro Ane was a very quiet person then, one who blended in easily among the six other members of his family.
He worked to overcome his introverted nature. "I had my own thoughts, but the only way you can get to know someone is through talking. If you don't talk, no one is ever going to get to know you."
Growing up, Ro Ane was of comparatively light complexion, with light-colored hair due to some Caucasian ancestry on his father's father's side. Few people questioned the light-skinned man with shorn hair when he traveled, though as he said, "it was obvious that I was mixed."
He wore his pride in his ethnic mix on his sleeve, telling anyone who was curious the details of his background. "In those days, if you had one drop of African American blood, you were 100 percent African American."
He said he wasn't usually harassed when traveling alone throughout the neighborhoods of Chicago. But he and friends would often be hassled if they traveled in groups, he said.
Ro Ane will tell you his was a normal, happy childhood: He grew up with confidence, welcomed at neighbors' family tables, and he remained innocent of boundaries. "I'm not a regimented person. Being unconventional has saved me from a lot of things."
Ro Ane inherited most of his beliefs from his father, especially the mental freedom in wanting to "being able to go where ever you wanted to go."
It also helped that he was tough, the guy with the bad attitude in the school yard. He actually quit school early, leaving home as a teenager. He would later earn his G.E.D.
He still remembers being passed over for a job at a major department store, which is still in existence today. He had wanted to be the first African American working the counter on the main floor in the men's department.
"It was my typical thinking," he said, admonishing himself with a small laugh. "Just because you think you're getting some job and it's about time they hired an African American, (does that mean) that they're ready?"
He did go back to the store a few weeks later, to find that an African American had been hired -- another "brown person," is how Ro Ane describes him, someone darker than him.
"The store had hired a brown person in the men's department in the basement. If they hired a brown guy, he was going to be the darkest guy they could find, so everyone would know."
But he was still pleased that a change occurred, within his view. "I felt good for that ... I can't pretend not to be human. I can't pretend not to care."