Stamford Advocate (Sunday)
CT local pens anti-racist memoir
‘REBELLION, 1967’ DETAILS AUTHOR’S EXPERIENCES AS A CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST
Janet Luongo’s “Rebellion, 1967” is decades in the making. A New York City native, Luongo wrote multiple drafts over her lifetime, rediscovering her own writing during pivotal life moments.
“I got busy with my life: finishing my degree, teaching, and marrying a man I loved who appreciated how I’d healed myself. I kept the manuscript hidden until 1978 when we moved to Switzerland. Unpacking and re-reading it, I felt moved by the struggles of my adolescent self. I almost heard her saying ‘It’s a damn good story. Finish it. Telling the truth will help others get through hard times.’ I typed out the second draft. When my son was born, it went back under the bed,” Luongo wrote via email.
In 2011, her son was an adult and her mother had passed. When she realized neither of these important people in her life knew about her struggles in the 60s, she picked up her pen.
“Once again, I felt the girl of my youth calling me. ‘You’re free now. NOW is the time to tell the truth,’” she said.
Luongo and her husband moved to Connecticut in 1986, after 11 years living abroad in Switzerland and now live in Norwalk. She’s had her own paintings exhibited in Paris and Geneva and has had a 20-year career as a museum educator in Bridgeport at the Discovery Museum of Art and Science and then at the Housatonic Museum of Art. She’s also been a lifelong educator, and most recently taught classes in art history and public speaking at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.
She’s worked with her Unitarian Universalist Church to create and implement ant-racist programs and curriculums.
Her book, “Rebellion, 1967” is about her experiences as a civil rights activist in the 1960s. It’s a story of love and loss, danger and learning and, of course, rebellion.
What inspired you to write “Rebellion, 1967”?
I honestly feel that I was less inspired and more driven to write my memoir. I needed to come to terms with dysfunction in my family and turbulence in society the year I came of age.
In 1970, I came upon my journals from my rebellious year, 1967. Rereading the harrowing circumstances made me think, This is really great material. I smiled. I looked honestly at who I was and what I’d done, and crafted multiple journal entries into one story.
In the book, you describe the anti-racist role some white women took on during the Civil Rights Movement. What kind of advice would you give to white women today about being allies to the Black community? Do you feel there is a culture of coopting Black spaces and culture?
I think “allies,” and “allyship” are good concepts, but lately I’m hearing from People of Color (POC) that a better aim is to join a “coalition.” What’s most important is that white people who want to “help,” do not come off as White Saviors, thinking we should lead Black folks. When we join with our sisters and brothers in solidarity, we need to listen. Listen with depth and curiosity and openness. Then white folks need to follow Black folks’ lead, and if asked, to lend the skills, contacts, talents and treasures they request.
In 1965, in New York City, I met the editor of The Liberator, a Black nationalist magazine at a civil rights event. I asked, as a white girl, “What can I do?” The answer surprised me. He said, “Work with your own people.” His point was that racism is not a Black problem; it is a white problem, a poison that white people harbor, often subconsciously, that can spurt out in hurtful ways.
As far as co-opting Black spaces and culture, I am open to learning more. I’m someone who for many years has appreciated Black culture - music, books, films, art. I think it’s a good thing for white people to turn to Black artists and writers to educate ourselves about the history and lives of POC. I think what’s wrong is when white folks pat themselves on the back for being “woke” without doing the necessary self-reflection to understand the privileges of white skin, and make “performative” empty gestures, but take no solid action to work for real change.
How did you come to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and what was it like?
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was my hero from the moment I heard on TV his voice booming over the mall in Washington, D.C., in 1963. I was only 14 but wished I could magically transport myself to the crowd marching for freedom and jobs. The year I started City College of NY, a Black friend from Jamaica High School invited me to join a community activist who’d formed a multi-racial youth group in South Jamaica. I was glad to work on securing grants from the new Great Society and War on Poverty that President Johnson had initiated under pressure from Dr. King.
On April 4, 1967, I found my chance to hear Martin Luther King Jr. live when I attended his speech at Riverside Church in Manhattan.
He combined the causes of civil rights and peace, which was controversial to some, but to me it made complete sense. I believe most issues are interconnected. The following week, I marched with Dr. King and Dr. Spock any many celebrities like Pete Seeger, from Central Park to the United Nation for the cause of justice and peace.
What are the hard truths our country needs to acknowledge in order to continue the fight against racism?
It would be great to just start with historical facts. Yes, it’s a fact that the first enslaved person was sold in America in 1619. Followed by a brutal system of slavery, which built the wealth of our country off the back-breaking labor of kidnapped Africans, while denying them rights to basic humanity, such as keeping their families together. Emancipation was followed by a failed Reconstruction, Ku Klux Klan terrorism and lynching, and Jim Crow laws kept Black Americans segregated, incarcerated, and blocked from equal opportunity in education, housing and jobs.
Yes, we need to teach students about the 1921 white race riot in Tulsa, when the thriving business district and neighborhoods of Black folks were ransacked and burnt to the ground. We say we believe in the American ideals in our pledge; will we work for liberty and justice for all? We say we value truth and science; will we call out lies and embrace the scientific findings of the human genome project that DNA in humans is 99.9% the same?
What is the number one thing you want people to take away from your book?
Dear reader: With honesty and compassion, examine yourself, appreciate yourself, and express yourself in all your facets and uniqueness; and find connection and common ground with others. We make mistakes, we grow, we change for the better. The main thing I want you to know is we need to stick together.
For more information about “Rebellion, 1967” and Janet Luongo, visit janetluongo.com. “Rebellion, 1967” is available on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble and at most bookstores.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity with permission from Luongo.