We have heard from Rev. Dr. Charles E. Becknell, Sr. before.
In January of 2021, he was interviewed by the Albuquerque Journal to answer questions from his perspective about what is next for the Black community in New Mexico.
Although we were originally going to meet in person, a snowstorm ruined those plans. Our conversation was, instead, conducted by telephone – me, gingerly typing so my iPad could record Rev. Dr. Becknell’s voice and the man himself, engaged in a well-practiced recitation of events from his youth.
I met the Rev. Dr. when I first moved to Albuquerque in 2019 and I was excited to learn more from his perspective: What was it like to be a Black man in New Mexico “before [I] was a twinkle in [my] daddy’s eye,” as he put it?
As a Black New Mexican from Hobbs, most of his youth was shaped by Texan politics and policies. The Rev. Dr. describes many offenses in his segregated hometown with the resounding dismissal of “I’m sorry, we can’t serve colored people; that is policy coming out of Dallas.” In one incident he described, he accompanied a group of school friends to a restaurant where one of the young men’s mothers worked. They walked through the front door to hand over the mother’s car keys and the woman was subsequently fired because they did not go through the back.
Stories of dumping rocks and ice from the balconies of movie theaters onto white patrons to have access to the first floor, calling the district attorney on every restaurant that refused to serve him and his friends, nuns calling white parents to remove their daughters from St. Joseph’s College for dating Black men; he holds all of these memories and has published them in No Challenge–No Change: Growing Up Black in New Mexico, in which he discusses this part of New Mexican history with a hope for future change.
Yet, when I asked Rev. Dr. Becknell if he considered what he was doing then activism or if the activist part came later, he told me what they were doing then was acting on what they knew wasn’t right. For example, when he entered an integrated school for the first time and the white female teacher asked what all the students did over the summer. Reverend Becknell answered that he read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and she said “Oh, no, you people aren’t ready for that yet.” He mused that she may have been referring to students his age but added it probably would not have stuck with him if he didn’t feel the racial charge behind her words. He knew it wasn’t right.
Rev. Dr. Becknell, Sr. has been a part of the re-telling of recent Black history in the state of New Mexico since his role as the first director of the Africana Studies program at University of New Mexico in 1969. He is State President of the Southern Leadership Conference and was a member of the New Mexico Black Leadership Conference in 1975. When I asked him about his teaching experiences outside of the university, he shared that he taught the first Black history class in 1969 at Albuquerque High School.
So, what could I – a woman from the other side of the country with a totally different upbringing and experience – have taken away from this phone call?
In my short time in New Mexico, much of my perspective has been shaped by the pandemic. However, one thing that lingers is that much of what contemporaries of Rev. Dr. Becknell, Sr. pushed for in New Mexico is under threat. Fortunately, the state is experiencing relative progress with the passing of what is commonly called the Creating a Respectful World for Natural Hair (C.R.O.W.N.) Act. The CROWN Act passed here as HB29 or No School Discrimination for Hair; it is inspired by the original CROWN Act but is not called CROWN in New Mexico.
However, the New Mexico Voting Rights Act has had to be actively defended by the Black community in New Mexico. Although New Mexican schools have been integrated for some time, the Black Education Act – which has been brought to the fore multiple times over the years – was only signed into law in 2021.
As an instructor in the Africana Studies program that Becknell directed, students enter The African Diaspora in the Southwest woefully unprepared. What happened to the Black history course Becknell taught at Albuquerque High School? At a textbook review I attended in 2019, the books on New Mexican history reflected less than two pages of the history of people of African descent in this state and the texts on global history for all non-Europeans were even less complete.
Rev. Dr. Becknell articulated that he has seen change in New Mexico, and I would like to join him in his hope that things will continue to improve.
“There are a lot of people who don’t have a sense of history of what was before,” he said. “A lot of our history is oral history, it is passed down. But if it is not in writing, people say it is debatable whether it has happened or not.”
For the history we actively create today, oral, written or otherwise, one thing remains true: if there is no challenge, there is no change.
*S. F. Means, PhD is a teacher, writer, and scholar living and working in Albuquerque.