Angel Harris grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, moved to Oregon when she was in middle school, went to college at Oregon State University and Linfield and works in a nursing home in Albany.
Harris, 42, also is the new president of the Corvallis-Albany branch of the NAACP. And she is happy to talk about the new position, Corvallis, racism, OSU, American history, communication and solutions. She is passionate, emotional and committed.
Here are some highlights from a 75-minute interview on Friday at the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center at OSU:
“I always feel like we are all in this together.”
“The first year I was here (Corvallis) I knew that this was going to be home for me. And I didn’t even know my husband yet.”
In the mid-1990s, during her freshman year at OSU, Harris participated in marches and boycotts because of the way Anita Hill was treated when she testified during the U.S. Supreme Court nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas. Hill faced a strong backlash.
“People defaced Anita Hill posters. A friend got urinated on. It was just one more thing. I got fed up. It was the first year I realized that racism wasn’t just an isolated event. We cried. You can be friends with someone for years and never know what they really feel. It was really hard."
“And you’ve got people who have never seen a black person in their life. We weren’t prepared. What am I doing here? You have to be a student and also a representative of my race. There were so many stereotypes out there. All they had seen were movies. People would go up and touch my hair … You have to ask first."
“I worked at the Cultural Center. I was my hall council president. I gave back, but I didn’t quite get it. With my white friends I could walk into a store and not be followed. We don’t even know what rights we have."
“I’ve been involved with the NAACP for the last five to six years as a member and on the executive team. President? That is the work. I can’t hide in the background anymore. When you put that president thing on … you have to be the one who does the hard stuff. I’m ready for the challenge. And it’s not just talk. We are going to do something about this. Working with kids and teachers. Now I can actually do something. I don’t want to see kids running with their tails between their legs.”
“When you are black you have to work extra hard to be perfect. And you still get called the n-word. We learned real quick that it doesn’t matter how hard you work. You can be president of the United States and still get called the n-word. We think that we’re in a ‘post-racial’ society. But we’re not. It’s all about building bridges. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
“I live here. I’ve grown here. Just because you have things you want to change in the community doesn’t mean you don’t love it. Let’s work it out. Let’s make things better. Let’s make Corvallis better.”
“I’m president but just one of many people who want to do something about it and make the world better. That's the way it was with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Things wouldn’t have happened if it was just him. You can’t be a lone ranger.”
“I wish I knew when I was a kid about all this.”
“I want to be able to look back and say I made it better.”
“We need to hold each other accountable. Even though we’re friends my friend still can say ‘Angel, you were wrong.’ Now I tell people ‘you have a responsibility to speak up.’ ”
Harris compared racism to cancer or multiple sclerosis.
“It doesn’t become real to you until it happens to someone you know. We have to combat the cancer that is racism. Why do we wait? Maybe it could have all changed before. The n-word is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s deeper than that. You’re dealing with people on a deeper level. People say it’s just words. It’s not. It’s more. That’s why I like to hear people’s stories, their perspectives, their perceptions.”
“It’s amazing what happens when you sit in a room with people and just start talking. You just start talking, and someone else picks up what you’re saying. And they start talking. No agenda. Just hear where their heart is and feel some empathy. You reach out and everybody you see just starts getting each other.”
“I want to give kids hope. If there was no hope I wouldn’t want to live here in the community. And I have more hope now than I have had in at least a few years.”