After graduating from the University of California-Los Angeles in 1972, Jacqueline Chanda spent 13 years studying and working abroad — seven years in France and six in Zambia.
She returned to the states in 1985 and felt disappointed in the progress that she witnessed compared with when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was alive. She could see it in the people, particularly how black women wore their hair.
Instead of Afros, which became popular as a powerful sign of black pride for many young people during the civil rights movement, African-Americans went back to straightening their hair. Black women’s changing hair style was a small but telling sign of how things were changing since King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
“I was really in shock,” said Chanda, who majored in art, studied at Sorbonne University, received her doctorate, held many impressive jobs and in 2011 was named the first African-American president of the Kansas City Art Institute.
In Europe, Chanda found what many African-Americans have discovered for more than a century — an acceptance and treatment as equal that wasn’t present here.
“They didn’t consider me African-American,” she said. “They considered me an American.”
In the states, she faced double scrutiny as an African-American and a woman. But it’s driven her to succeed and rise to many black firsts in her career.
Chanda, like other young African-Americans, felt the pull of opportunities never before imagined that the civil rights movement opened in addition to the generations-long push of the black community to do better and achieve more than was possible for anyone like her.
But the “look” and what people articulated when she returned to the United States indicated that what she still felt was waning with each new generation of blacks who were further removed from the struggle. “There was a feeling of lost ground,” said Chanda, who joins others for this column series looking at 50 years of civil rights advances while sharing a vision for the next half-century.
The losses are measured now in fewer African-Americans earning doctorates in sciences, the arts and other fields. The pipeline of African-Americans primed for executive positions has been declining steadily, jeopardizing future progress.
Chanda recalled that she never had a black instructor so she tries to be a mentor and create a welcoming environment for all art institute students.
Coming to the art institute is like coming home, said Chanda, who was born in Detroit. “I’m still sometimes amazed when I turn in the driveway, and it says president on the parking place and I pull in and it’s mine,” she said.
Chanda has her vision for the future. But then there’s reality.
“It would be nice 50 years from now that none of this will matter, and we can live life thinking about the quality of the individuals vs. the color of their skin,” she said. “I know we’re not there yet.”
The pipeline to the arts worries her now. The 2001 No Child Left Behind law’s emphasis on testing math and reading has cut out emphasis on the arts. If the flame is put out at younger ages, it is difficult to rekindle. We’re seeing that now.
Pursuing leadership jobs like hers also are possible. “There are other ways to find satisfaction in the arts,” Chanda said.
Young people have to be shown the options. Chanda also would like the outreach to include African-Americans. Often they get left out, and the art world suffers.
Chanda remains filled with the same hope for the present and future that her parents instilled in her during the civil rights movement. It fueled her career.
That hope, with the community’s renewed push, can make the next 50 years in America the greatest of all for the arts.