The Year In Race: Saying Goodbye

Dec 27, 2017
Originally published on December 27, 2017 11:18 pm

The world lost a lot of notable people this year, and it feels as if they're departing even more quickly as the year runs out. Activist/humanitarian Dick Gregory, actress/singer Della Reese, musicians Fats Domino, Al Jarreau, Geri Allen and Dave Valentin were all well-known names. So was journalist Roger Wilkins.

And so at year's end we've compiled our own Code Switch list. It's not comprehensive; instead, we wanted to spotlight some of the people we might not have known as well, and share them with you.

  • Sheila Abdus-Salaam was the first African-American woman and the first Muslim to serve on the New York State Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. Judge Abdus-Salaam's death became news in April, when her body was discovered in the Hudson River not far from her Manhattan home. After dismissing speculation about foul play, authorities have tentatively indicated that her death may have been a suicide, perhaps the result of myriad pressures associated with the job, or distress over the deaths of her mother and brother, who had both died a few years earlier. Her family rejected that explanation. She was 65.
  • Simeon Booker was often referred to as the dean of Washington's black press corps. Booker's first trip into the Deep South commanded national attention: He chronicled the aftermath of 14-year-old Emmett Till's murder in 1955. Till, a Chicago boy, had been visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was abducted, tortured and killed by two white men. Booker's reports from the scene and the trial that followed galvanized the nation. He went on to have a long and storied career covering the civil rights movement and, later, the rise of black political power as the Washington bureau chief of Jet and Ebony magazines. His 2013 memoir, Shocking The Conscience, was full of behind-the-scenes stories of the war for equality. Booker, who died earlier this month, was 99.
  • Opera singer Barbara Smith Conrad died in May. She was 79. Conrad grew up in Texas and was one of a few African-American students to be admitted to the University of Texas at Austin in 1956. She graduated with a degree in music, despite a rocky interlude (the university removed her from a starring opera role she'd earned as a sophomore because it feared outrage if she played opposite her white co-star), and went on to perform in opera houses in the U.S. and Europe. A few years ago, she returned to Texas, where she was honored by the legislature for her cultural contributions and was offered a public apology for her undergraduate experience. That's chronicled in When I Rise, a documentary about Conrad's life and times.
  • Barkley L. Hendricks, a fine arts painter whose hallmark was capturing "regular" African-Americans in poses and backgrounds reminiscent of classical portraits from centuries earlier, died in April at age 72. Hendricks began to paint portraits after touring Europe as a young man, and realized that people of color were represented infrequently, if at all, in works of the masters. His portraits, initially painted when the Black Pride movement was ascendant, presented black Americans as assured, even regal. He didn't care what his peers were doing, or what the current trends were, he told the Brooklyn Rail. "I was dealing with what I wanted to do. Period." His influence can be felt in the Renaissance-flavored work of Kehinde Wiley and the calmly elegant portraits of Amy Sherald, the two artists Barack and Michelle Obama chose to paint their official portraits that will hang in the National Portrait Gallery.
  • Ahmed Kathrada was an anti-apartheid activist and Nelson Mandela's good friend and cell mate for 26 years, 18 of them in the infamous prison on Robben Island. Kathrada was a life-long activist whose activism eventually ended him up on Robben Island, a bleak spot off the coast of Cape Town. For their entire stay, Kathrada told The New York Times, the powers that be "tried to instill into our minds that we would be forgotten in a few years' time." Instead, Kathrada earned four university degrees in prison, readying himself to make history. Freed in 1989 at age 60, Kathrada remained a loyal member of the African National Congress (ANC) and served as tour guide to Margaret Thatcher, Beyoncé and Barack Obama when they visited his and Mandela's old haunts. He was one of the speakers chosen to speak at Nelson Mandela's funeral. Kathrada died in March at age 87.
  • Srinivas Kuchibhotla made headlines earlier this year when he was shot and killed in Kansas by a man who screamed at him to "get out of [his] country." But Kuchibhotla's friends and family want the 32-year-old native of India to be remembered for his inclusive and positive nature. He was at a bar with co-workers on Feb. 22 when he and two friends were accosted and shot. Kuchibhotla's death spurred outrage over anti-immigrant sentiment and attacks on immigrants and people of color. At his funeral in Hyderabad, India, some mourners focused their anger on President Trump. "Trump, down, down!" they chanted, according to The New York Times. "Down with racism! Down with hatred!" Kuchibhtola's wife, Sunayana Dumala, described him in a Facebook post following his death as man who had great respect for his elders, as well as a "smile for every one." Since Kuchibhotla's death, Dumala has been outspoken on topics including racial bigotry and violence and immigration. When Kuchibhotla was killed, Dumala's residency status was terminated, putting her at risk for deportation.
  • For years, Aaron Lee used the pen name "Arun Likhati" to post entries to his blog Angry Asian Buddhist. Lee's online persona wasn't always angry, though. He was interested in trying to create a community and space for Asian-Americans who are Buddhist. He had identified a tension many of his peers were experiencing: Though there are many Asian Buddhists in the United States, some Asian-Americans didn't feel welcome in Buddhist communities that are mostly white. His writing posed thoughtful questions and ideas, and his posts delved into topics including poor data collection of Asian Americans and Buddhists and whether Asian Buddhists meditate. In December 2016, nearly a year before his death, Lee wrote about his cancer diagnosis. He had metastatic non-Hodgkin lymphoma that had spread throughout his body, he wrote, and he was in need of stem cell donors. But his diverse ancestry made it tough to find a match in time. The grim prognosis led him to get more serious about Buddhism and he made it his goal to "be the refuge you wish to see in this world." Based on the many remembrances his friends, family and followers have left in his wake, it seems as though he has created a refuge for many. Lee died on Oct. 21 at age 34.
  • Haruo Nakajima's face isn't known to many Americans, but if you're a fan of Godzilla movies, you've seen him. As a 25 year-old actor in 1954, he donned a 200-pound rubber suit and became Godzilla. Ultimately, he'd end up starring in 12 Godzilla movies. Nakajima said he gave the monster its trademark walk by studying the lumbering gait of bears and elephants at the zoo. He hung up the rubber suit in 1973, but became a celebrity fixture on the comic book and movie convention circuit. The actor died in August at age 88.
  • Pancho Segura was a tennis champion in the 1940s and 50s and later a coach. Born in Equador to an impoverished family with 10 children, Segura suffered from rickets and malnutrition as a child; the former gave him the traditional bow-legged profile associated with the disease. As a kid, he worked as a ball boy at his hometown tennis club, and picked up a racquet to hit a few balls. He quickly caught onto the game and developed a blazing-fast two-handed forehand that would become his signature. Eventually he became a champion in South America. As a young man he immigrated to the U.S., where he won several championships and later became a tennis coach. His most famous pupil was Jimmy Connors. Segura believed tennis was one of the great social levelers. He told ESPN, "it doesn't take more than a racket and a heart to play this game. It's a great test of democracy in action." Segura died in November at age 96.
  • Christopher Wong Won — you might know him as Fresh Kid Ice — was a pioneer rapper of Cantonese and Trinidadian descent. He co-founded of the seminal rap group 2 Live Crew. The group's third album As Nasty as They Wanna Be, was their most memorable: authorities in Broward County, Fla., declared the album obscene and promised to arrest record store owners that sold it; a local judge supported that. The group sued to overturn the ruling and later won on appeal. Won later left 2 Live Crew to form his own label — Chinaman Records. (He often referred to himself as Chinaman when he rapped.) He died in Miami in July at age 53.

That's our sampling of people who died this year. Pour one out for them. And check The Year In Race on this week's podcast — we paid tribute to a few more people who are now gone, but hardly forgotten.

NPR's Kat Chow contributed to this report.

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