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Tunisia News / Interview, African American History Month [ Mar 4 2000 ]


Working together for the betterment of humankind

The month of February was proclaimed Black History Month in the U.S- an initiative that seeks to acknowledge the participation of African Americans to the history and culture of the United States and to bring to mind their fight for freedom and equal rights. To mark the event, the American Centre in Tunis invited vocal performer and actress Lee-Alison Sibley for a series of venues in Tunisia. Ms.Sibley first went to Sfax and did a performance for students of American civilization before singing at the Espace Sophonisbe in Carthage and at the US Ambassador's residence in Sidi Bou Said. Before leaving Tunisia, Ms. Sibley talked to Tunisia News about her trip and her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. Excerpts

The visit is a part of events marking African American History Month. What message does your trip to Tunisia try to convey?

It is a way of expressing an ideology that really is not just confined to the African American but to all people- the idea that if one person is enslaved then no one is really free in the world. Unfortunately, in the year 2000 we still have slavery. It's the idea that you never give up, that you should sacrifice, struggle and do anything that you can do to help your fellow human beings achieve freedom. And freedom has many different definitions. For example, even though the emancipation proclamation was signed during the time of Abraham Lincoln it didn't mean that the black man was free at that time. Unless you have economic freedom, which means when you go to apply for a job you judged according to your qualifications and not your skin color, then you are not free.The reason that we need to remember all these things, recall the history and keep fighting for rights is to try to achieve economic freedom for all people.

How free do you think African Americans are as we enter the 21st century?

They are a lot freer than they were back in the 1960s when we finally got the Civil Rights Act. But I don't think we have got fair enough yet! We're getting there. It's much better than it used to be.

How did you become involved with the Civil Rights Movement?

My family was very active in the Civil Rights Movement. Cousins, aunts and uncles went down to the South to try and get the African Americans registered to vote in the '60s. I myself marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1967 and it was a wonderful experience because I felt that I was exercising democracy by protesting the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Dr. King was opposed to this involvement for many reasons one of which was that many of the soldiers that went off to Vietnam were black Americans, who could not have the education deferment that many white Americans were getting so that they didn't have to go into the army. Very sadly, exactly one year after my march with Dr. King in November 1968, I sang for his widow Coretta King in a memorial service after he was killed.

What kind of situation do you, as a white American woman, come across when speaking on behalf of African American, a community that, physically, you're not really part of?

I am not a part of this community but I am also a part of it at the same time.They are my brothers, I am their sister and we're all human beings. At some point in history, my people were enslaved. I have not come across any problems. But when I was invited to participate in African American History Month both in Jordan and here, I asked a good friend of mine who happens to be an African American, whether she thought there would be any problems with me representing the African American and her answer was: "No, Lee. Only idiots will have a problem with that!" I think there something really wonderful about somebody who is not black saying these things, singing the songs and speaking out because it is an indication that the issue is not just confined to black people. It should be more a matter everybody working together for the betterment of all mankind. We're all human beings and if you think of us as part of universe, we're a little speck of sand and we have limited resources; we have to share them. Unless we realize that we're in this together then it is not going to work and what kind of world are we going to turn over to our children?To answer your question I think partly these might people out there who would look at me and say "Why are you representing the African Americans? But deep in my heart I think that it doesn't matter what I look like: what only matters is what the message I bring."

In your brief tour in Tunisia, how aware were your audience about African American Issues

I guess the audiences that were invited to my various venues were people who already knew something about the history of African Americans. I'm sure that the students of American civilization have been some of the history as well. In all of my performances people were aware in varying degrees about the history of the black people. I think my explanation gave them a little more information. Even some Americans told me they learned things that they didn't know before.

What were the performances like?

They were singing and lectures combined. For example, I played the guitar and I sang songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Some of them were old songs and others were written in the '60s about the movement and its leaders. Before I started singing I gave a little background history of where the songs came from and I also described what the words of the song were. The songs tell stories of suffering race, and fighting for freedom and equal rights under the law. On several occasions I taught the audience the course of the song and asked them to join in which, happily, they did. In Sfax, the final song I sang was 'We shall overcome' which has become an international anthem of freedom for all mankind. When I asked the students if they had any questions for me there was one young man who asked if we could sing the same song again. And we did. As the students were leaving the hall some of them were still singing- and that made me feel really wonderful.

So, you are a singer, an actress and a teacher as well. How do you combine the three things together and what do they have in common?

Teachers are performers. They have to get up in front of their students and motivate them no matter how tired they are. Other than that I think music is such an intricate part of the human experience. Can you imagine life without music? Music is part of life and I think that using music when teaching enhances everything.I have been a professional performer for many years. I've been very lucky; I have traveled the world and I have been able to act, sing and have a wonderful time doing it making lots of friends all over the world.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Tunisia is a beautiful country. I didn't quite know how beautiful it was before I got here and I'm so glad I had the opportunity to visit it. The Tunisian people have been so warm, so welcoming and so accepting of the message I brought to them.

Interview conducted by Najwa Mekki