Fort McCoy News February 13, 2015

MLK obervance: 'See people as they want to be seen'

Public Affairs Staff

Many people and actions have helped shape his view of diversity, and the importance to "see people as they want to be seen," said Dr. Jonathan Overby.

Overby, a member of the doctoral faculty at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis., was the guest speaker for the Jan. 29 Fort McCoy observance of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in McCoy's Community Club. The ethnomusicologist, lecturer and lyric baritone said his father, King, and music were among his many influences.

photo for MLK observance
Guest speaker Dr. Jonathan Overby discusses life experiences during the Jan. 29 Fort McCoy observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in McCoy's Community Club.

"It's always humbling to come and speak to folks about Doctor King," Overby said. "It's his legacy of love and service to communities that inspired, in many ways, who I am today."

Overby was raised in Milwaukee in the 1950s and '60s. In those days, he said, plenty of things could influence a young African-American man, such as segregation, or the fear of others who were not like him. He said growing up in a diverse home, however, became his bedrock for how to look at life.

"My father was married to a white woman, and our home was filled with a lot of diversity," Overby said. "It was very natural for me in that environment. It seemed right because there was a lot of love in the house. We transcended beyond pigmentation and culture to become a family that was very close-knitted. It helped to shape my future."

Overby said his father also made sure he and his siblings understood the importance of patriotism.

"My dad was a World War II veteran. He rode a black stallion in northern Africa to combat Germans trying to get into that part of the world," Overby said.

Overby said he and his brothers never believed their dad participated in those actions in World War II until he showed them a photo.

"About 15 years ago — he died about five years ago — he pulled out this eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch glossy photograph," Overby said. "And there he is, on a beautiful black stallion, in full uniform. You could see the sands of northern Africa as a back drop.

"It made me realize my dad's sense of patriotism, as an African-American, and in spite of all the challenges in our nation, my dad loved this country," Overby said. "And he taught his sons to do the same."

He also learned about love of country in his Milwaukee neighborhood.

"When we were kids, (my father) would put VFW hats on all of us — I had four brothers — and march us around neighborhood," Overby said. "We had a uniform. It was a T-shirt, sneakers, jeans, an Army belt and the VFW hat that my dad got for all of us. We thought it was ridiculous.

"People would stare at us and we would march and march and march," he said. "Years later I realized that my dad, without saying a whole lot, was instilling in us his love for his country."

Besides lessons learned at home, the Catholic church he attended also influenced him.

"The Catholic church in the inner-city helped me see the people, who did not look like me, as being okay," Overby said. "(I learned) I don't have to fear them. I don't have to go around and change how I stand or how I communicate. I don't have to change who I am."

Overby said King believed hatred paralyzes, darkens and confuses life. Through all the interactions Overby has had with people in his life from many different cultures, and with King's message, he's learned the importance of accepting people for who they are.

"All of these interchanges with people who are different than me helped me to figure out who I was as a person, and that it was okay that I looked different, came from a different place, and in some cases, believed different things," Overby said. "That's the part of the wonder of this country. That is what Doctor King believed — that we could be different and yet celebrate our differences.

"We can embrace (other people) even though we don't completely understand them," Overby said. "And we can respect them even if we disagree. That's part of the fabric of our great nation, and Doctor King really believed that."

When Overby first went to college at San Francisco State University in the 1970s, he said he was a "naïve" music student, but he soon learned more about the "fabric of humanity." On one particular day at the school, he said he learned a valuable lesson from the university president.

"I saw these protests going on with Angela Davis on campus, the Black Panther Party, the Women's Liberation Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement — all were on campus one day," Overby said. "The president of the college, S.I. Hayakawa, walked through this crowd of all these angry, militant, you-name-it kinds of kids on campus, and went up to the stage and unplugged the microphone.

"Before he did this, he said it was an illegal gathering," said Overby, who also noted that Hayakawa was not very tall. "He was not afraid to be himself, and it taught me a very important lesson. It taught me that even in protest, even when you complain about something, there are positive, graceful ways to achieve the goals that you want."

Seeing Hayakawa in action also helped build his confidence, and soon Overby was helping make change in the university's music department.

"When I started doing recitals and I majored in music, I was troubled by the fact that all the repertoire, all the music we had to learn as kids as students, (was) all from European composers," Overby said. "There wasn't anyone who had an affiliation with western music, they were all classical European operatic singers. I felt out of place. I wanted to know, 'Where is the image of my people and what we're doing?'"

Overby petitioned the music department leaders to add old spiritual music to his repertoire. After some time, he was allowed to make the change.

"I found that it was difficult for the administration to want to change," Overby said. "After I protested even more, they finally said, 'Alright, we'll give you a chance to add different types of songs — different types of art songs — to your repertoire.' They monitored what I did to see if it would work … and it did."

Invoking positive change and the inclusion of everyone in society is what King wanted, Overby said. It's a lesson that should never be forgotten.

"Part of the challenge that Doctor King asked us was to see people as they want to be seen, rather than trying to tell them how they need to be in order to be accepted," Overby said. "It's not about bringing people of color into the environment. It's more than that. It's allowing them to be a part of the environment and letting them be who they are. That's true diversity."

Overby also serenaded the audience in his trained baritone voice, singing the national anthem as well as one of the spirituals he first practiced at San Francisco State. In addition to supporting the Fort McCoy observance, Overby has served as vice president of the Wisconsin Arts Board and executive producer and director of Wisconsin's official annual state tribute honoring King.

He also currently serves as executive producer and host of a Saturday evening world music broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio called "Higher Ground with Jonathan Overby."

For more information about observances in the Fort McCoy community, call the Equal Opportunity adviser at 608-388-3246.