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Jackie Taylor, founder/CEO of Black Ensemble Theater, on her work to end racism

Jackie Taylor

Jackie Taylor

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Updated: June 14, 2013 11:22AM

Growing up in Cabrini Green in the 1960s, I encountered racism constantly. Racism is ugly. It’s scary, and it destroys us as human beings. Living in the projects was tough, but it was joyful at the same time. I mean, it shaped my life, it made me strong and it gave me the foundation that I needed to do the work that I do today — the work to end racism as we know it.

Cabrini Green was blocks away from the Gold Coast. Nobody had to tell us when we walked east on Division that we couldn’t go past Clark Street. Nobody had to tell us that when walking north, do not go past North Avenue. When walking west, nothing was safe after Ashland Avenue. Nobody had to tell us — but we knew. It was the law. An unspoken law. And if you broke it, you were asking for trouble.

I remember being 6 years old, traveling past Clark Street, when a car stopped in front of me and the man rolled down his window and shouted very angrily, “You n----- get back on the other side where you belong. Don’t let me see you over here again.”

Let’s fast-forward several years later to a little African-American girl, barely 23 years old. I was an actress who had made a major motion picture (“Cooley High”), standing in a room full of white male Hollywood writers who were trying to capitalize off of what had been a surprise hit film. They were upset with me because I had rejected their screenplay about growing up in the projects.

I told them that I had grown up in the projects, and their interpretation of the lifestyle was a ridiculous fantasy that only existed in their heads. “Black people are not this stupid,” I said. “Women are not this ignorant. We do not glorify drugs, gangs and guns. We fear them just like everybody else.”

They told me to shut up and take the money. “It’s not about telling the truth,” they said. “It’s about what will sell.”

“But it’s so racist,” I countered.

“We don’t care,” they replied.

I quit that job. Malcolm X taught us that we’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. So I decided to be part of the solution. That’s why I started the Black Ensemble Theater with the mission of eradicating racism.

All of our plays are written to help us understand our sameness while respecting and accepting our differences. Our productions attract a cross-cultural audience because they are positive and uplifting — and we all need that as human beings. Our educational outreach programs help to build skills that enable our youth to decrease the effect of racism that exists in their everyday lives.

Racism won’t end in my lifetime. I’m only planting a seed. It will take generations for the tree to grow and bloom. It may seem impossible, a world without racism, but how will we be able to achieve it if we don’t believe it?

“Ain’t No Cryin’ the Blues: In the Memory of Howlin Wolf” is now playing at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark. Visit for tickets and more information.

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