‘Heal The Community’ Tour

‘Heal The Community’ Tour

‘Mama C’ uses words, music to spread message of equality


At first, Charlotte Hill O’Neal sounds like your favorite Midwestern grandma. She still has her Kansas City accent, and she sprinkles her conversation with words like “blessed.”

But don’t let her gentle and joyous demeanor fool you. O’Neal is a civil rights warrior who joined the Kansas City Chapter of the Black Panther Party when she was just 18. She married the chapter’s founder, Pete O’Neal, and has been living with him in what some might call exile for half a century.

“Facing gun charges in Kansas City in 1970, O’Neal and his wife Charlotte, also a Black Panther, fled to Algeria, where they joined other Panther exiles,” a story about the film “A Panther in Africa” recounts. “Unlike the others, however, the O’Neals never found their way back to America. Pete and Charlotte moved on to Tanzania, where for over 30 years they have struggled to continue a life of social activism.”

In 1991, the O’Neals founded the United African Alliance Community Center in Tanzania, sponsoring an international exchange program for underprivileged American and Tanzanian teenagers. They also coordinate study-abroad programs that bring American college students to work with young Tanzanians.

Ask “Mama C,” as she is affectionately called by many, about life in Tanzania, and she’ll correct that presumption of exile and struggle.

“In one word, blessed,” she says, that joy echoing through her voice. “In two words, blessed and peaceful. You want three words? Blessed, peaceful and beautiful.

“It’s really a blessing to say we’ve been able to not only survive but thrive there, not only myself and my husband of 50 years, but our whole community and people who come there. I think this was meant to be.”

O’Neal is in the United States right now, and she visited Fayetteville briefly last week to share her message — that there is much work remaining to be done to make people of color equal — through her music, her poetry and that magnetism she exudes even over the phone.

O’Neal speaks fondly about the “black and brown” community where she grew up, saying it was only when she went outside of it that she learned about discrimination.

“But we could get everything in our community. And the spirit of volunteerism, I would see that every day, not only in church but at the YWCA, where I would learn arts and crafts. And that informs who I am today.”

It wasn’t one moment that made her realize she had to fight that discrimination but “a buildup of many moments.” And she says returning to the United States makes it clear that “for the majority of black and brown people, life in a lot of ways is worse now.” O’Neal points to continued claims of police brutality, the gentrification in cities that is forcing people of color out and the budget cuts that take the arts out of multiracial schools “because the ‘powers that be’ understand the empowerment that comes from being an artist.”

“The thing that gives me hope is so many people are waking up, so many communities are realizing that we have to band together to do it ourselves, to supplement the children’s education, to create community gardens, to do things that bring people together and give people a source of community. A whole lot has gone backwards. But we can go forward.”

Categories: Cover Story