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A Colorful Life Mona Lake Jones Looks Back On Sometimes-Painful Experiences Growing Up In Eastern Washington

When she was an undergraduate student at Washington State University, at a time when she was one of the few African Americans on the Pullman campus, Mona Lake Jones again learned just how naive, and just how insensitive, people can be.

“A student said to me - and I had been living with her for several months in the dormitory - she looked at me and she said, ‘You’re nice. I mean, really, you are.”’

Even over the phone from her Seattle home, you can hear Jones shake her head in disbelief. Now 56, and some 30-odd years removed from the incident, she still is amazed at how far she, and the part of the world she hails from, have come.

And yet how far we all have to go.

Just as amazingly, she doesn’t hold any hard feelings.

“She’d grown up down there in the Palouse and just had never been around anybody black and probably had a stereotypical kind of perception of what black people were like,” Jones says. “And I couldn’t get angry. She was just being honest. She was just amazed to know that I was talking normal and acting normal and doing all those normal things. I’d been educating her and I didn’t even know it.”

That’s somehow fitting. Education has been a large part of Jones’ life. Her two children are doing graduate work, one at the University of TexasAustin and the other at the University of Michigan. She herself owns a Ph.D. from Seattle University and has spent her adult life teaching at every level from grade to graduate school.

But schoolwork is only one part of a person’s overall education. Probably the most important lessons that Jones learned were taught to her early on, by her parents. And it is largely those lessons, shaped by what she later learned in the classroom, that Jones will share at a luncheon lecture Wednesday at the Spokane YWCA.

As the keynote speaker for the Y’s annual World Mutual Services Luncheon, Jones intends to focus on, she says, “women in leadership and the support that we need to give each other worldwide … to celebrate who we are and the need to help each other.”

The Y’s Mutual Services Committee works for the human rights of women, and their families, all over the globe. Jones wants to make sure that we adopt a view that encompasses the entire world, “to look past Spokane” as she says.

Yet just as any movement has a beginning, so, too, do those people who provide such movements their prime energy.

And Jones, who got her start in the central Washington town of Coulee City, figures that telling her own story is an essential first step toward helping others understand what it is that she has to say.

“My point of reference always comes back to my one base of experience,” she says. “And for me to go to speak to any group and not engage them in some sense of understanding the black woman’s perspective would not be fair.”

That perspective, as far as Jones is concerned, began in 1939 when her father, Sylvester Lake, and her mother, Pauline, traveled out to Washington from their home in Jackson, Tenn. He came to help build Grand Coulee Dam, and after that job was complete he went to work at Spokane’s Kaiser Aluminum plant.

In so many ways, Jones says, her parents were pioneers of the spirit.

“He was the first this and the first that, and Mother was the only this and the only that,” Jones says. “When I look back on it, I’m just so amazed that they came out here from a small town where they were segregated and lived among only black people. And for them to be able to come out West here and do well was amazing.”

The Lakes’ greatest accomplishment, however, may have been the spirit of love and support that they provided their daughters - Jones and her older sister Sylvia, who has since died. It was that spirit, blended with a sense of Christian self-determination, that allowed both girls to overcome episodes that might have crippled the emotions of anyone less motivated.

“I can just cite all kinds of happenings that occurred that were really negative and impactful on us,” Jones says.

A classmate of her sister, for example, recalls the time that Sylvia - who graduated from Lewis and Clark in 1956 (a year before Jones) - attended her 10-year class reunion. Even as she was greeted by old friends, Sylvia was embarrassed when one of her former classmates told a racist joke over the loudspeaker.

And there were the teachers who, for their own reasons, did not take easily to either of the Lake girls - but particularly to Mona.

“I mean, I knew some teachers that just straight up sent me messages all the time, did-not-like-me, because of the color of my skin,” Jones says. “So it was kind of a negotiation thing: ‘OK, I’ll do X, Y and Z to get this grade. I’ll do what I have to do.”’

The lesson, which had been drilled into the girls at home, was clear: “You always had to make choices about responding to racism, and our parents helped us with that and gave us a lot of stuff to put in our pockets so that we would be able to make the right choices at the right time.”

That did not mean, of course, that the girls were ever expected to simply roll over in the face of racist behavior or language.

“Because my parents were really strong folks, they always had us believe that we may be different from the other kids … but we were as good as, never less than,” Jones says. “They helped us really like who we were and like being black. We had this black-is-beautiful thing going long before it was a popular kind of phrase.”

And when the racist messages came, as they did regularly, Jones says her parents would “undo all that stuff every day. I mean, every day they would say, ‘You’re neat, you can, you will.’ And they would go to school and question and ask why and what, and that helped us be a little more assertive. We didn’t let people get away with very much.”

Since 1993, when Jones saw publication of her book of poetry “The Color of Culture” - the same book that won her the title of multicultural poet laureate of Seattle - she has spent less of her time teaching in a classroom and more time speaking publicly on the issues that concern her. A line from one of her poems, she says, portrays the spirit of self-reliance that her parents taught her: “Should I demonstrate, tolerate, educate, negotiate - or just kick ass.”

But it’s a gentle kicking that she tends to deliver, complete with compassion and humor, even when it’s still necessary. Jones prefers to believe that, if people would just choose to give it a chance, the simple act of living together would necessarily lead to better understanding and, ultimately, a plausible chance for peace on Earth.

“What was it that Mark Fuhrman said the other day? It was in the paper,” she says, referring to the controversial ex-Los Angeles police detective of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. “The only statements that Judge Ito is letting into the courtroom are those that he made about where he grew up. He said, ‘There were never any niggers.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, maybe if there had been a few around then he wouldn’t be so warped and twisted.”’

Jones cites as a working example the Seattle neighborhood that she, her husband and children shared with other families of disparate ethnic backgrounds - black, Filipino, Asian and white. “I used to say, ‘If people could just come here and see how this works.”’

Which is a story that she may share with the luncheon crowd on Tuesday.

If so, those who hear it may call it entertaining.

For Mona Lake Jones, however, entertainment is just another word for education.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Image coloring by Charles Waltmire

MEMO: For reservation information about the World Mutual Services Luncheon, call the YWCA at 326-1190. Tickets are $10, and seating is limited.

For reservation information about the World Mutual Services Luncheon, call the YWCA at 326-1190. Tickets are $10, and seating is limited.


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