Other Voices


Mohammad Yadegari — hard truths in an immigrant's experience

Mohammad Yadegari of Guilderland has written a book, “Always an Immigrant: A Cultural Memoir” that describes his life in three parts: as a child, growing up in an Iranian family in Iraq; as a young man, learning about life on his own in Tehran; and as a newcomer to America where he studies in Albany, marries, and becomes a teacher. He spent a decade writing the book, crystallizing a lifetime of experiences into compelling stories, which reveal some hard truths. As a schoolboy, he was told by his teacher, describing empires that had over history, risen and fallen, that America did not build an empire but brought many people together and melded into a nation. Deep down, he is sad seeing the news now because he cannot understand how someone feels better than another because of the color of his or her skin. He writes, “We are what we observe, learn, and experience in our momentary journey on earth. The degree that separates us from one another is the way we come to regard our perceptions as facts.” — Photo from Mohammad Yadegari

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Merton Simpson says America must come to grips with the legacy of racism

Merton D. Simpson has always had a sense of his African ancestry and his Blackness.He was born in Charleston, South Carolina and raised in Brooklyn so he says he’s always known the deep divisions in the United States.“My mother has just turned 89 years old and she’s a master teacher,” says Simpson in this week’s podcast.As a first-born son, he has his father’s name. “My father was one of the foremost African art dealers in the world. He also was at the vanguard of the expressionist art movement with Picasso and Romare Bearden,” says Simpson. His father was an artist himself and also a jazz musician.Simpson is an Albany County legislator, representing Arbor Hill, Sheridan Hollow, Washington Park, and West Hill.He came to Albany in 1978 “for a job”— as a senior minority group personnel specialist for Civil Service.“My job was to get employment in New York State government for Blacks and Hispanics who had been traditionally neglected by Civil Service,” said Simpson.As a lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit, Simpson v. New York State Department of Civil Service,Simpson won a long legal battle, securing a $45 million settlement for more than 4,000 Black and Hispanic state workers and job applicants who claimed a Civil Service test was biased.The litigation stretched from 1997 to 2010. “It was a long but historic and necessary fight ….,” said Simpson. “People were promoted on the basis of a test that didn’t legitimately test their knowledge, skills, and abilities and also was tremendously discriminatory.”He also said, “Had I not stopped that test, it would have been used in every state in the country.”While a friend continually encourages Simpson to run for Congress, he said, “I can do more in the Albany County Legislature in real terms than I could in Washington because of the tremendous gridlock.”He recently spoke passionately at a legislative committee meeting on expanding the county’s version of the CROWN Act and elaborated on that with The Enterprise. (See related editorial.) CROWN stands for Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair.“When it comes to the CROWN Act, what we see is another manifestation of the denial of the legacy of racism in America,” said Simpson. The committee was discussing adding headcoverings to the list of protected hairstyles, which Simpson described as “a longstanding feature of Black people in America and that’s a cultural transition from our history in Africa.”He went on, “We actually have present situations here in Albany County where people have been denied employment rights or been treated in an inappropriate way because of their hair preferences, which has nothing to do with their ability to do their job.”He recognized there could be jobs where certain hairstyles would present a hazard but said, “When it comes to a question of: well, you just think it’s nice to have short hair, then that’s a problem.”Traditional black hairstyles can help some people do their jobs better, says Simpson, stating that the New York City Police Department for many years has not had restrictions on how Black officers wear their hair.“In many communities, to see people who have sort of indigenous hairstyles endear them to the community,” said Simpson.He’s an advocate of community policing done by people who are part of the community “because there’s a knowledge, understanding, and a commitment to that community.”

Brian Farr — Traveling Route 20 to understand history

What began as a path traveled by Native Americans became a plank road for European settlers and now is suburban Guilderland’s major thoroughfare — Route 20. Route 20 seemed long to Bryan Farr when he was kid, traveling with his family every summer from the Fingers Lakes where they lived to the Darien Lake, an amusement park near Buffalo. But, as a young man, he embraced the entire length of the historic highway, driving through 12 states from Boston, Massachusetts to Newport, Oregon in two weeks: 3,365 miles from coast to coast, America’s longest highway. Farr describes it as a once-in-a-lifetime trip on this week’s podcast. Farr, a meteorologist with a penchant for photography, took pictures along the way and planned to put together a book. He wrote to the towns he had traveled through and asked them to write three things about the town. He was sent three-page emails in return. As his interest in the history of the route burgeoned, Farr founded the Historic U.S. Route 20 Association, a labor of love. Farr will be speaking, through Zoom, to the Guilderland Historical Society at 7 p.m. on Nov. 18. The public is invited to the free event. Details on how to join the meeting are posted at www.guilderlandhistoricalsociety.org. Farr knows the history of the route intimately. The stretch between Albany and Buffalo, he says, almost became defunct in the 1850s because the Erie Canal was so popular. As automobiles started replacing horse-drawn conveyances in the early 20th Century, Farr says, “Good roads were hard to find.” In 1921, the Federal Highway Act allocated funds to states; each was to pick their best roads. Leaders met regionally and then, in 1925, Farr said, all the regions met to connect the dots. The act laid the groundwork for a national highway system. That’s when the numbering system for highways was developed, with the lowest numbers for roads running north and east and the highest for roads going south and west. Even numbers were for east-to-west roads; odd numbers for north-to-south roads. A zero at the end of a route, as in Route 20, means it’s a cross-country highway. Such a numbering system was useful, Farr notes, before the age of GPS when travelers had to find their own way. Once the roads were numbered, roadside motels and cabins popped up, Farr said, noting motorists could travel only 100 or 150 miles a day and would stop along the way at the mom-and-pop businesses, often with a shop, restaurant, and gas station — and sometimes a kitschy attraction. “Roadside architecture really started to bloom,” said Farr, as a landlocked lighthouse or a giant teapot beckoned to travelers. By the 1950s and ’60s, traffic became so intense that, in some places, it could be backed up for a mile or more. Once superhighways, like New York’s Thruway, were built, some of the towns along the old Route 20 dried up almost overnight, said Farr. Cherry Valley, west of Guilderland, became a ghost town, Farr said, describing the Thruway as “the nail in the coffin.” One of his association’s goals is to highlight small towns so visitors return there. Recently, Iowa gave Route 20 an historic designation, which took several years to secure. There are now 250 signs across Iowa to help travelers follow the historic Route 20 there. Farr and his association were following a similar approach in New York State. Both the Guilderland Public Library and Gade Farm in town posted signs, noting they stand along Route 20.