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By Sarah Porter

Sitting between two electric pianos, gospel singer Checo Tohomaso tested his microphone by singing his life story in gospel form. A few early event attendees listened as he sang about his connection to the Obama family and his experience performing gospel with one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughters.   “This is how Marvin would do it,” Tohomaso said as he played the piano.

Tohomaso is a member of the Motown musical movement who has performed with a variety of musicians such as Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie, New Kids on the Block, Celine Dion and Reba McEntire. He leads the Vancouver Outreach Community Sweet Soul Choir in Vancouver, B.C. and the Victoria Soul Gospel Choir in Victoria, B.C.

Members of the community joined Tohomaso at the Community Food Co-op’s 20th Annual MLK Day event on Jan. 15 to celebrate King’s vision for a society based on justice, equal opportunity, love of humanity and racial equality in America. However, attendees recognized that his dream is not yet a reality.

Keynote speakers included a Western political science professor and the Co-op’s new racial equity co-chair.

To open the event, Tohomaso instructed everyone to stand and sing along to his performance of the civil rights gospel “This Little Light of Mine” by Harry Dixon Loes. As attendants filed into the room, they joined in, clapping and swaying to the music.

Tohomaso told attendants that he was happy to see so many young people and people of color.

Gospel singer Checo Tohomaso singing his life story in gospel form at the Community Food Co-op on Monday. // Photo by Sarah Porter

Born in Tallahassee, Florida, he moved to Hawaii when he was five years old. He was raised in Manoa Valley, Honolulu, which is one of the neighborhoods former president Barack Obama grew up in. Referring to the former president warmly as Barry, he said that he performed at Obama’s junior and senior prom in 1978 at Punahou School.

“After he became president, he sent me an autographed picture of him,” Tohomaso proudly said.

After his opening performance, he invited keynote speaker and Western political science professor Vernon Johnson to the stage to read an article he wrote entitled “Healing Must Start with Action.”

Johnson’s speech addressed America’s collective racial wounds, and called on the necessity for social surgery in order to uproot racism.

“Let me talk about racial healing tonight,” he said.

Johnson is the director of the Ralph Munro Institute for Civic Education and a professor of political science at Western. His primary research interests include the politics of development, African politics, and race and public policy.

He discussed the injustices of the past, such as indigenous genocide, that resulted from the idea of Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny was the belief that God had destined American settlers to expand west of the Appalachian Mountains a

Keynote speaker and Western political science professor Vernon Johnson giving a speech at the Community Food Co-op on Monday. // Photo by Sarah Porter

nd spread democracy.

He acknowledged the local history of racism towards the Chinese, Sikhs and Japanese. This included the expulsion of the Chinese in the Puget Sound area in 1884 and 1885, the Sikh expulsion of 1907 and the 1940s Japanese internment in Puyallup, Washington.

Johnson then addressed the historical oppression of black Americans and conditions of racial inequality such as segregation, violent policing and poverty, all of which contribute to racial inequality today. Though it has almost been 50 years since King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, the prevailing sentiment of attendants at the MLK Day event was that King’s life work is not yet finished.

“As a white person, if you don’t do anything, you are complicit,” Johnson said. “Interracial solidarity, that’s what we mean by healing.”

The second keynote speaker, Community Food Co-op Racial Equity co-chair and human resources assistant manager Amanda Grelock, discussed action that the Co-op is taking as part of their commitment to racial equity, such as providing trainings and workshops to serve marginalized communities, and having Co-op employees engage in race-based conversations.

The event then handed the stage to members of the community to share stories, poetry and music related to issues of human rights and diversity.

“I carry this event with me all year long,” event attendant Betty Scott said as she introduced a poem she prepared for the event. As a local poet, Scott’s work has been featured in many local magazines.

Presentations represented a variety of cultures, including a Brazilian capoeira group put on a musical performance, an East Indian poem and the story of a Soviet Union refugee. Many shared performances of gospel music, and others shared their own experiences as members of marginalized groups.

To close the event, Tohomaso performed “Love Train” by the O’Jays, smiling and waving goodbye to the crowd.

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