During the month of February, Cal Johnson does not respond to “Cal Johnson.”
Instead, the Fresno Unified school board member asks to be called Chukwuemeka, a Nigerian name. Johnson, 78, has adopted the name and worn African tribal clothing to school board meetings during Black History Month for the past two years.
When his fellow trustees call on Johnson to take a vote at school board meetings, he is quick to correct them. “It’s Chukwuemeka,” he says. When a colleague was reluctant to use the name, he compared it to the iconic scene is the 1977 miniseries “Roots,” where the character Kunta Kinte is beaten until he accepts his slave name, Toby.
“When they refused to use that name, I told them I’m not going to be Toby,” Johnson said. “This is Black History Month. I’m not going to do that.”
I think it’s really important for our kids to know who they are and where they came from.
FUSD Trustee Cal Johnson
He says his alter ego started after he got a DNA test through Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C. The test showed that Johnson’s lineage tracked back to Nigeria, and an Igbo priest later gave Johnson the name “Chukwuemeka,” meaning “God has done something great.”
This year, a new name plaque was made for Johnson to use at school board meetings during the month of February.
“This is a teaching moment,” Johnson said. “I think it’s really important for our kids to know who they are and where they came from. We teach all the histories, but we’re superficial when it comes to African American people.”
Johnson, an Edison High School and Fresno State graduate, has been on the school board for about a decade, representing southwest Fresno.
He talks about race outside of Black History Month, though.
In 2014, Johnson stood by the hiring of a white teacher to lead ethnic studies courses at Fresno Unified despite criticisms, saying “I do not believe colorism trumps qualifications.”
Last year, he was outraged over disputes about a lack of diversity at University High School, when a white man stood before the school board and said he was “colorblind” when it comes to race.
I do it as an educational opportunity for people.
“If you don’t see color, that’s a problem,” Johnson said then. “Always see color. That’s very important in America today.”
Every February, the Fresno Unified school board has Johnson read a proclamation announcing its participation in Black History Month. About four years ago, he refused to read what was written because the statement talked about Africans’ immigration to the U.S.
“They said I was an immigrant. That’s miseducation. That’s carrying a myth,” he said. “If it would have said my folks were at the bottom of the slave ship, I would have read that. But this is like being Jewish and being asked to forget the genocide.”
Johnson admits he gets passionate when talking about black history, but his intentions are good.
“I don’t do that to be mean,” he said. “I do it as an educational opportunity for people.”