Celebrating Black History Month with Gigi Jasper

Dr. Gigi Jasper is a retired English teacher living in Rock Springs, Wyoming.

In this episode, you'll hear about why Gigi moved to Wyoming, her career as a public school teacher, and her experience with discrimination as an African American woman living in rural Wyoming.

Her inspiration, guidance, and resilience as she taught and mentored young people throughout her teaching career, and through that inspiration, she helped young people find tools and paths for their own lives.

“And I was told by whoever it was, "We don't hire women." And he was saying that while there was a woman worker not 25 feet behind him.  Well, it was pretty clear that my being female was not his objection. And so, in some ways my welcome to Wyoming was having to file with the EEOC.” Gigi Jasper

Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history. Also known as African American History Month, the event grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating Black history.

Watch Black History Documentaries

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Musical Crossroads: African American Influence on American Music

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Gigi Jasper (00:00):

I was told by whoever it was, "We don't hire women." And he was saying that while there was a woman worker not 25 feet behind him. Well, it was pretty clear that my being female was not his objection.

Emy DiGrappa (00:16):

Hello, my name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week we bring you stories asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why?

(00:53):

Today we are talking to Dr. Gigi Jasper. She is a retired African American English teacher living in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Welcome, Gigi.

Gigi Jasper (01:05):

Well, thank you. Thank you.

Emy DiGrappa (01:08):

Where did you originally grow up before you moved to Rock Springs?

Gigi Jasper (01:11):

I grew up in Wisconsin. I grew up in Milwaukee, and my husband and I found our way to Wyoming in an odd way. We had both graduated and gone to South America where we were for six months, and an old roommate said, "If you want to get a job fast and earn money fast, come live with us in Gillette, Wyoming." So we looked at an atlas to see where Gillette, Wyoming was, and we came and she was right. We were hired. We had no trouble getting jobs, almost the same day. It was kind of astounding. I had never been in Wyoming, and to tell you the truth, had probably never given in Wyoming any thought, whatever, except maybe for Yellowstone Park.

Emy DiGrappa (01:54):

So you'd never been here before. You came be because a friend said, "If you want a job, come here." You got jobs. And then so how did you end up staying for all these years?

Gigi Jasper (02:06):

All of these years. Well, like I said, we had come from South America and we had started at Barranquilla, went all the way to Tierra Del Fuego and back overland, which by the way, I would not recommend. And when I got to Gillette, I was charmed. I have to admit, the streets were paved and there was a library. Now my husband was less enchanted than I was, but it looked like it was going to be a good place.

(02:36):

And in many, many, many ways it was. I don't think, if you'd asked me then, I would've said we were going to stay. And sometimes I'm still a little surprised that we did, given my experiences. But more than anything... I'm so conflicted little [inaudible 00:03:02] about my pros and cons of Wyoming. And at the end of the day, Wyoming has been very fortunate for me and for my husband, and that's why we stay.

Emy DiGrappa (03:15):

Tell me about your husband, because you came together, you had different job opportunities or was he an educator as well?

Gigi Jasper (03:24):

We were both English majors, but when he came to Gillette, he got a job almost instantly in the oil field, of course, at the very bottom of the rung. And I always thought that was astoundingly inappropriate job for him. But as time went on, he went all the way through the ranks and experienced pretty much everything an oil field worm to an oil field tool pusher does actually experience.

(03:55):

Now I first got a job, oddly enough, it was a short term job because school was... This was around April, and school wasn't going to be in session for long, but I was offered a job to be the librarian at the grade school. And I did that. And then I got offered a job to be a dispatcher at the police department. And I did that. And then I had an opportunity to apply for UPS for Christmas help, and they were paying astoundingly well, I think it was $6 an hour, and I did that.

(04:32):

But prior to that, I had gotten the job at UPS because I had gone to job service. And as I was sitting right there in the job service office, somebody called from a construction company called N.A. Nelson and said, "If you've got anybody who's breathing, send them over here." So I left and I was told by whoever it was, "We don't hire women." And he was saying that while there was a woman worker not 25 feet behind him. Well, it was pretty clear that my being female was not his objection. And so in some ways, my welcome to Wyoming was having to file with the EEOC.

Emy DiGrappa (05:20):

Wow. And you hadn't been here that long?

Gigi Jasper (05:24):

No, months. Not even. Yeah, months. It was a very, very little time. Well, it got put off and extended and it put off and extended. And I was an English major. I wrote extensive notes, I had extensive documentation. And the EEOC basically said, "Oh, well, we are overworked and underpaid," so nothing happened. So from then on... Now, N.A. Nelson was working on I-80. It was a federal project. I mean, all of it was pretty clear cut, but they couldn't be bothered. So from then on, my husband and I called the EEOC, at least in Wyoming, and at least at my experience, a rubber bone organization because they were just exactly giving a rubber bone to a starving dog.

Emy DiGrappa (06:11):

I guess that brings me into the question about race and about being a woman. So can you separate those in terms of what is it like to be a woman of color living in Wyoming versus what is it like to be a woman living in Wyoming? Or do they just meld together?

Gigi Jasper (06:31):

For me personally, they kind of meld. I wouldn't say one was more difficult than the other, but I know why. After we were both transferred to Rock Springs, I believed I had never been any place... In fact, if it hadn't been for the unpleasantness with the N.A. Nelson Company, my feeling was I'd never been any place where you were judged more by the quality of your work than by who you were.

(07:01):

So I have to admit, I was quite stunned that I had to even fight that battle to begin with. And now my being Black, even still, after all these years, and we got to Wyoming in 1975, even still, I see disbelief, I think, that I'm Black. I think that's kind of funny. And I understand that's grounded in total racism.

(07:30):

The reaction I get when it is negative is how on earth is it possible for you to conjugate the verb "to be"? And in fact, that was one of the things that I wrote many years later that I called the Proust effect and the Proust effect, and here is my English majorism coming out big time, the Proust effect for me was that look, some people give you, which exactly mirrors how you would look at your dog if she turned to you one day and said, "For a long time, I used to get up early..." Which is the first line in Proust's Swann's Way.

Emy DiGrappa (08:12):

So I guess, explain that look to me, because you were living in a very much all white, rural community, and would you say it's still that way?

Gigi Jasper (08:23):

Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Now it has been modified because I am now the exception. And I'm the exception because, oh, well, I'm dangerously overeducated and I have had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of students who now know me and not just what they think they know when they see me for the first time.

(08:50):

But it is a look of such stunned disbelief as if folks are looking at something they could not conceive of ever existing. Years ago, [inaudible 00:09:07] I was talking about something and he said to me, you don't have a southern accent. And I said, "I'm not from the South." And I watched him think about that. It was as if it had never occurred to him that anybody with a Black face wouldn't have a southern accent.

Emy DiGrappa (09:24):

Well, that's really interesting. But I guess is it that a lot of your students, or I don't know, maybe it wasn't your students, but people who live around you just have never experienced a Black person?

Gigi Jasper (09:43):

That is absolutely true. That is absolutely true. And when I was working for UPS, I was delivering in Cokeville, and I drove to Cokeville every day. And it was real early in UPS's tenure in Wyoming and I noticed that I must have been making kind of a difference because I went to make a delivery at the school. And at that time, the high school and the grade school, they were all kind of connected.

(10:13):

And in the kindergarten wing there was a picture and the poster said something like, "People you see every day." And there was a little brown woman in a little brown outfit carrying a little brown package, and I thought, dog gone, that's me. So yes, it is true, well, it's true now, virtually none of my students had ever had a Black teacher before. And not only that, they probably never will.

(10:45):

And this is what always gave me joy and kept me teaching for 29 years. The amazement wasn't hostile, more often than not. Now, occasionally it was, and that led to another ugly incident. But oftentimes it was just pure amazement. But sometimes it just wasn't. The notion that I, many, many teachers of color, have to prove that I'm worthy to teach them because it is inconceivable that I would know more than they, even if they're 15.

Emy DiGrappa (11:22):

Did you feel isolated because you weren't near other people of color that you could relate to?

Gigi Jasper (11:29):

Less so than one might think. There are kind of notable Rock Springs Black families. And when we first got here, many people kept trying to put me in one of those families. And maybe I was sort of acceptable if I had been from one of those families to begin with, because clearly I would have to be because why else would I be there? But my isolation was sort of reduced by the good women friends I made early on. And again, they were friends that I made kind of by accidents that turned out to be shakers and movers and women who were activists in women's rights and activists in rape counseling. So I was not as isolated as one might think.

(12:26):

And when I became a teacher in Rock Springs, kind of by accident, there was never, never any question that I was equipped academically and in fact, probably better equipped than some teachers to do exactly what I was doing. So there was that grudging admiration from some. And from others, just plain old-fashioned acceptance from the get-go.

(12:57):

There may be a couple of reasons for that. So it may be that Rock Springs has a lot of really fine people. It also may be that it's hard to be afraid and hate people you don't actually see. There really are not and were not that many people of color in Rock Springs, certainly not in the seventies and the eighties.

Emy DiGrappa (13:25):

Does that surprise you because of the oil boom and usually that brings in a number of different people from other cultures and other places?

Gigi Jasper (13:39):

It may have done, but I lived in a different world, so I wouldn't have seen it. My husband would've been more likely to see it. And he's told me that when he would go and pick up his crew, he said 90% of the time a new person would come in, get in the car, and the first thing they do is tell a nigger joke. Now we know... Yeah, but think about that. We know what that means. They were trying to find friend/foe.

(14:10):

They were trying to find what group they were in and they wanted to know how to play it. He said it happened all the time. But we do, as individuals in society, look for our place. And that's a crude, stupid backward way of doing it. But it is also a very common way of doing it. It could have just as easily, or maybe not just as easily, but it could have also been a woman bashing joke. I'm one of the gang because we're all men here and we can bash women.

Emy DiGrappa (14:51):

So you've experienced institutionalized racism being an African American and being an African American woman?

Gigi Jasper (15:00):

Sadly, yes. Sadly, yes. It blew up to the most dramatic time when I was teaching and a student, although he was not and never had been one of mine, came in and threw a piece of furniture at me and was calling me an, "Effing nigger bitch," and how I should, "Go back and pick cotton." I didn't know his kid. I didn't know him. I didn't know him. He was just a rather rabid racist.

(15:33):

Now, it didn't turn out well for him because after being turned down by every single organization I was raised to believe was there to assist me, my husband and I hired an attorney, and fortunately this kid was 18, so we sued the kid and the school district because the school district virtually said, "Nothing happened," either. And after three years of an ugly fight and countlessly having our house egged and having our window shot, we won. We won.

(16:17):

But here's the thing that is making me insane. I read an article day before yesterday about all of the teachers in this nation who are being kicked and punched and hurt and are suffering in silence. Now, that makes me want to just scream because if one allows that kind of abuse, then it becomes acceptable. And that was the motivation when my husband and I decided that we were going to sue. If that is allowed to happen to one teacher, it will happen to any teacher.

Emy DiGrappa (17:00):

And was this a recent article?

Gigi Jasper (17:03):

In fact, yes. Very recent. Couple days ago.

Emy DiGrappa (17:08):

That is shocking.

Gigi Jasper (17:11):

It is shocking. And so demoralizing. Becoming a teacher is not something younger people now put on their list to do, which is why there's a shortage of teachers nationwide. So instead of lauding those people who do it, they are very often ignored and underpaid. Now, there are some twists in some of it. There are different laws, evidently, for what happens to a special education teacher inflicted by the student, which I believe needs to be changed.

(17:58):

But in this article, these were not mostly special education teachers, and they were just... Some of them were afraid to tell... And I can't even remember why, because it was a specious argument. Some of them just weren't fighters. And I don't understand that either, because if you won't fight for yourself, why would one expect anyone to fight for you? But it is a very big deal.

(18:29):

And in my case, life changed for a number of teachers, I think, when we won. Because it was very public, it was pretty ugly. It should never have happened and would not have happened if I'd gotten any satisfaction i.e. an apology. But I didn't. But after that, some teachers sort of felt like... Well, one teacher said to me, somebody said something nasty to them, and they turned to her and said, "I'm going to tell Gigi." And that was kind of the end of that.

Emy DiGrappa (19:07):

That's funny.

Gigi Jasper (19:10):

She had no idea that some little crazy teacher could sue them and make them pay her. But once it's done, it sort of set a tone.

Emy DiGrappa (19:25):

Well, I can see why reading an article like that just recently, and especially in light of what happened to you, but thank God you were victorious in that situation, but that it's still going on. But is it racially motivated?

Gigi Jasper (19:42):

No, it doesn't seem to be. It does not seem to be racially motivated. And that is another thing that makes me just scratch my head in disbelief. A lot of it is very, very bad behavior by poorly raised children. And then no support, not enough support by the powers that be. Now, the [inaudible 00:20:10] article talked about how in this particular district, they were going to form a task force to look into it and investigate everything. My feeling is, well now that's a real good way to never have to deal with something again, form a committee to look into it.

Emy DiGrappa (20:27):

Yeah, that'll never happen. It'll just stay in the committee.

Gigi Jasper (20:31):

Exactly.

Emy DiGrappa (20:32):

So what are the things that you are doing or have done that mentor other young women of color in the community or young people?

Gigi Jasper (20:45):

Sure. I rarely had a Black student, and I always loved it when I did because it was so interesting because I knew that the he or she had probably not had a Black teacher before, and I was kind of a character. But one of the advantages, and this is again, that dualism, I was oftentimes looked at as the sole representative of all Black women in the world, [inaudible 00:21:16], which is ridiculous. On the other hand, I was the sole representative of all Black women in the United States to these kids who've never known one.

(21:28):

So it was my age and my experience that allowed me to say things I might not have said in a different setting. I think that if students were to say what they most remembered about me was that I tried to teach them to fight back. Don't roll over and play dead, period. Because it is true if you don't... There are times when one has to stand up for what you believe, even if you're the only one on your feet, period. You've got to do it. Maybe that's what I'm most proud of.

(22:14):

This was a few years ago, I was talking about consciousness raising groups from the 1970s and '80s and what women did in Rock Springs. And one of my students said right in class, "Well, why don't you start it again?" And she called me up short probably because I fought that fight once and it's now their time, their turn. But they didn't even know the term CR group. They never had heard it.

(22:46):

And so I had students who believed absolutely that racism was something that Martin Luther King had taken care of. That sexism really didn't exist too much, that all women got paid the same amount as men for doing the same job. They really, really, really, really believed that. And I'm not sure I convinced too many. Well, I might have convinced some, that it wasn't true. When I was in high school, 19... Well, many years ago, and when I was in high school, I think the average wage for women versus men was something like 72 cents an hour, 72 cents as opposed to a dollar. And I said, "Excuse me for not being overwhelmed at those few pennies difference since I graduated from high school in 1970."

Emy DiGrappa (23:47):

Well, you have so many great stories, and I so appreciate your time, and I love that you're still a fighter, an over-comer, and you still have such a strong, wise voice. Thank you so much, Gigi.

Gigi Jasper (24:07):

Oh, thank you so very much.

Emy DiGrappa (24:24):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why? Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.