Vol. 13. No. 1
Summer 2003

Ever heard of Benjamin Banneker? Norbert Rillieux?   Elijah McCoy? Harriet Tubman?

If not, "Sister" Maryam (de Bonilla) BA'97 can tell you who they are: prominent African Americans who have made significant contributions to American culture but rarely receive their due. If Maryam has her way, these and other African American scientists, artists, inventors, and humanitarians will become a standard part of the American history curriculum taught in the schools.

A folklorist and modern-day Renaissance woman, Maryam writes and recites poetry, paints pictures, tells stories, sings songs, and plays instruments that speak to her African American roots. Asked why she calls herself "Sister," she replies, simply, "Because everyone needs a sister."

If that means acting as a surrogate sibling who encourages greater harmony among the fractious factions in the human family, then the description is apt.

Maryam grew up in Houston, Texas, in the late '50s and early '60s, where she learned firsthand about segregation and discrimination. She well remembers being relegated to the back of the bus and "colored-only" drinking fountains, humiliations that set the stage for her eventual involvement in the civil rights movement. She describes that time as "an intense consciousness-raising experience," one that "affected me greatly."

Always a conscientious student, Maryam was one of the first 50 African Americans to be allowed to enroll at the University of Houston. But there "they refused to teach me. They either ignored or humiliated me," she says, adding, "One teacher even said openly in class, 'Negroes come from monkeys.'

  "It had a traumatizing effect on me and lowered my self-esteem, which took me years to reclaim," she recalls. "I had been a top-notch student and didn't know whom to turn to. I was embarrassed and ashamed."

She dropped out of college and was eventually offered a job in a small office, working on a mayoral campaign—the first "Negro" in Houston to be given such an opportunity. That led to other jobs and eventually to California, where she went to follow her dream of becoming a jazz singer.

Instead, she met her future husband, José Roberto Bonilla, a folk guitarist and singer from Guatemala who spoke little English at the time. (Fortunately, she had studied Spanish in high school.) They married and raised a family, and now have four boys, two girls, and three grandchildren.

When her first child was three, Maryam volunteered at Head Start. It was there she discovered her love of—and gift for—storytelling.

Aware that there was little teaching about African Americans and their contributions to American culture, she began researching the lives of black historical figures and incorporating them into her stories—the beginning of her spiritual odyssey. Over time, her storytelling evolved into performances that included song, dance, poetry, and visual art, which she took to schools throughout the Los Angeles School District and eventually to the Black Educators Association. Her life's mission, she says, is "to teach African heritage and to bring a multicultural diversity component to education."

When Maryam decided to complete her college degree, she came to Utah—"a good place to raise a family," she says—so she could attend the U. After graduating in cultural anthropology, she continued to expand her performances, forming a group called the "Royal Heritage Ensemble," a name that pays homage to the "creativity, discipline, and courage of the 'kings and queens' of the African nation."

She and her troupe, which includes her husband José and daughters Zahara and Fatimah, have performed in venues throughout the Salt Lake Valley. In 2001 and 2002, the ensemble was invited by the Department of Defense to travel to Europe as "cultural ambassadors" for African Heritage Month.  

A recipient of the Kennecott and national Martin Luther King Jr. awards, Maryam and her husband conduct cultural assemblies throughout Utah as part of the Utah Board of Education's "Ethnic Artists Bank."  

In her role as visual artist, Maryam donated one of her paintings, "Angelitos Negros," which won an award at the 2002 Cultural Olympiad, to Trinity Methodist Church. The painting has been reproduced and sold as postcards, calendars, and posters to fund scholarships for at-risk students who want to study the arts.

Maryam is also a guest lecturer in Continuing Education's summer camp, "Club Ute," a Youth Education program. Says Jennifer L. Davis BFA'98, the program coordinator and Club Ute camp director, "[Sister Maryam] is fabulous. She really captures the kids' attention with her storytelling and interactive music. They're totally engrossed. No matter what the theme is," says Davis, "she can create something around it. She engages kids without a lot of bells and whistles, and the kids adore her."

Maryam has put her thoughts and poems into a book, Our Roots Run Deep, which includes biographical sketches of prominent African Americans, along with her own poems and illustrations. She continues to expand her story collection and, someday, would like to visit Africa to learn more about the traditions of the African people.

In the meantime, she performs and teaches according to her creed, "There are no white people, no black people, only members of the same 'hue-man' family." This kind of consciousness-raising, she says, helps ease the burden of racism—a burden she carried with her in her youth, but one that ultimately helped lift her up, push her forward, and carve her character.

  "I work to build upon adversities rather than have them defeat me," she says.

Linda Marion BFA'67 MFA'71 is managing editor of Continuum.

It's About Time

Benjamin Banneker, 1731-1806

Described as "one of the most ingenious American scientists of the Revolutionary War era," Banneker was a self-taught astronomer, scientist, mathematician, surveyor, clockmaker, author, and social critic. At age 21 he produced the first striking clock made in America, carving each gear out of wood. The clock kept perfect time for 40 years. As a self-educated astronomer, he produced an almanac on lunar eclipses that was widely used by farmers. As a surveyor, he helped lay the foundation for the nation's new capital.

Norbert Rillieux, 1806-1894

Born in Alabama but educated in Paris, Rillieux invented an evaporator to reduce the danger to slave laborers in the production of sugar. Previously, slaves had been required to pour hot molten sugarcane back and forth into receptacles to evaporate the liquid. Rillieux's invention relied on the steam engine to accomplish the task in much less time and with less risk. The evaporator ultimately changed the way sugar was processed, reducing its price and increasing its production worldwide. Eventually, producers of soap, gelatin, glue, condensed milk, and paper adopted Rillieux's invention.

Elijah McCoy, 1843-1929

An engineer trained in Scotland, McCoy developed a device to lubricate train engines without stopping their operation or endangering workers. Called a "lubricating cup," the device was initially scoffed at because a black man had created it. The invention worked so well, however, that buyers ultimately insisted on having "the real McCoy." By the end of his life, McCoy had received 57 different patents--in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia. His inventions eventually led to formation of the McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit, Mich.

Harriet Ross Tubman, (1820?-1913)

Tubman fled slavery via the Underground Railroad, leaving her husband and family behind. She then returned to the South to guide other runaway slaves to freedom. For more than a decade before the Civil War, she made an estimated 19 expeditions into the South and personally escorted about 300 slaves to the North. During the war she served as a scout, spy, and nurse for the U.S. Army. In later years she continued to work for the rights of blacks, women, and the elderly.