“I’ve been in trouble most of my life.”
Cathryn McGill says her determination to get things done took hold when she was a 6-year-old – “pretty precocious and sure that I knew everything.”
One of the things she knew was that she should be allowed to direct a show at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
“They hung up some canister lights in the social hall and let me direct my first play,” says McGill. “It was a church where everybody was somebody, and so that stuck with me all my life.”
McGill, 59, went on to become a singer, songwriter, actress and producer, all of which she has largely put aside to focus on her roles as founder and director of the New Mexico Black Leadership Council and the New Mexico Black History Organizing Committee.
“In order to do this work, I had to give up being out there performing on a regular basis,” says McGill, who has a gospel background and has shared the stage with Bo Diddley, Grover Washington Jr., and Lyle Lovett Jr.
“Not because of the time constraint, because I’ve been used to working seven days a week for most of my career, but because of the fact that in many cases, Black people are considered to be a monolith,” McGill says. “So if I was showing up in a meeting where we’re talking about politics or strategy, people are looking at me as, ‘Aren’t you the singer?’ It was harmful to the development of this project, and the project is very important to me.”
This summer’s overwhelming response to racism following the “modern-day lynching” of George Floyd in Minneapolis is unprecedented because the global pandemic has meant that many people are at home with few distractions, says McGill.
“In the past, we might have been able to look away, but now there’s been nowhere to go, and in some cases and for some people, no one to talk to about it,” McGill says. “And so it became even more egregious, even more amplified, even uglier. I think for me what we need to do, and what this time has given us the room to do, is face the brutal facts.”
When McGill is asked locally for ways to respond, she tells New Mexicans to frequent Black businesses and “seek out opportunities to change the culture of your business.”
What was your childhood like?
“It was interesting growing up in Muskogee (Oklahoma). I was always convinced that there had been some terrible mistake, and how had I wound up here? Because I was supposed to be living in a penthouse in New York City. Really, I just had no idea how great it was, and now I know. We never even had a key to our house, because the door was never locked. Wide open spaces, green country. Right across the street from our house was this big open space. And what was so great about it was all the real role models that we had growing up. I always say that our church was one of the centerpieces of our existence because it was the place where people could have sanctuary, literally and figuratively, from the vagaries of what was the racist pseudo-South. But when they walked into the Mount Calvary Baptist Church, they were somebody.”
What do you do in your free time?
“I am a gamester. I grew up playing board games. We played cards, we played Taboo, Scrabble, all those games. Most of my friends don’t like to play with me because I’m pretty competitive. And I really like to win. I like wordsmithing, which is one of the reasons why I think I’m a decent songwriter. Figuring out how to put words into the meter of a song is a great puzzle for me. And I guess I just have to admit, I love shopping. Going to thrift stores is one of my favorite things. A lot of people want to tell you how much they paid for something, and I want to tell you how little.”
You’re obviously a person who gets things done. Where do you get that from?
“My mother. She raised five kids on a teacher’s salary in Muskogee – one of the first Black teachers at an all-white high school in 1968 – and she had that drive. She worked tirelessly in the community on behalf of students who were perhaps not going to be seen by the administration and for whom the administration had very low standards. She had very high standards.”
Do you have any pet peeves?
“I don’t like when people are being deliberately obtuse about issues, or if they fail to try to understand, because I believe … that understanding is attainable, and that you have to give it a shot. I just remember when my mother, who was an English teacher, going to her and saying, ‘Mama, how do you spell this word?’ She would say, ‘Look it up, sound it out. How will it be helping you learn if I just tell you? Go learn.’ I think in most situations, we have to say to people, ‘Go learn.’ Critical thinking is, in some cases, a lost art. It’s one of the 21st century skills that I believe we have to ascribe to in order to have a thriving community.”
What are your favorite foods?
“All of them, unfortunately. Doing this interview makes me think a lot of my mom. Even though I’m sure most people would consider it a poverty meal, my mother could make the best pinto beans and cornbread that she would make from scratch. And pork neck bones, a little hot sauce. Whenever I would come home, I would walk in the house and that would be what she had on the stove. That was how she individualized her relationships with us is by, ‘What is your favorite meal?’ And that was mine.”
What makes you sad?
“Sometimes I think I haven’t done enough, that there is not enough time or that perhaps things will never change. Even though I work hard to remain hopeful. There are so many times where I just think, ‘well, a step forward, two steps back,’ and so feeling like that change won’t happen or that I won’t be around to see it makes me very sad.”
What’s on your bucket list?
“My birthday is in October. I want to spend it in Paris, but that’s not happening. On my bucket list has been to perform on Broadway. I would still love to do that one day. Probably not this year.”
What is your dream Broadway debut?
“‘The Sound of Music.’ Maria. Although, right now, at this age, I’d be Mother Superior. That was the first musical that I saw on the screen with Julie Andrews and learned all the words. That was the be-all and end-all.”
What’s most important to you right now?
“That we finally will acknowledge that racism is a pandemic as devastating as COVID-19. That we will face it knowing that we can prevail if we persist and if we have a philosophy that we will do more than pay surface attention.”