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Black Russian : Moscow Reporter Discovers That U.S. Race Relations Aren't Just Black and White

February 08, 1988|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

"So," asks the visiting black Soviet journalist, "what is all this about football, football and the first black headquarters. Headquarters, yes?"

Headquarters, no. Quarterback. The first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl, Doug Williams.

"Yes, yes, what is this?" she asks incredulously. "What is all this discussion about? Don't they know, that, ah, that ah. . . ." Yelena Khanga's hands flutter and her melodious voice stops.

That race has nothing to do with ability?

"Yes," nods the 25-year-old reporter for the Moscow News, a million-circulation weekly read in Britain, Germany, France and Spain, as well as in the Soviet Union. "Of course," she states firmly and lifts a forkful of pork chops to her lips.

She samples the stewed tomatoes and okra. She's encouraged to throw a dash of hot sauce on it. "Oh, yes," she says, eager to try. It's her first encounter with soul food. And Khanga, a second-generation Russian whose roots go back to the American South, likes it.

FOR THE RECORD - Clarification
Los Angeles Times Monday February 15, 1988 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 2 Column 1 View Desk 3 inches; 105 words Type of Material: Correction
An article Feb. 8 about black Soviet journalist Yelena Khanga contained this sentence:"Asked if her government, now in the era of glasnost , openness, permits her to talk about any subject while in the United States, she says, 'Yes, except for politics.' "
Khanga's response actually was to a more general question about subjects she would be able to discuss, and she says her reply indicated only what she preferred to speak about. "My government never prohibited me from speaking about anything in the United States," Khanga says. "Many times I was asked by American reporters to give political comments on world policy. . . . Usually I answered that it would be better for them to ask a well-qualified, experienced political reporter to respond."

"Very tasty, very tasty," she says.

Khanga is in the United States as part of a three-month exchange program between her newspaper and the Christian Science Monitor. Based in Boston, she has come to Los Angeles at the invitation of black businessman Lee Young, who was fascinated by a Jet magazine article identifying her as the only black reporter in the Soviet press corps during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in January.

"I didn't know there were any blacks in Russia," said Young, owner of LDY Inc., a San Pedro engineering firm. Once he found out and learned that some, like Khanga, had American roots, he wanted to know how they got there from here. He knew other blacks would be interested too and wanted them to meet her.

Khanga had never been outside the Soviet Union until she covered the summit as part of the two-paper exchange.

As her eyes scan the interior of Cyril's--a popular, black-owned establishment featuring haute African-American cuisine and an elegant art deco-cum-Southern mansion decor--her usually animated face is in repose. It has a chiseled-out-of-stone strength that makes her look more mature than her years. And her nearly perfect English is spoken in a voice that is cultivated and confident, one that conveys a certitude and experience belying her youth.

Suddenly, she is excited by the music coming through a loudspeaker. All afternoon it's been a mix of classic doo-wop, jazz, salsa and the blues.

"Who is singing?"

"I think that's the Channels," calls out Cyril Good, the lean, attractive co-owner of the restaurant.

Khanga eyes him as he stands behind the bar.

"That's the owner?" she asks sotto voce.

She savors the sight of him and licks a bit of sweet potato juice from her lips.

"Ah, but he's so young," she says admiringly. "And who says all black Americans are poor?"

Coming to America has been an education, the journalist says.

"I used to think of (the U.S.) as black and white. But it is full of shadows, thousands of shadows."

She was told by Soviet friends that Boston, where the Christian Science Monitor is based, is the most racist city in America. "But I didn't feel it at all," she says.

"Of course, I was staying with a middle-class family from the Monitor, very nice, very warm people."

However, certain negative "bells rang" that made her suspect racial discrimination, she says.

They first went off during the summit.

"I was one of the few blacks," at the historic meeting. The ones who were there, "we can count them on fingers," she says. "And there were so many reporters."

She wondered: "Where are black American reporters? Aren't they interested in what happens between our two countries?"

She still doesn't understand their absence, and asks if it is because they are not given the opportunity to cover such events.

Then she spent the weekend with friends in Plymouth, Mass. "A wonderful, marvelous place," she half sings. "We were traveling everywhere and all of sudden I felt something was wrong. I didn't see any blacks there at all. And I said, 'What's wrong with this place? Is it bad? Why don't blacks live there?' And there was a very polite answer. 'No. It's a very good place.' "

So, she says, "I understood that it was so good that blacks couldn't live there."

During her stay, as reporters have dogged her, she has been a guest in many homes.

"When I came to white families, everybody was very good. But I never saw black families.

"When I was with black families, they were very warm, but there were no white families."

None of these people were racist, she says. "And if you asked if they were prejudiced, they would say 'No. We work together, we have good friends on both sides.' "

Still, "I understood that in their minds remained (attitudes from the past) that kept the races separate."

Amazed at Jimmy the Greek

But what "shocked" her most were the comments of Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder alleging that racial differences accounted for black superiority in sports.

It wasn't just that he said it, it was that "he said it on television," the amazed Moscovite recalls.

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