Black leaders in Aspen discuss racism in America and their thoughts on the path to long-lasting change
It started on a Saturday morning with nine people marching through the Aspen core.
The following morning it grew to a few dozen, larger and louder.
By the next weekend, there were a few hundred Aspen area locals gathered in Wagner Park to protest the death of George Floyd and of the many other Black Americans who have recently died at the hands of police — and to rally in support of the reenergized Black Lives Matter movement.
“No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!” protesters chanted as they walked through the streets of downtown Aspen and posted up on prominent street corners with signs that read things like “White Silence is Violence,” “Demand Systemic Change” and “Aspen Isn’t Untouched.”
Since his death, Floyd’s story has reached most every corner of the U.S. The 46-year-old Black man died on Memorial Day in Minneapolis after now-former police officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd facedown to the concrete by holding his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds. Floyd was reportedly confronted, handcuffed and pinned by officers for trying to pass a fake $20 bill.
In response, Americans in Minneapolis and hundreds of other U.S. communities have demonstrated against police brutality and violence toward Black people and people of color, against the country’s deeply rooted and normalized systemic racism evident across most sectors of society, and for justice and equality for everyone.
Aspen is no exception. For five weekends in a row, Jenelle Figgins, an Aspen local and dancer with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, and Sajari Simmons, a Roaring Fork Valley local, mom, entrepreneur and artist, led physical and virtual demonstrations in Aspen.
The women encouraged all area residents, white and of color, to speak up and show up for the Black community, but also to work to better educate themselves on current and historic racism and oppression in the U.S.
“It has gotten to a point where we can’t be silent. Silence is unacceptable,” Figgins said to The Aspen Times in late May at one of the first Aspen protests.
“Aspen has way too much influence nationally and globally not to say anything … and for the residents in this community who are of color, we show up for you guys (white people) every day and rarely do we feel you guys show up for us. So it’s time for Aspen to show up.”
But like Simmons and Figgins, there are several other Black leaders in the Aspen area who are engaging in conversation around addressing anti-Black racism and oppression in America as a society — and realizing the roles they believe they have to play in helping create long-lasting change locally and beyond.
One of Aspen’s earliest and most well known Black leaders was Hannibal Brown, who lived in Aspen for more than 30 years from around 1884 to the early 1900s, according to “Aspen: The Quiet Years.”
Not much is known about Brown’s early life, but the book says he moved to Aspen to work in the household of a local bank owner, and was known for his kindness, hand-crafted and self-invented cocktails like the “Tom and Jerry,” his love for hunting and fishing, and his large Hudson automobile, one of the first and only cars in Aspen at that time.
“After only a few interviews, it became apparent to us that in the hearts of those who lived in Aspen during the Quiet Years, a special place was reserved for Hannibal Brown,” the authors of “Aspen: The Quiet Years” wrote. A portrait of Brown is featured on the cover of the book and 45 pages are filled with photos, memories and stories of his impact on the Aspen community.
“When people reminisced about him, two noticeable things occurred — a smile immediately appeared on their faces at the mention of his name and suddenly their voices took on a softer, gentler tone. There is an abundance of evidence to support the contention that Hannibal was a man loved and respected by his neighbors.”
According to the book, Brown and his family were described as the only Black people living in Aspen for a number of years in the early 1900s. The 1885 census recorded that nearly 50 Black people lived in the small Colorado mining town, which had an estimated population of about 17,000 around that time, the book says.
More than 135 years later, the most recent U.S. Census data shows just under 3% of people living in Aspen as of 2019 are Black or African American, dividing out to roughly 200 of the city’s 7,401 estimated population as of last July.
The most recent population data for Pitkin County show an estimated population of 17,845 and that about 1% of county residents as of 2019 are Black or African American, 10.5% are Hispanic or Latino, 2% are Asian and 1.7% identify as members of two or more races, according to both Pitkin County and U.S. Census Bureau websites.
It’s no secret that Aspen is known as a predominately white, wealthy Colorado ski town. And while leaders like Mawa McQueen — renowned local chef and founder of Mawa’s Kitchen in Aspen and The Crepe Shack in Snowmass Village — knows racism must exist in Aspen, she said she can’t recall having experienced any notable discrimination or prejudice against herself.
However, McQueen said she understands her perspective is probably much different than other locals of color because she came to America from France, where she grew up, to actively leave racism behind her and pursue her dreams of success beyond the French ghetto.
“Since I’ve been in this country for 18 years, I’ve never really experienced or never noticed any racism against me and that is the truth,” McQueen said.
“I left that in my past, that was my France story. … I came here because I decided to choose what racism I can put up with. I didn’t want to put up with the French one, I wanted to put up with the American one because I knew that people beat the system here, they beat it. In France, I didn’t see that. I didn’t see anybody who was a self-made millionaire and not a singer or an athlete.”
McQueen, who is originally from Ivory Coast, Africa, started cooking at a young age for her siblings, growing to love it and seeing it as fun versus work when she was a teenager. However, she said she never considered becoming a chef until later in life because she didn’t see any other Black chefs in France.
After attending vocational school and then one of France’s top culinary schools — earning a diploma in front of house, hotel and restaurant management after being steered away from cooking — she experienced the reality of what she suspected was “wrong” with France’s socioeconomic system all along in her early 20s: McQueen couldn’t get a job at any restaurant other than those that served fast food.
“They’d look at my resume, say great, and then I’d show up for an interview and they’d be like ‘oh, no.’ I’d feel so horrible,” McQueen said. “I was like this is not the France I know because nobody separates you, nobody calls you the ‘N-word’ or whatever. The prejudice is subtle.”
Soon after experiencing this reality, McQueen moved to England with the ultimate goal of getting to America, where she felt she had the best chance of being successful. She worked hard, learned English and in the early 2000s, McQueen was able to move to the U.S., first working in Maine and then in Aspen at The Little Nell and a variety of catering companies.
In 2006, McQueen opened Mawa’s Kitchen and has worked to bring healthy, locally sourced food to Aspen area locals and visitors ever since. She feels proud to have her own restaurant in Aspen and to have had the opportunity to make a name for herself on her cooking alone.
“I’ve worked hard for every single thing that I’ve had but I’ve never thought anybody in Aspen has treated me better or worse because I am Black,” McQueen said. “People don’t come to Mawa’s Kitchen because I’m Black, they come to Mawa’s Kitchen because I force them to because of my food.”
For McQueen, who strives to always be the exception and not the stereotype, she feels the current Black Lives Matter movement is an opportunity for Aspen to reflect on what it can do better to be more inclusive and to condemn racism in the community — never allowing a tenth of what happened to Floyd to happen in Aspen — but also to make Black and African American people feel more welcome to live and visit here.
For example, she said there must be a more deliberate marketing effort to bring more rich Black and African American people to Aspen — the same effort they put into advertising and marketing to rich white people — and that there needs to be more people of color in both Aspen Chamber Resort Association and Aspen Skiing Co. advertising.
“Don’t stereotype Black people. As much as there’s different white people, there’s a lot of different Black people,” McQueen said, emphasizing that the “Black people don’t ski” stereotype is dead wrong.
“When I came here, I hoped I would find someone who looked like me doing something extraordinary and I didn’t find anyone. I was saddened by that, …in my life, I never wanted to be average; I wanted to be extraordinary so I want to see more African Americans do better; to be extraordinary in Aspen.”
But while McQueen is a strong advocate for more visibility of Black people in Aspen, Sam Harvey, local artist and co-founder of the Harvey Preston Gallery, said he struggles with how much visibility for anyone is good before it becomes bad.
“I really struggle with visibility and being more visible or less visible. … There are downsides to be being visible and there are upsides as well so it’s complicated,” Harvey said.
“And I don’t know if it’s more of a difficult equation being Black in this town or not. For some people, it’s such a wrestling game that one has to think about, … and now that I say that, I wonder if my white peers go through the same equation.”
Harvey, a New Orleans native, said he doesn’t really consider Aspen any different than any other American community — it is part of America, and he doesn’t feel safe anywhere in America as a Black man.
“I don’t take for granted that just because I’m in Aspen nothing is going to happen to me, that’s not a lie that I can live with,” Harvey said. “Aspen for me is not separate from the rest of America, it is a town in America and in any town in America you just have to keep your wits about you.”
From a really young age, Harvey knew he wanted to be an artist. He first came to Aspen-Snowmass in the early ’80s to take a few classes at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center while studying as an undergraduate at the Kansas City Art Institute. After art school, he did an art residency in Sun Valley, Idaho, lived in Boulder for awhile and found his way back to Anderson Ranch again in the early ’90s — first for classes, then for an art residency, then as a ranch employee in the ceramics department for nine years.
“The quality of artists that come to do those one and two week workshops there is insane. They are the leaders in their fields and so being there was a way for me to really kick start being an artist,” Harvey said.
Harvey co-founded the Harvey Preston Gallery at Aspen Highlands in the early 2000s with Alleghany Meadows, a Carbondale-based artist, and now runs it at its current location in Aspen, hoping to give artists a platform to show their work and locals meaningful pieces of art they want to live with.
When asked if he’d every experienced any racism in Aspen, he mentioned a few instances, some more egregious and some more recent than others.
He’s been called the “N-word” more than five times in Aspen, noting one instance when a group of white men in a Jeep yelled the racial slur at him as he’s walked across the street to go to the movies.
He’s had people constantly ask to touch his hair, which is dreadlocked, or just touch it without asking.
He’s been “pummeled” by water balloons while on a float during the Fourth of July parade by people in a home with a U.S. Confederate flag on display.
He’s heard a woman in a local restaurant say, “One of the things I love about coming to Aspen is that there are no Black people here,” a clearly visible example of prejudice making him feel invisible, he said.
Harvey went on to say despite some of his negative experiences, he loves living in Aspen and being a part of its art culture. Like McQueen, Harvey wants to see Aspen and America as a whole be more welcoming to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, broadening the base of local residents, visitors and business owners here—first by giving the Hispanic and Latino community, which is the predominant Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley minority population, more of a seat at the decision making table.
Personally, he hopes to use his platform as an artist to contribute to making local change, too—he just doesn’t know what that looks like yet. And although Harvey said he’s not someone who is driven to go out and protest, he feels the protests and Black Lives Matter demonstrations that have occurred in Aspen are extremely important because they do give visibility to people of color in this valley and make it hard to ignore the racial, socioeconomic issues all Americans have a role to play in addressing.
“People can get comfortable in their ignorance, which helps to kill people,” Harvey said. “They say, ‘I didn’t see it (racism), I didn’t know it existed.’ You can have blinders but you are still part of the structure of this country. No one is innocent and you can’t pretend that somehow this is not part of your issue.”
Overall, Harvey said racism against Black people and people of color is an American issue that needs to be addressed by all Americans. At the end of the day, he feels many Americans of color simply just want to live their lives and feel as much a part of this country as anyone else, which communities like Aspen can help facilitate.
“African Americans just want to be Americans in America. And there are a number of people who don’t want us to be, they don’t consider us Americans or they don’t even consider us humans,” Harvey said.
“So that’s the fight really, being accepted in America. … We all want the same things and we don’t want to be treated more special or less special, just as humans working to support their families, their businesses, their jobs, … which is the tension and the fight because, you know, it’s complicated.”
Similar to Harvey, all Dr. Brandon Taylor, a radiologist working at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, wants is to be able to be basic, be authentic and to be himself, regardless of race.
“Honestly, I try to live like a white guy, meaning at a point where I don’t have to answer for my race,” Taylor said. “And I want to help people, especially people of color, know that it’s OK to just be yourself, it’s OK to be human. You don’t have to make up for anything, just be yourself.”
Taylor, a St. Louis native who moved to the Willits area from Washington, D.C., about a year ago, said he was kind of naïve to the anti-Black racism that existed in America because he went to predominately Black elementary, middle and high schools, and attended Morehouse College as a NASA Scholar — that is until he shifted gears and decided to attend medical school at St. Louis University.
On a recent afternoon in a Willits area park, Taylor recounted some of the discrimination and racism he experienced in med school, including being asked more than once by school officials and law enforcement while studying with a Black classmate late at the library “what they were doing there” and “how they got there.”
After he attended medical school and decided he wanted to become a radiologist, Taylor said he completed his residency at a hospital in Milwaukee, where as the sole Black person in his residency group, he was the first and only person questioned when a residency laptop went missing.
Taylor also recalls being told by a doctor, “In the future, don’t let anyone assume anything about you. Just show them how good you are” — a piece of advice he felt was good at the time and relatively innocent but now realizes didn’t address the prejudice or discrimination he was experiencing; it basically told him to always be perfect, to not have flaws, a dangerous directive because Taylor said it’s an unhealthy mindset and unfortunately how many people of color feel they need to be in order to succeed.
“The worst part about it is most people don’t know they’re being racist. … We look at (anti-Black racism) through this archaic lens of attack dogs and (the N-word). But that’s not what racism is, it’s cultural, it’s subconscious and it’s not white specific,” Taylor said.
“It’s American to be racist against Black people; not Black, not white, American. And unless you’re doing active work to realize your unknown biases and erase them, how dare you say you’ve never been racist, Black or white?”
While Taylor said he expected to experience some racism and discrimination in the Roaring Fork Valley, he said he was taken aback by how “chill” things are here, and hasn’t felt like he’s been treated differently because he’s a Black man.
Like Harvey, Taylor and Odini Gogo, owner of the Res Ipsa store in downtown Aspen, sees anti-Black racism in America as a colorless issue — an American issue all Americans contribute to and must work together to fix.
For Taylor, that means working as a society to better understand how culture contributes to systemic anti-Black racism, what systemic anti-Black racism means and how it exists, and to work with each other as humans to erase anti-Black thinking and oppression.
For Gogo, who moved to the U.S. from Nigeria when he was 16, that means first openly discussing and addressing classism and economic inequality in America, namely by giving minority and Black small business owners a chance to succeed by creating bank programs that help these owners gain greater access to capital.
It also means getting more people of color at the decision-making table and into the rooms and private clubs they’ve been excluded from for so long, Gogo said.
“Systematically, in this country, for whatever reason, race has been used to disadvantage a group of people and it happens over and over again,” Gogo said. “But I think that the bigger issue is a class thing. … It’s looking at who has access to money and that’s the way things are going to change.”
From an early age, Gogo said he and his family decided he would become a lawyer. At 16, he convinced his parents to let him move in with his uncle in Los Angeles to complete high school and has lived in the U.S. ever since.
Gogo went on to attend the University of California, Berkeley and Emory University School of Law in Georgia. He then went into investment banking in New York and conducted transactional corporate work before opening the first “Res Ipsa”— which is part of the law term “res ipsa loquitur” that translates to “the thing speaks for itself”— store in Nantucket in 2017 with his partner, Josh, who also is a lawyer.
About a year later, they expanded their store to Aspen, selling their self-designed, sustainable and international-inspired “timeless” ties they’ve been creating since 2013, and a host of other globally designed, handmade products made “carefully and responsibly with love,” the store website says.
While he’s experienced some discrimination and racism in the U.S., Gogo feels very fortunate and blessed to have lived the life he’s always dreamed in America, and has never felt limited or oppressed because of the color of his skin.
However, Gogo said he was shocked when he watched the video of George Floyd saying he couldn’t breathe while pinned facedown on the concrete, and has been thinking about anti-Black racism in America ever since.
“I still haven’t processed it completely and I just wish I never watched the video because it (made me feel) a rage I can’t explain and anger and sadness,” Gogo said. “I know for sure a police officer would not treat a dog that way. … It’s not okay and I’m still processing it.”
Gogo went on to say that while he knows racism and oppression exist in America, he truly believes in the concept of the American Dream and is looking for ways he can support the Black community — especially Black trans women — namely by looking to employ more Black people, support more Black businesses and service providers, and mentor Black young adults, helping make their own dreams come true.
“Right now I think things can change and people can live the American Dream, which I know a lot of people are excluded from,” Gogo said. “We just have to figure out a way to bring those people in. … If that was a job I could figure out I would, but I will just do my part and I will encourage everyone I know to do the same.”
Most of the Black leaders the Aspen Times Weekly spoke with emphasized the fact that anti-Black racism in the U.S. is a very complex, multi-faceted issue that won’t be fully addressed or solved in any one way by one group of people.
However, leaders like Alex Schrempf, head boys’ varsity basketball coach at Aspen High School, feel the fact that anti-Black racism in America has come to the forefront of most people’s minds and conversations is a good place to start and will undoubtedly lead to more awareness, more education and eventually paths to substantial change.
“When you reach that level when enough people want to talk about this and enough people care about it, then something can actually happen,” Schrempf said.
Schrempf — whose mom is Black German and dad is Detlef Schrempf, the white, German former NBA star — said he’s started to have these uncomfortable conversations with his close friends and his high school basketball boys, imparting on them that being measured on the quality and content of their character and sticking up for others when they see something that’s borderline racist or discriminatory in any way is more important than anything else.
“That’s what we look for, the quality and content of character, and that’s going to come in all shapes and colors and forms,” Schrempf said.
“If you’re pushing people away simply because of where they’re from or things they have no control over, then that’s solely a reflection of your own character, which is what we are really trying to challenge our guys with right now.”
As a multi-racial kid growing up in Bellevue — a Washington community he described as being similar in many ways to Aspen — Schrempf said while he experienced some racism, he never really considered race as much of a barrier or divider as privilege.
He said that he’s been fortunate enough to be well-traveled and discovered early on that basketball and recreation in general is a powerful way to bring people together, regardless of race or socioeconomic background.
“For me, I look back at some of the most eye-opening and important experiences in my young life when I really went in and embedded myself in different types of populations,” Schrempf said, referencing specifically the three years he and several friends from Bellevue spent playing AAU basketball in south Seattle.
“I realized there wasn’t much difference except for the settings. My friends in Bellevue, we had bigger backyards to play in but sometimes at my friends’ in south side Seattle who had caged backyards with no space, we’d have more fun.”
Basketball has remained a strong pillar in Schrempf’s life. He played for UCLA basketball, coached back in Bellevue and worked in international basketball operations for the NBA as an intern before moving to Aspen, where he’s now leading the boy’s basketball program at Aspen High School and serving as the athletic coordinator for the city of Aspen Parks and Recreation Department.
Over the past several years he’s lived in Aspen, Schrempf said he’s never felt like he’s been treated unequally to or differently than anyone else, and admires the community’s open-mindedness and dedication to bringing in new, cutting edge ideas and innovations through organizations like the Aspen Institute — which he hopes will play a part in bringing the Aspen community into the larger conversation surrounding racism nationwide.
“This is a hub, it has so much potential and there’s so much influence, knowledge and experience in our little bubble here that it would be a shame if we just chose to not use that to facilitate conversations and to get to know our neighbors a little bit better,” Schrempf said.
“We have a lot to be grateful for here considering the state of our country, but instead of hiding in our comfort I really would prefer we ask ourselves how we can do something from here, from this vantage point?”
Arnold Muasa, a rising sophomore at the University of Colorado Boulder who grew up in Aspen, expressed similar thoughts to Schrempf.
Muasa said he feels Aspen can set an example as a wealthy, white community that fully embraces change to better support people of color, locally and nationally.
“I’m hoping as a country and particularly in Aspen we don’t just sit back and wallow in our privilege because that’s what we really have in Aspen, the privilege to be removed from these situations,” Muasa said. “I think as Aspenites we need to open ourselves outside of the bubble and see how what we do here can affect other people.”
Muasa, who was born in Kenya and moved to Aspen with his family when he was 5 years old, said while he loved growing up in Aspen and is grateful for the opportunities and education he received, it also wasn’t easy.
As a young Black man, he constantly felt like the “odd man out” and didn’t really have anyone outside of his family he could talk with about what he was feeling.
Climary Sanchez and Bella Williams, both 2020 Aspen High School graduates, echoed Muasa’s sentiments, saying they felt similarly and look forward to attending universities that have a more diverse student body.
“It feels like sometimes no matter what I do and how I represent Aspen, I’m always on the outside,” Sanchez said. She plans to attend Notre Dame this fall, and when she visited campus in February was excited to be invited to an event with other Black students on campus.
“When I went I was very surprised but overjoyed to experience that and it made me even more excited to be on campus,” she said of the event.
When asked what roles they feel they have to play in the current Black Lives Matter movement, all three young Aspenites expressed determination for themselves and their generation to lead the fight against racism and for social justice and racial equality in the U.S.
Williams, who plans to attend the University of Southern California this fall, hopes to do absolutely whatever she can to help people better understand anti-Black racism in America and what lasting social justice for people of color could look like.
Muasa hopes to pursue a career in global business, looking up to local leaders like McQueen and national ones like Beyoncé and Kenya Barris and using his voice to advocate for the Black community.
Sanchez hopes to set an example for younger Black students, showing them they can do whatever they set their mind to if they work hard, and would love to see students of color in Aspen step up to support each other more through their education here.
But while all three young adults have their own dreams and desires for change, they hope together, as Americans, everyone can work with each other to make a collective difference.
“This is a human rights movement, not a political movement. … It’s about getting the fairness and equitable treatment we all deserve as humans in America,” Muasa said.
“I feel like the whole nation needs to get to a place where people don’t see color,” she said. “I know that’s probably not the most realistic because there’s a reason we were all made with different skin tones, but I just hope that people are able to somehow empathize with each other enough to make a difference and enough to make a change because that’s really the only thing you can do.”