Another #BlackLivesMatter Memoir
It was the summer of 2005, only a month before senior year was to commence at my predominantly white, independent, private high school, thirty miles from the concrete jungle that was my hometown. My older sister, Christina, was home from her first year at the University of Delaware, and I, preparing for my own journey towards higher education, was glad to have her back around. College conversations filled the air in our home, as letters filed in from schools like Brown, dangling full track scholarships in front of my face like the carrot they wished I actually had a taste for. I was not impressed. I didn’t want
to be on anybody’s track team in college,
although running and performing arts were
all that kept me grounded throughout high
school thus far. After sustaining an injury
during my junior year and witnessing
my coaches contradict what my doctors
advised for the sake of winning
championships at my body’s expense,
I was finally able to identify
the plantation. And I wanted
The school had provided me with the ultimate resources: It had acres upon acres of land on which sat fields for nearly any sport one could think of, libraries, technology labs, science labs, pottery studios, art studios, dance studios, multiple theaters, and more. There were AP classes in every subject imaginable, world languages from all over Europe and Asia, and sports teams and clubs for things I’d never even heard. The opportunities were plentiful, but with all of its glorious offerings, the school still missed the mark.
It was a place that glorified whiteness, and my blackness was either a source of entertainment or the mule that would get them where their legs couldn’t carry them alone. I was not interested in attending another predominantly white institution (PWI). I had been at this one long enough.
Before then, I attended public schools in my low-income neighborhood and managed to obtain Super Honor Roll and Honor Roll status every marking period, every year. I was invited and inducted into the district’s Intellectually Gifted program, and parallel to the account Patrisse Khan-Cullors offers in her Black Lives Matter memoir, was regarded by my teachers, administrators, and peers as a “star student.” In high school, however, there was nothing remarkable about me except that I was a really fast runner and a triple threat on stage. Where history and science abhorred me, running, dancing, singing, and acting sustained me. The fact that a school like Brown wanted me and was willing to provide the means to fund my schooling, which we surely did not have, was a blessing to my single mother, who at that time was holding down two jobs just to make ends meet. For me, however, it simply wasn’t enough. I wasn’t sure of exactly what I was looking for, but I knew it wasn’t going to be at a PWI.
My mother had taken a few days off of work, and she, Christina and I were preparing for our trip down to Virginia to visit some long-time family friends, and while we were there, scope out two colleges: The University of Richmond and Hampton University—an amusing variance of schools in retrospect. I didn’t know much about either, but I’d always liked Virginia, and it was close, but not too close, and far, but not too far from my Jersey home. I carried no expectations with me, but I was ready to explore, and Hampton was up first.
This, here, Hampton University, The Standard of Black Excellence, was it. This was the place that I first saw Black lives mattering.
My mom parked her old Honda off campus on a small side street near the entrance and we made our way onto the grounds. Black bodies were everywhere. Carrying books, backpacks, iPods, and pride. Laughing. Smiling. Happy
and together. Dressed in
everything from Throwbacks
to Dashikis. Sporting low-cut
Caesars and micro-braids,
afros and locs. It was not only
magical, not only “stardust,”
but for me, it was unseen and
unheard of. To witness
young people being
Black and studious
and happy and free
at the same time
was something I had
never seen before, and sadly, never knew existed, except for the reruns of A Different World that entertained me but felt so distant at the same time.
My high school conditioned me to believe that I was not smart. That smart was not only reserved for, but further, was synonymous with white. So, I learned there that I was only “Black-smart,” which was the same as dumb in the white world. In that world, I was Black, poor, talented, and fast, but I was not smart, nor did I matter, except to win championships and to entertain.
The catch twenty-two with HBCUs is that while they provide an unparalleled experience for the Black scholar, they don’t provide much scholarship money for her. But I didn’t care. There was no place in the world that I’d rather go than there. And there I went and graduated with a 4.03 GPA in only three years. I met my husband there and my very best friend. And most importantly, I met myself there—or perhaps, I created myself—or better, re-created myself there. My freshman year,
I took my first ever African-American History class taught by Natalie Robertson. We analyzed the book of Genesis and Erykah Badu's On and On. That was the year, I cut off my permed hair and proudly sported an afro that would eventually become the locs you'd see to this day, just like the ones I spotted when I first arrived at Hampton that day in the Summer of 2005. And just like Patrisse, I began getting tattoos and piercings—representations of my public commitment—like the ankh near my womb and the music notes to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on my back because I had finally come into myself—willingly acknowledging
my connection to Blackness, paying homage to the history and legacy of our past, and understanding this
process as my rebirth and new life.
I didn't realize that summer day would change me forever. It would show me that I didn’t have to be Black and carry shame, that I could be Black and Proud. It would teach me that who I am doesn’t depend on how white people see me or use me. It would let me know that I am enough.
In the concrete jungle that was home, my friends, my peers, they were dying. I knew death well. She had a multitude of names like Juvenile inJustice System, Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, Stolen Cars, Drive-bys, Stray Bullets, 5-0, Public School,
Lead Paint, Mold, Infestation, Asthma, and
far too many more to name. As Patrisse
puts it, “Now there are even more ways to
make us the enemy, even more ways to
make us disappear” (p. 15). Only as an adult
did I come to realize that those names I
knew so well were only pseudonyms for
Death’s real name: White Supremacy—
Systematic Oppression. But as a child, up to
the age of seventeen, the world around me
tried its best to make me believe that to be
Black meant to be at the bottom, to be Black
and smart was an anomaly, and to be
Black-smart didn’t mean anything compared
to being white-smart.
Hampton showed me that
Black excellence existed, that Black lives mattered, that I could actually matter. That hope was not lost. That I was not an anomaly. And that instead of running from the concrete jungle that made me, instead of shunning it, that I should be representing it, building it up, investing it in, and loving the ones that need the love the most.
Like Patrisse, I, too, “grew up in a neighborhood that was impoverished and in pain and bore all the modern-day outcomes of communities left without resources and yet supplied with tools of violence” (p. 175). And after Hampton, my vision became to provide my neighborhood with the resources and tools for success. I began working on the school floor of the Juvenile Detention Center in Newark that I lost so many friends to as we came of age. I taught Black and Brown students who had gotten kicked out of their urban school districts in alternative school settings with little-to-no resources. I held book drives, created chalk murals around my classroom, and
danced and cried and laughed with students to be a small source of light in dark forgotten places. I taught with love first, and the parallelism of my inner-city upbringing that shamed me until that day at Hampton became the bridge for me and my students, whom not enough teachers believed in along the way. As Yolanda Sealey Ruiz would say, "This is the work!"
I wish that it didn’t take Hampton to
teach me that I could love myself and be proud of who I was and be Black at the same time. I wish that school, earlier on, had done that for me. But because it didn’t, it’s what fuels me now to create spaces within schools where students who experience what urbicidal trauma, can cultivate a positive sense of identity and self-concept and develop the language and understanding that they need to call Death what it is. In her memoir, Patrisse reflects on watching her brothers, Paul and Tremaine uphold her other brother, Monte, as they make their way into the hospital. She writes, "It takes Monte 30, maybe 40 minutes to get out of the car. We wait. And slowly, slowly, I see Monte emerge from the car. He is walking gingerly, Paul on one side and Tremaine on the other. He has a towel over his head. They don’t let my brother stumble, they don’t let him fall. This is the image of Black men that lives in my head. This constructive care. This steady love" (138).
This idea of constructive care and steady love is what I hope to bring to and sustain in neighborhoods like mine. It’s where my research and passions exist. It’s what gives me hope and strength in a country that doesn’t love me or us back. It’s what reminds me that we have enough love to give one another, and the more love we give, the more stardust we can see.
Khan-Cullors, P. & Bandele, A. (2018). When they call you a terrorist: A black lives matter memoir. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Dr. Carmen Kynard
Dr. Natalie Robertson
Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz
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My "Home By The Sea" - Hampton University
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