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Reflections on the John Lewis Fellowship

This essay was written as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action John Lewis Fellowship at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

“Easy movement through the world gives no transformation.”  -Dr. Daniel Black

A letter for those who need stories and black magic,
 
My first protest began with the scent of incense, the screech of car horns, the shiver of anticipation, and the rumble of hundreds chanting as one. By the end of the day, I was drenched in my own sweat, sprinkled in a thin film of grime, terrified of the consequences of my participation. In that moment, I could compare nothing in my life to the experience of that tumultuous press of bodies hurtling along the streets, driven by shared passion toward a distant destination. The sights and sounds of the march will linger in my consciousness forever. When night shrouds me in darkness, I will dream of stomping forward, fueled by grief, righteous anger, undeterred by the oppressive heat, the looming cars, the blue-white lightning flash of the police lights, the wail of their sirens, the heart-seizing slap of horns, all those sounds and feelings, intermixing in a cacophony of noise and sensation. I will dream of brandishing a crumpled poster with sweat-slicked hands alongside the familiar faces of the other fellows, our heart singing in tandem in a crescendo of emotion. That day, the people voiced their pain as one, tireless, voices raw and tattered, indomitable, unconquered, and I- I was there. I remember the words. No justice, no peace. 
 
Today, I can look back at that moment with hesitant, unsteady pride. My hands still tremble with the onslaught of those memories, but I was there and I did not flee. That quiet thought lifts my shoulders and straightens my spine. On that day, however, I was suffused with fear, my very limbs quaking. I feared the ramifications of my actions. I feared that fellows might be harmed. Terror dogged each of my steps, snarling at me heels, hissing in my ears. Anxiety creeped at the edge of my vision, a hungry, remorseless phantom. Would someone be flattened into the filthy pavement as though they were a rabid animal, undeserving of human rights? Would someone be arrested, compacted into another statistic, another senseless death, their humanity flayed away? The fear clung to my lungs, choking my voice. I was afraid that there would truly be no justice, no peace-not then or in our future. I am still afraid, even now, that our shouting echoes unheard, our rhetoric unheeded, our deaths un-mourned. 
 
From that day, I learned about fear and uncertainty in a capacity that I had never before experienced. In the end, the protest was peaceful event, yet I spent many days to attempting to parse through that experience before I could realize that though I was afraid, I could channel that fear. I could grasp my fear and mold it, shearing off the unneeded portions of my immobilization and uncertainty, remaking them into anger and action. I could use the tools, the scaffolding that this program provides to direct my fear toward productive ends so that the end result of my fear was transformation.
 
In the National Center for Civil and Human Rights exhibit, “Rolls Down Like Water,” there was an interactive simulation of the harassment experienced by the brave people who participated in the Lunch Counter sit-ins. What I experienced that day in the protest was tame in comparison. The very sight of the police felt like a punch to my gut, but in truth, no one physically touched me. No one actually singled me out. I was merely one individual in a larger movement. No one screamed their hatred of me and all that I am into my ears. I think that though my fear was only a mere fraction of what the nonviolent protestors of the Civil Rights Movement endured, it helped to foster a change within me, to spark a greater sense of connection, empathy, and awareness toward people’s suffering and sacrifice.
 
Fear, however, is an intrinsic part of the human experience and as a child, I was not free from the touch of a different kind of fear, one subtler in nature. That fear was directed at myself, even if I never consciously acknowledged it. Everyone around me was white. I had no exposure to people who were unapologetically Black, people who practiced Black magic in the way they walked, the way they talked, the way they fought. I was the token Black girl, the “oreo”- twist me apart and I thought I might bleed white. Even the stories I read were about everyone else but Black people, and I internalized that absence, picking and peeling away my Blackness to carve myself into a person who might feel at home in a white world. The fear I felt in the protest lived within me even then, years ago, wearing a different mask. Through this program, I have learned about the important role fear has played in my history and in the history of my ancestors through the idea of Sankofa and in the stories of Black suffering, Black triumph, Black excellence, and Black perseverance. Fear needn’t silence us. As a little girl, I buried my stories but as Dr. Black argued, “Shame has no place in the heart of man”- or women, I might add (Black, 2016). 
 
Striking back against that shame and fear has been an uphill battle. The Sankofa symbol reminds us that we don’t have to forget about the past, in fact, our history is powerful, even in its painful moments. Sankofa reaffirms for us that our story is powerful, that our fear can stir up others and show them the power of Black magic. The graceful curves of the Sankofa symbol remind me that I must look back and grasp my history while also delving deeper into the history of my people and the systems that chain us in a cycle of oppression. 
Dr. Daniel Black also spoke of the importance of writing, crafting, and sharing stories. Similarly, the John Lewis Fellowship is filled with stories and their truths. In recollection, I can only marvel at the theoretical background that this program offers its fellows. I have learned so much about the construction of race, systems of oppression, and the power of language, art, and media to shape historical and contemporary discourse. Being here has taught me that I can be unapologetically Black, as an ally and as an activist. Before I arrived here, I would have never described myself in the aforementioned terms. We each have our roles in this fight, and wherever I go from here, I will be armed with new tools, a global perspective, and a desire to serve my people. 
 
I composed this essay as an open letter but now I realize that it is also a challenge to myself, a way to acknowledge the fears that I have harbored for years and to remind myself and others about the danger-the attraction even-of silence. Sometimes silence is a tantalizing escape, a sanctuary for those who are weary. Yet silence is also a multifaceted beast, one capable of good, evil, and all that lies between them. The silence that I held within myself was a pestilence to me. I camouflaged my fear with silence, assuming that somehow, I could use it to make myself quiet, good, and kind. Palatable. My silence became a bitter knife, an agent of a culling of myself, an erasure of my voice, a censure of my ability to speak up and to speak out. Being in this fellowship has helped me to process how my silence cloaked me in inaction and terror, a cage built by systems outside my control with a door that I locked. Through Sankofa, through the memory of my ancestors, I have realized that I am bound to delve back into my history if I am ever to look toward the future. For me, that future is activism. That future is me reimagined as a soldier equipped to fight, serve, and mentor others. I do not think I will ever escape the burden of my fear, but I am learning now that no fear will ever silence my Black magic, or the stories that black magic has yet to tell.
 
 “It only takes a little light to disturb an eternity of darkness.” -Dr. Black

References

Black, Daniel. “The Coming.” The 2016 John Lewis Fellowship Program. National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, GA. 7 July 2016. Lecture. 

Wolfe, George, curator. “Lunch Counter Simulator.” Rolls Down Like Water. National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, GA. 6 July 2016. 

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