Juneteenth is special for me this year.
A few weeks ago I sat in front of my house in my car thinking about my next steps. I felt like I was standing at a crossroads. That juncture isn’t new to me. I have made decisions that changed the course of my life before or at least I think I have. I could well have ended up exactly at the same location regardless of the routes I took but I don’t think so. I think I have evaluated my options and walked in the direction that offered me the most security. At 22 I was embarking on a journey of motherhood that typically made any crossroads pretty simple for me. I did whatever helped me take care of my baby. I suffered from intense stereotype fear. And that led me to doing any and everything that might prove I was not just a statistic. “Do you want to be another statistic?” This was a question someone actually asked me as I prepared for my future at 22. I considered this carefully when I started planning my next move under the realization that the baby who made me a mother and set me on this path of striving to lead an undefined non-statistical life had now turned 22 herself. I thought it was time for me to recognize something. I had become a statistic indeed. I had joined the legions of Black parents who managed to raise and see a child grow into an adult despite the odds being completely and unequivocally against us. And I was well on my way to meeting that mark again. So I decided to leave the tropes behind and think about what I really wanted to do.
I had been hoping to rejoin a team of awesome educators and build something amazing at a local institution of higher education. I spoke to the interviewing team and hiring manager on April 20th. I expected to hear back within the next two weeks. But here I was welcoming June with not so much as a “hey we’re sorry this is taking so long” or “we decided to go in another direction” or anything at all. Nothing. I waited. I made excuses for them. I applied for other positions. And then I began to question my talent as a higher education administrator. I combed through the last 20 years of my career looking for clues that would explain what I had done so wrong. Thank goodness I have mentors, friends, colleagues, allies, and former students whose words over the years reached forward and said stop it. I know I have done my best and that best has helped a person or two along the way. So I had to ask myself what I thought was really happening here. And then the story about UNC’s failure to tenure one of our generation’s most formidable intellectuals, Nikole Hannah-Jones. A MacArthur fellow and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, she has long been someone I look up to and celebrate. I read the posts, tweets and articles about misogynoir in the ivory tower. I nodded my head along to Zoom clapbacks about the consequences of speaking truth to power and shook my head at statements about history and patriotism. I kept turning to the books on my shelves for answers. One of them kept me coming back.
Black Ink is a collection of pieces by Black writers on the fierceness and fearlessness of reading and writing while Black in America. Stephanie Stokes Oliver curates a journey from the early 1800s to the end of the historical 2-term presidency of the U.S.’s first Black commander-in-chief in 2017. The essays and excerpts are arranged in three sections: the peril, the power, and the pleasure. While the sections coincide with time periods, we are clearly led to the understanding that those themes persist across eras of Black literature. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discusses the canon he has built into so many syllabi. Kwame Ture and Ta-Nehisi Coates give us portraits of life at Howard University. Alice Walker chronicles her transcendence of unspeakable pain and body memories to do what Edwidge Danticat calls creating dangerously.
I don’t know what my next path will look like. I haven’t mapped it all out yet. I do know that I will not beg anyone to let me come offer them my best work. I know that I will not be concerning myself with stereotypes or harmful narratives about who or where I should be. I know that I matter. And as I learned from Minda Harts, I will not be giving anyone who wasted my time in 2020 the opportunity to do it again in 2021. I decided that when she tweeted it closer to the beginning of the year. But, as we approach Juneteenth I am renewing that vow. The voices in Black Ink reminded me that the path I need to walk is that of freedom. Sometimes we are like the folks in Galveston. No. I am not saying my life is like that of enslaved people. I’m saying they taught me something. They taught me who we are. We struggle and fight and endure. We celebrate when news of our freedom comes no matter how much of a long time coming it was. But we know that we were always getting free. No matter what laws are waiting to be written or what proclamations are waiting to be read, we walk to freedom. We walk in the path where we matter. As Nikki Giovanni writes in the foreword, “Black Lives Matter. Black Ink reminds us of why.” This Juneteenth I am remembering who we are. How are you celebrating?
Do you need a copy of the book? Send me your name and email address. I will get you squared away!