(Content note: This article contains use of racial slurs and descriptions of racist violence.)
I grew up in a section of Brooklyn, New York, called Flatlands, an area at the time that was inhabited by mostly Italian and Irish Americans. When I was five years old, my chaperones for the day, my two aunts and their boyfriends, took me to the neighborhood park. I remember counting clouds as thrill crept up each inch of my frame, the swing taking me higher and higher.
I was in bliss until I heard yelling and profanity followed by my aunt screaming, “Off the swing now!” The fear in her quivering voice followed by the aggressive way she swept me into her arms caused tears to sting my face. Louder yelling ensued, followed by the sounds of breaking glass. A white teenager brandished a bat and yelled, “Go back to Africa, niggers!” I peeked over my aunt’s shoulder as we ran, nauseated by the blood pouring down her boyfriend’s face.
I later discovered he was bashed over the head with glass bottles and required surgery to repair nerve damage. The perpetrators were never charged.
The violent and inhumane Middle Passage delivered my enslaved ancestors to South Carolina and Virginia. Eager to leave the trauma they endured from the overt racism in the South both my grandmothers participated in the great migration, settling in Brooklyn.
My childhood community proved to be a microcosm of a country where racial injustice, economic disparities, marginalization, underrepresentation, blatant bias, and a painfully flawed criminal justice system are as American as apple pie. Even with this dark and unjust history–America is home and always will be.
Black families across the U.S. still struggle to overcome the vestiges of slavery, my family included. I’m the first generation to receive a juris doctorate; my reality is not unique. There are Black families who are just seeing first generation college graduates due to a system that has been rigged against us since 1619.
I was in the same age group as the Exonerated Five when they were arrested. My education that there are two Americas continued when 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins was murdered in 1989 by a mob of white teens in Bensonhurst. They were not branded thugs; they did not lose their innocence to a criminal justice system built to destroy, not rehabilitate.
My awareness that “to protect and serve” had a caveat when it came to the way law enforcement policed Black people was cemented as eggs served with a side of tears became the morning staple while witnessing the aftermath of police brutality on local news.
I was privileged to attend a prestigious high school on New York’s Upper East Side and then immerse myself in Black excellence at Howard University. Even with seemingly good credentials, I’ve been racially profiled in department stores and asked on numerous occasions in accusatory ways if I was in the correct seat while traveling first class.
I’ve had to play small and unthreatening while deferring to insecure white bosses and made sure my voice sounded racially ambiguous so I could look at apartments in white neighborhoods.
But I will not leave.
My ancestors were the currency that built this country. They birthed generations who worked tirelessly, created masterpieces, broke barriers, shed blood, buried children, and persevered despite every hurdle meant for their demise.
The race baiting chant of “go back to Africa” solidifies the ignorance of those who spew it. I will always stay in this country because my kin folk are patriots who fought in wars to defend this country only to be callously denied the right to vote upon their return.
I learned how to ride a bike on this soil, read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye under a Sycamore tree on land purchased with funds from a family member’s blue collar job, I’ve walked through doors that were bolted shut for the generation before me, and sat at tables I was never expected to join. Right here, in America.
The call for systemic changes, the impassioned movement gripping this country is our modern-day redemption song. With each march, each informed and deliberate demand for justice, we get to actively express justified defiance. Pioneers like John Lewis endured vicious dog attacks, were beaten with lead pipes, and died for the right for us to remain, vote our interests and thrive on this homeland. They passed the baton not for us to flee but for us to boldly continue the fight. Proudly standing in the truth of our existence on this land is activism.
Today, it is estimated that more than 5.8 million Americans are prevented from voting due to felony disenfranchisement laws, which disproportionately target communities of color. Even though voter suppression continues, we owe it to those who were denied that right to show up this election and all subsequent local elections with enthusiasm and fierce determination to hold elected officials accountable. Let’s use this moment to galvanize and show both parties our unified power. If the next four years does not reap a harvest of equity and actionable systemic changes we will continue to press on with a new strategy. Our vote is powerful and the time has come to use that power strategically and purposefully.
When I plant my bare feet in the soiled earth of America, I am rooted. Those roots are deep and expansive. I close my eyes and feel my deceased grandmother’s deferred dreams materialize, her mother’s tears caress my face when the rain falls, and my great-great grandmothers pain fuels me to never lose faith when I think of how far we still must go to unravel systemic racism, generational trauma, food deserts, failing health systems, and an educational system in crisis.
For over 400 years there has been an insatiable thirst for equality; when it comes, and it will come, my offspring will welcome it in this country, on this land, because this is our home.