Don’t be silenced: we are citizens too

By Stephanie Black November 6, 2019

Pan-Africanism. The term has been demoralized by oppressors to mean separatism, terrorism, anti-nationalism,and so on, but is actually a term used to promote unification and identity. It was developed in order to allow African Americans, who have been dehumanized, devalued, brutalized, disenfranchised, and disadvantaged to be able to connect with their African ancestry. Identity is a powerful component of freedom and was something that African Americans have been stripped of for centuries.

I remember reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, and what I took from the book was that identity is something that can empower one from oppression. With identity, you become unconquerable and you become human.

I remember throughout my life I did not necessarily feel human. Growing up, I faced so much racism and colorism that one would think I was not even living in the 21st century. Whether it was having my hair called nappy or abnormal, or having my skin called dirty or disgusting, or simply being called the n-word by a complete stranger for no reason at all, I did not know why such things were thrown my way, especially because I was a child at the time. Being a child and being called such a word made my heart drop to my stomach and just made me feel less than worse. There are honestly no way to describe how it felt being called the n-word. As a child, I had to experience these things and, painfully enough, I did not know why. Of course, I was taught about racism in history classes in school but it was barely touched upon. I was under the impression that African Americans did not have much history besides slavery and the civil rights movement, and that being treated as less than a respectable human being was just a norm in American society since such actions never seemed to disappear.

I felt stuck, I felt silenced, I felt trapped. I did not want to feel that way again as I was reaching my late teen years and adulthood, so the person I confided in was my grandmother, who was very insightful. She showed me her birth certificate which still had the word “negro” on it, told me about her time living in the South and coming up North as she became a teacher, and showed me pictures of her with Martin Luther King Jr. at her church. And through it all, she was proud of every little thing because it gave her the wisdom to know who she is. It led her to know that she was something and that no one could tell her otherwise. She gave me an eye view into a world I barely knew. This marked my time to do my own research on black history, black beauty, black nationalism, black culture, and more.

That is where the term Pan-Africanism came into play. I never knew what Pan-Africanism was before I researched the term and read about it in an African American literature book. It became a safe haven for me. I felt as if I was no longer surrounded by the struggle of putting up with how systemic racism defined me. I no longer felt as if I was in this corner alone without a way of knowing who or what I am, and where and what I came from. It made me happy to know that I could identify my race with something and proudly be able to correctly align myself to Pan-Africanism and what it meant to be black.

It gave me something that I could be proud to tell people about. And I was able to raise my flag of red, black, and green proudly as I graduated high school because I knew that I left my childhood behind knowing who I was as a person. I was able to tell myself that I would no longer have to feel trapped anymore. I now am able to walk with the blood, the skin, and the land of my ancestors on my shoulders protecting me, as that is what my flag stood for, to me.

Now, why did I tell this story? Well, did I ever think that fate would be so bitter as to enclose me once more in the fate of being silenced by racism and hateful antics? I honestly thought that when I put down my enrollment fee and finally unpacked the last box in my dorm room that I would be free of feeling as if I no longer had a voice due to the internal hatred of others. Apparently, Rensselaer had other plans on the matter.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The amendment is so powerful, yet so vague. Such a line is what is allowing individuals on campus to spread their unsavory opinions. Yes, they are opinions to which everyone is entitled to, even if others may hate to admit it as such.

Now, I must not lie, when first hearing about such things that have been occurring on campus in regards to hate speech and hate advocacy, I was holding back tears. Of course one may think they were tears of sadness and anger, but no, they were tears of fear and empathy.

I was fearful because, when wondering why such actions have not been thoroughly investigated by anyone on campus—whether it was the minority associations on campus or even President Shirley Ann Jackson herself—I was met with the dreadful remark of the First Amendment. It is the piece about the “freedom of speech” that limits everyone from doing anything. It is now my limitation. It is now the root of my fear to be silenced once more into the corner of accepting the fate of being nothing more than a person with skin painted a worldly loathed color.

Why do I feel empathy though? It is because I cannot be angry. I have spent my life angry for so long because I just did not understand as a kid why people did these things and why people thought this was okay. But, after doing research, I realized I could not be angry any longer. They were never born to believe such things, they were taught such things. Being taught to have such a dark place in one’s heart for a group of people who function the same but just look different is saddening. I feel bad because I know they can open their eyes and realize for themselves whether their opinions are right or wrong (since I can not determine it for them), but they choose not to because those beliefs were something they were brought up to believe. Sometimes, it is not the parent. Sometimes it is peers, friends, other relatives, and more who have taught them to believe such things.

I can not fault the doer for choosing to spread hate speech on campus because I know that it is not necessarily their fault. However, I am not condoning it either. As a black activist, I do not promote division, exclusion, hate, or anything of that matter. My job is to lift up my people and to let them know that their hair is perfect, their skin is perfect, their bodies are perfect, their voices are perfect, and their history is perfect. All of those factors are nothing to be ashamed of because it made us who we are. If others do not see the same way, that is okay. Just as I refuse to let the same instances that have scarred me for life haunt me while I am now walking into adulthood, I encourage minorities on campus to do the same.

We should not let it silence us, but rather empower us to speak out and promote peace and uplift for one another. Don’t let the fear of breaking the First Amendment lead us to be victimized by the cruelty of others. In the words of Malcolm X: “We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.”