Before there was Barack or Hillary, there was me.
Black. Female. President.
In the photo above, I had just been elected Beaumont Middle School’s first Black President. I knew in my heart I had enough love to change the world—one heart at a time. Our student body council bonded quickly in the name of “equality” and “diversity.” However in the days to follow, it was going to take more than just a shared mission to see true democracy realized in our classrooms, hallways and cafeteria.
It didn’t take long for my election high to wear off.
Sitting in room 227 of Mrs. Morgan’s 8th grade social studies class, my eyes stayed glued to the posters of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Abraham Lincoln. I wondered if these two American icons ever felt confused about what side of the fence they stood on. Warring sides of race were firmly being positioned around me, and I stayed lost, wandering somewhere in the middle.
You see, many of my black friends felt like I was abandoning them. They saw my involvement in the dominant school culture as selling out. They warned me that my white peers would switch on me, that it was in my best interest and safety to hang out with only my kind. Their concern for me was genuine.
What I had tried to communicate to my black peers was that my intention in becoming involved with student government was to change the status quo of our predominantly white school, that instead of excluding myself and others who looked like me from the school “norms,” culture and decisions affecting all of the student body, I wanted to make sure that we were included.
On the other side of the fence I was being hit consistently with subtle and overt racist jokes. White ignorance was being “kindly” draped around my neck-giving others the ability to yank their untamed white power leaving me choked and speechless with statements like—
“I really don’t consider you black.”
“Your hair is so nappy looking today.”
“We’re all the same, but it must be hard being black.”
Navigating my cultural sanity and identity in the midst of democracy was not easy, but I felt it was worth the risk. I still do. I had never really been interested in politics however I found myself drawn to standards of truth and principles that held everyone equally accountable.
Social justice principles reminded me of the Bible—God’s truth, standards and commandments that give order to the chaos of our human hearts. Truth, justice and equality aren’t just words to me. Historically, these beliefs made real were the only way my people made it out.
Mrs. Morgan, without sugar-coating it in class, showed us slides of slave brutality, awful ships and lynchings. These gut-wrenching and heartless acts upon human beings, who also happened to be my ancestors permanently stayed imprinted in my mind’s eye. In ships they were stacked like sardines, raped to create labor and then thrown out without regard. The least I could do was do my best in school and find intentional ways to make progress and honor their life sacrifice with dignity by digging into my own courage.
The election had brought many sides together, but it also stirred racial tensions including my very own. I had been so careful in placing firm boundaries and set divides with my black, white and Asian friends. I didn’t know what to do now that I had freed myself and others outside our boxes.
Fast forward to today, thirty years later. I still find myself pressing my way outside the margins, but wisdom has taught me that running back to home plate is crucial to staying in this “justice game” longer.
I make no apologies for being Black.
I make no apologies for being female.
I make no apologies for believing in the power of love, justice and forgiveness.
Praise God that despite the opposition, setbacks and battle scars I’m still that 14-year-old girl who believes she can still change the world—one heart at a time.