What does it mean to pave the way? To be the first in your family to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Africana Studies and Psychology, and pursue a Ph.D. to study the strengths and vibrancy of the Black community. To be a young parent raising your Black daughter and sons in a generation with radical social movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, and #metoo—movements that demand we address issues in the United States like extrajudicial violence against Black bodies and patriarchal norms that support sexual assault and transphobia. To be an emerging Black feminist scholar educator within institutions that have historically excluded my communities and generated research that alleged our deviancy and degeneracy. In part, I think that paving the way involves leadership and a commitment to service, two key tenets of the mission statement for the Edward A. Bouchet Society. However, I also believe that the narratives we construct about our leadership skills and our service to others often leaves out an important piece of the story—namely, how the mistakes we have made, shape who we are.
I remember a large, Black boy in my high school who was openly gay. Although I am sure there were others, he is the only Black male I can remember who did not conform to the expected heteronormativity of the school, and he paid dearly for it. He was ridiculed on a regular basis by other students, and he had very few friends. He was easily six feet tall, but I don’t remember him ever lashing out and trying to fight the boys who bullied him so much. I wonder if he knew that it was more dangerous for him to stand up for himself than to “laugh it off,” and carry on his way. He existed at the periphery of my school experience, but I often wonder—who advocated for him? Were there any teachers who supported him? Did anyone ever tell him how brave he was for trying to be himself in a space that refused to accept him? That he shouldn’t have had to be brave, because we. were. wrong. Why weren’t we—as students—ever admonished for treating someone so poorly, perhaps not individually, but as a community?
I remember going back home after my third year of college and having lunch with one of my favorite high school teachers. He was always very supportive, even giving me a graduation gift before I left for college and keeping in touch the first few years. During the lunch, he started complaining about the (99 percent Black) students he had—how they didn’t care about school, how their parents were lazy and disrespectful, how they had no future and how I would always be one of the good ones. I kept thinking—was it this bad while I was in school? Did I never realize it because I was glad to be one of the “special” ones, and I was determined to get away to college? I thought back to all the “jokes” he would make at my peers’ expense, and they weren’t so funny anymore. I didn’t know how to approach such an uncomfortable conversation with him. How were his negative and racially-biased views bleeding over into the ways he worked with students from my home community? As students, what were we learning about our worth and dignity when one of the “cool” teachers in school espoused such harmful beliefs?
I remember being pulled over by police officers on numerous occasions for “driving while Black.” During an incident in high school, the officer told me to repeat after him, “I’m too pretty to be hanging out with this sh**head. I’m going to go home and be a good girl.” I stuttered through every word, feeling disloyal and ashamed in front of my boyfriend and our friends, as well as enraged that this officer felt entitled to make such a demand. During an incident right after college, I questioned an officer about why he needed my license when I wasn’t driving, and he pulled everyone out of the car, put us in handcuffs, and told me to “keep asking such stupid questions if I wanted to be dragged down to jail and locked up.” This was before Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and countless others. I still felt like I had the right to ask an officer a question. A few months ago, I was pulled over with my kids in the car while driving home. My hands immediately started shaking as I slowed down, and images flashed through my head of the kids seeing me dragged out of the car and gunned down. I’d forgotten to use my turn signal, and he let me go with a warning. Nothing terrible happened, but I cried all the way home from the spill-over anxiety of an interaction with the police.
So what does it mean to pave the way? It means that I am always learning … to know better, to do better, to be better … and it means that I am in constant reflection with myself about my advocacy, leadership, and service. What am I doing to support my mental and emotional health, and reject the narrative that Black women are “superhuman?” What messages am I giving my children about their right to live freely and joyfully in a society that tells them otherwise? How am I improving my community and being of service to others in ways that are sustainable and meaningful, to me, but more importantly, to the people that I am serving? How am I pushing the education and psychology field forward in thinking about the lived experiences of African Americans through my research, and how am I challenging my students to engage with issues of power, privilege, and inclusion? Being cognizant of how people are different from you in ways that may or may not be visible, requires so much intentionality and thoughtfulness when your home and school communities did not tolerate difference. Speaking up can be hard when you have rarely seen it modeled, and saying “no” can seem impossible when you have been socialized to say “yes.” But it is so important.
I remember reading the call for the Bouchet Honor Society at the beginning of my fifth year, and thinking about how difficult it must have been to become the first African American man to earn a doctorate degree in the United States. How many times was he treated like the “other,” and how often did people around him fail to stand up for his right to be fully human and exceptional? And still, he did it. I shared these particular memories because in many ways, I failed to “do the right thing” in those moments, or thinking back, I wish I had chosen to do more. I did not bully the Black boy who was openly gay at my high school, but I also never challenged anyone who was treating him poorly or reached out to him. I did not agree with the anti-Black biases my high school teacher recounted during our last lunch together, but I hesitated to correct him. I have been demoralized time and again by police officers who were abusing their positions of power, but I never reported them or tried to stand up for myself. Yet, during my time in graduate school, I have discovered that the best way to learn is through community, and that I continue to get better through practice. I am always thinking of my children who are watching and learning from me, and I hope that I am making it easier for them to speak up and to advocate for others by modeling it as a normal and consistent part of their lives. The Bouchet Honor Society offers an opportunity to network and build with diverse, like-minded individuals who care about piecing together a more equitable future, one day at a time. I hope you join us.
The Bouchet Society is a network of preeminent scholars who exemplify academic and personal excellence, foster environments of support and serve as examples of scholarship, leadership, character, service, and advocacy for students who have been traditionally underrepresented in the academy.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Rackham Graduate School or the University of Michigan.