It’s painful to feel joy right now. It’s even harder to celebrate any sense of accomplishment when the world is sick—in more ways than one.
Last week I graduated via Zoom from one of the most prestigious universities in America with Latin honors. The day before I stood in silence commemorating the lost lives of strangers murdered solely because they were the same race as me. During my finals week, I protested for the eradication of white supremacy.
I’ve confronted racism throughout my college career, but I naively thought the war for racial equality was over.
I figured the Civil Rights Movement was a finished chapter packaged and preserved in history books. I didn’t expect to be fighting the same battles as my elders, but I must because the work is unfinished.
I just wanted to be a “college student” like my white peers. Instead, I ricocheted between being a student, diversity advocate, campus representative, and critical race educator. Black students are accustomed to setting aside our personal desires to get the job done. We must be exceptional just to be seen. We’re not allowed to be mediocre. To be mediocre is to be invisible, and to be invisible is to wither away in the cracks of the educational system. We’re constantly forced to show up.
- We showed up to class the day after Donald Trump’s election while classmates gleefully wore MAGA hats.
- We skipped class to demonstrate our right to an education without the fear of being shot.
- We pleaded with cops crashing Black functions when our only crime was partying while Black.
- We watched donors sweep fraternities’ sexual assault allegations underneath the rug for the sake of “brotherhood.”
- We faced forest fires and rising global temperatures, and politicians didn’t even bat an eye.
- We wrote papers during a pandemic. We took exams during a pandemic. We turned our emotions off in order to keep Zoom on during a pandemic.
- We crossed our legs and held our breath as Betsy DeVos narrowed our Title IX sexual misconduct protection.
- We mourned the deaths of Black strangers, time and time again, at the hands of racism and police violence
Class of 2020, we did it. We got the degree. Still, there is so much to be done.
My degrees won’t shield me from bullets if a cop feels threatened by my existence. They will not guarantee my economic upward ability. They will not ensure my salary is the same as my white or male peers. These two pieces of paper will not convince a white doctor the validity of my pain. They won’t have my back when a creep follows me around the block because my clothes were “asking for it.” My degrees are neither freedom papers nor get-out-of-jail-free cards. They are not tools to elevate my education in the classroom over my Black siblings who learned on the street.
They are an acknowledgement of my survival from an institution that was not built for me. They speak now for all the times I was silent. They reflect my professors cold calling me for every racial question in class and pressuring me to represent my entire race. My degrees are years’ worth of microaggressions, progress, loss, and joy. They mark my proficiency in code-switching and shape-shifting my Blackness to make people comfortable. These two pieces of paper symbolize the space occupied by Black students to make room for those yet to come.
Black lives must matter before Black education can matter. Our existence must matter before our successes are celebrated. Black college graduates are inherently radical. Whether we’re the first in our family to go to college or the continuation of a long legacy, Black excellence continues to be “exceptional” because the rest of the society refuses to acknowledge us as equal human beings. We’re still at the point where being #BlackAndHooded doesn’t stop cops from viewing a Black person as just another Black thug in a hoodie.
Mainstream media marginalizes our successes and broadcasts our shortcomings. I’m tired of turning on the news and seeing “yet another Black man” committing a petty crime. I’m sick of people watching The Help and only consuming art that portrays Black enslavement.
I want the world to see Black people excelling—not underneath the knee of a police officer or in prison jumpsuits.
Feature Photo: Little Rock Nine Attending Central High School (1957)
Ways You Can Help:
To my Semicolon Bookstore Campaign— supporting Black woman-owned businesses and Chicago youth and literacy.
If you participate in a local protest, make sure to take the following precautions and acknowledge city curfews— if they apply.
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