Editor’s note: This viewpoint is part of The Republican’s continuing series, One People, One House, a community dialogue on where we are today on the issues of racism and policing across the country and here at home.
On July 26, as the body of Congressman John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge one last time, America faced an inescapable historical moment. The country is coming to grips with the realization that racial hierarchy, one of the pillars of American society since colonial time, is no longer acceptable.
The majority of the country believes that people should no longer be apportioned more or less life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, based on their race. This is a very hopeful moment for the United States and, all across the country, people are sowing the seeds for a more equitable society. Elms College was ahead of the trend. We have been working on this effort for more than two years.
But before I share what we are doing at Elms College, it is relevant to examine how the nation got to this crossroad. The perspectives that I can offer are those of a Black immigrant and an educator.
I grew up Black and proud of it. America taught me to be a person of color and defensive about it. That evolution may be helpful in providing a different perspective on the issue of race in the United States.
Everyone was Black in my hometown in Haiti. My classmates and I learned proudly about Haiti as the first Black republic. We knew about the Haitian revolution as the only successful slave rebellion, and we could narrate its story: Black men and women, armed with just their machetes and their righteous anger, rising from the dehumanizing conditions in which they had been shackled for decades to dispossess, defeat, and expel their white oppressors and the most powerful European army of the time.
We were not deterred by the international rap on Haiti. We understood that the Haitian revolution would never be condoned by the global community because it was the ultimate threat to the idea of racial superiority. That’s how I grew up contextualizing my Blackness.
I came to America as a college student and learned that in this multiracial society, I am a person of color. I don’t know when I started to feel self-conscious about that label. My first encounters with overt racism were not pleasant but to a certain extent they did not phase me because I had read or been told about similar situations: feeling actively unwelcomed as the only Black person in a restaurant in downtown Jefferson City, Missouri, or being stopped by a police officer who called the white family that I was going to visit to verify that they were expecting me.
What was unsettling is the discomfort that crept insidiously, little by little, with every news story of crime and criminality assigned to Black men, with the war on drugs being waged primarily against communities of