My Remarks to The Boston College Caribbean Culture Club

Good evening. It is an honor to be here with you all tonight. I remember listening to Boston College alum Steve Pemberton speak during Black Family Weekend’s Black Excellence Gala. In his speech he described how Boston College became his home while he was a student. I know exactly what he meant. From the first day I stepped onto campus as a high school junior in 2001 I instantly felt a connection. During my four years here I made it my home.  With that said I want to thank you all for inviting me back home tonight. I don’t know how it is in your homes, but in mine things are said that make you laugh, make you cry, make you think and challenge your beliefs. I hope that my homecoming will accomplish that as well.

If my name looks familiar to many of you that’s because I am the alum who wrote in to The Heights a few weeks ago. One of the students on campus had deep reservations about the way that The Heights covered Ta-Nehisi Coates on campus talk. I have been a fan of Coates writing for quite a while. He has helped refine my view on race and privilege. Historically The Heights has had a mixed reputation reporting on race related issues. This time I was impressed with the contextual framework that the reporters used in writing the review. As I read the dissenting letter, details of which I won't repeat tonight, I was shocked but not surprised. I knew that a large segment of the student body was going to be upset by the misguided, offensive and historically naive viewpoint of the writer. I did what I normally do in those situations. I started writing. The support that I received from alumni who read my words was tremendous. But the people that I wrote for were the current students. I hope that the words that I sent helped speak your truth. If it made things a little bit easier then I have done my job.

I submit to you this evening that the relationship that AHANA people who are affiliated with Boston College have with the institution is very similar to the relationship that AHANA people have with the United States of America. I love Boston College. Nothing makes me more proud than hearing the band play of our fight song while watching a sporting event. Nothing makes me swell with pride more than when I see people wearing Boston College gear. Nothing excites me more than talking about how impactful this university has been to my personal and professional development. I have friends that will last until I leave this earth because I made the best decision of my life in 2002 to become a Boston College Eagle. But as proud as I am, and continue to be of this institution, I cannot ignore the issues that make Boston College sometimes a difficult place to be at. I love Boston College so much that I will continue to critique it. Loving criticism has been the backbone of political and social change and we are seeing the impact of this approach more each day.

I love America. I firmly believe that the opportunities that I have had would not be possible in any other country in the world. A stirring rendition of The Star Spangled Banner gets me every time. Nothing warms my heart more than knowing that the First Family that occupies the White House finally looks like many of the families I know. But as proud as I am to be Caribbean-American, and I am in equal parts both, I must also admit that I am not always proud of the history and present conditions that exist in America. I make the assertion to you that Boston College is a microcosm of America. Figuring out how to make it at as an AHANA person at this university has helped me learn how to navigate being an AHANA person in America after I left.

My family hails from the beautiful islands of Trinidad and Tobago and Grenada on my father’s side and St. Lucia on my mother’s. I consider this a made in America combination. My parents, both native Brooklynites were high school sweethearts. I was born, raised and currently reside in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Brooklyn has long been considered by many to have the largest Caribbean community in the United States. On any given morning traditional foods can be smelled and music from every island can be heard pulsating through my neighborhood. Even with current changes as a result of gentrification there is still something uniquely Caribbean about Brooklyn. It is a universal location that ties all Caribbean people together.

The first ten years of my life I lived at my paternal grandparents house on the weekends. During the week I attended a gifted program at a segregated public school and lived with my mother, grandmother and great grandmother in a housing project. The ironic thing about that was that I didn't know it was a housing project until I moved out. Many people have deep stereotypes about the projects. All I knew was that I had a roof over my head and a community of people just trying to make it surrounded me. Was there violence? Absolutely. But it was also the mid 80s and early 90s. Violence in New York was rampant with murders topping 2245 in 1990 compared to last year’s 328. The housing project that I lived in helped shape my life and I am proud that I lived there.

Beginning when I was 11, I permanently moved into my grandparents’ house. I was also selected to be a part of the prestigious Prep For Prep program and received a scholarship to attend a progressive private school in Greenwich Village. When I say progressive I really mean it. Not only was my school’s motto “A Leader in Progressive Education since 1921” but my school was one of the first in America founded by an openly gay woman as well as one of the first private schools in New York City to have black students. Political activist, scholar and author Angela Davis is even an alum. Every morning I would wake up in my working class neighborhood and take the train to a school that was directly across the street from multi million dollar brownstones and a school where some of the most influential and talented New Yorkers sent their children. It was during this time that I began examining the concept of privilege, class, race, sexual orientation and overall equality. By the time I graduated high school I was irrevocably changed by my experiences and knew that I wanted to dedicate a portion of my life to addressing issues of diversity while also challenging institutions to do the same.

My paternal grandmother instilled in me a deep pride and belief in my Caribbean heritage. I am the oldest of seven, five boys and two girls. As soon as I could walk my grandmother would take me to the West Indian American Day Parade on Eastern Parkway, or as Caribbean people call it, Carnival. To most Americans the first Monday in September is a day to celebrate the end of summer and pay homage to the labor force. To Caribbean people Labor Day is a time to celebrate our culture. Taking us to the parade was my grandmother’s way of saying, this is our heritage, and this is our pride. Never forget it. Every Labor Day I make it a duty to attend a Caribbean event in Brooklyn. I do it in her honor and fully believe that she looks down on me, proudly knowing that her example lives on in her grandkids and that we are passing it down to my nieces and nephews.

My entire life has been about cultures clashing. I love curry just as much as I love fried chicken. Biggie Smalls was the soundtrack of my youth just as much as Beres Hammond and Machel Montano. On one hand I went to this amazing school but on the other hand I lived in a fairly conservative Caribbean neighborhood. Respectability politics is a big deal in our culture. Members of my community couldn’t comprehend how I went to a school where I was allowed to call teachers by their first name. They couldn’t understand how I could have gay friends or be taught the history of the gay rights movement in American History class. They expected kids to be quiet and obedient. I was none of those things. At school I had to expose people to the food, music and history that made Caribbean culture so amazing while learning about foreign concepts such as Bat Mitzvahs, vacation houses and The Beatles. The whole thing was challenging to me. I wanted to be accepted at home and at school. My family helped me figure it all out. They would routinely tell people that if they had a problem with my education that they can gladly pay for me to go to another school. And if they weren’t willing to do that then they could keep their opinions to themselves. Needless to say no one wrote a check. The support I had at home made me much more confident at school. It wasn’t always perfect but I was able to manage a lot better. Support systems are vital.

So how does a Caribbean-American boy from Brooklyn who attended a progressive private school end up at Boston College? And what was my experience like? I had the opportunity to see BC on an overnight visit during the spring of my junior year in high school. I fell in love with the beauty of the campus and passion that the students had. I was especially impressed with how connected AHANA students were. There seemed to be a true community of people who cared for and about each other. Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Howard Singer, visited my high school during my senior year and remembered meeting me in the spring. I knew that I had to apply. September 11th occurred on my third day of senior year. I heard the planes pierce through the air and watched the buildings collapse. My school was less than a mile away from the Twin Towers. I do not talk about that day publicly because over fourteen years later it seems like yesterday. The pain has never left me and I am sure that it never will. It was clear to me that for my own sanity I needed to leave NYC for college. The first acceptance letter that I received was from BC. In it was a handwritten note from Howard Singer, congratulating me on my hard work and welcoming me to the class of 2006. How could I not attend?

As soon as I arrived on campus as a freshman I jumped right in. The independence that I felt was refreshing. This was the first time in my life that I didn’t have my six younger siblings and family to answer to. I took full advantage of this. Alums who attended BC with me knew that whether it was a party or whether it was a social justice issue I was never far behind. What I quickly realized was that I needed to make this place my own. The only way that I could do that was by becoming politically and socially active, especially around issues of race and diversity on campus. The very first organization that I joined was the Caribbean Culture Club as a freshman representative. The older members of the board took me in and helped me figure out how to really be a Caribbean Boston College student. What I loved the most was the chance to connect with students who were passionate about Caribbean culture, even if they weren’t Caribbean themselves. I ended up serving as treasurer, president and student advisor because the club meant so much to me. At the same time I discovered other clubs and organizations that nurtured me in other ways. The Voices of Imani became my spiritual and musical home and being a first tenor was a great joy. I firmly believe that had it not been for Voices, I would not have made it through Boston College. I rediscovered God and spirituality through the choir and used that to push me through some challenging times. And there were many.

I remember returning to school from break a few times, and while trying to swipe into my dorm, I realized that I could not get in. The reason was because I had an outstanding balance on my account. Remember when I mentioned that AHANA community and how we picked each other up? I realized the importance of it when I had to ask friends to swipe me in. But the worse part was asking them to swipe me at the cafeteria until my account was settled. Yep you heard right. I remember literally asking people to essentially feed me. I know someone out here can give a similar testimony. At the end of the day I knew that I could depend on my people to hold me up and I gladly returned the favor when they needed it.

I would like to look at my journey at Boston College through the lens of my presidency of CCC. 2004 was a uniquely momentous year. Facebook and Gmail debuted. Boston College was in its last year in the Big East conference. Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same sex marriage. A political unknown named Barack Obama delivered a speech a few miles from here that would be the building block to his historic presidency. Everything I just mentioned occurred all in one year. With all of that swirling around I was elected president as a junior. I will let you in on a secret that no one knows until today. I did not want to be president that year. My goal was to be president my senior year. Unfortunately the other board member who would have vied for the presidency was on her way to study in Brazil. I guess this was God's way of giving me a challenge. He never gives us more than we can bare.

My focus as president was to change our reputation as the party organization. Please believe we took our partying seriously. At one event people broke into the RAT through a loading dock. We collaborated with five other colleges and packed a downtown nightclub on a Thursday, complete with an internationally known dancehall DJ from Miami. We would even charter a bus to Montreal every November for a Caribbean conference that was nothing more than an all weekend cultural party. So yes our reputation was earned.

But I wanted more from us. We ended up collaborating with other clubs on campus to host the off Broadway show “Platanos and Collard Greens”. Collaborating with other groups was vital to our success. It allowed us to showcase solidarity among groups and allowed our platform to be way bigger. Our similarities were more than our differences. I learned that there is power in creating coalitions amongst those groups. 

During the presidential election cycle we were also one of the first intercultural organizations to publicly request that our members vote on Election Day 2004. Many people asked me why did I push for a more political agenda. Caribbean culture and history is intrinsically political. Whether you are from Trinidad and Tobago and have learned about the large-scale struggle for civil rights in the 1970s, or you are from the Spanish-speaking island of The Dominican Republic with its long history of dictatorship by El Jefe, Rafael Trujillo. Whether you are from the Creole speaking island of Haiti, and its revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, our culture is political. I was glad that I was able to move us to focus on political activism while still maintaining our reputation as a fun organization.

During the year that I was president, Boston College was undergoing its own political revolution. BC had a reputation as an unwelcoming place to LGBT students and faculty. It did not help that the statement of non-discrimination did not include sexual orientation, even when other Catholic universities did. To some this meant that BC condoned discrimination of LGBT people. That year BC decided to put a referendum up for vote during UGBC elections asking students if the non-discrimination clause should be changed. Campus was definitely in its feelings on both sides. What culminated was a march attended by over 1000 students that began on campus and extended to Comm Ave. At the end of the voting period over 70% of students who cast their ballot supported changing the policy.

This was a really challenging time for me. Caribbean people have long held very conservative views as it came to sexual orientation. Personally I have always felt that I had no right to withhold freedom to any group of people. I mean let's be completely honest. In the grand scheme of things black men kind of just got their freedom relatively recently. And it's a tenuous freedom at best. Who was I as a cisgendered, straight black man to say that LGBT people shouldn't have rights? But I wasn’t just representing myself. How could I balance the views of many of my constituents and still remain true to my own core belief? I decided that I would do what I felt was right and deal with any backlash later on. On the day of the march I ran into the president of ASO, Chikaelo Ibeabuchi who now serves as Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan and we decided on the spot to march together. We didn’t think of it as a big political statement. We were really great friends. But looking back on it it was. Here we were two AHANA leaders, representing large constituencies who may not support us marching. But we did it anyway. I am glad that I was on the right side of history that fateful day.

May 22, 2006,  graduation day, was one of the most emotionally charged days of my life. Senior Week was all that I could imagine. There were memories made and some that I’d rather forget. We partied till the sun came up. We danced on mod tables. And we drank like it was marathon Monday for a week straight.  But nothing beats the morning when the entire senior class watched the sun rise over the parking garage. It’s a quintessential Boston College right of passage. I hugged and cried with my friends, as we all knew that the work, long nights, battles with administration and good times were over. As I said my goodbyes to them and this campus I knew that life would never be the same.

After I left Boston College I entered the field of education. I have had the chance to work at independent schools, charter schools, non-profit and other community based organizations. Along every step of the way I took the lessons that I learned at BC with me. Here’s another secret. The working world isn’t much different than college. You will experience everything that you have experienced here in your professional life. Learn the lessons now so that you will be prepared for them later.

I want to leave you all with three themes to think about. Firstly view your education as a revolutionary act. Schools such as Boston College were not designed with people like us in mind. Boston College for most of its history was an all-male, all-white college. People came here and fought so that you all could be here. It is your duty to continue that fight so that the journey will be better for you but more importantly for people coming behind you. It is never too early to begin thinking about what your legacy will be after leaving the hallowed halls of Chestnut Hill. Boston College believes in the Ignatian ideal of “Setting the world aflame.” Please make that your legacy. Let that be your saving grace.

Secondly do not fit in when God demands that you stand out. I had the privilege and honor of working in the admissions office for four years while I was a student. Boston College does not accept students, especially AHANA ones who merely fit in. Too often many students arrive to college and feel like they have made it. Let me be blunt with you all. You have not made it. Your journey and life’s work is just beginning. Complacency in the face of adversity leaves everyone poorer. Take a stand and leave here knowing you were part of change, even if it was incremental.

And lastly embrace being a Boston College student. I have had the chance to see all types of academic institutions in my life. There is nothing like being a Boston College Eagle. This place is unique. The motto of Ever to Excel and the mission of creating men and women for others are real. While it may not always be perfect, this place is yours. Do not leave here feeling as if you were not full-fledged members of this university. If you do then you are wasting time, effort and a lot of money. Furthermore if you are here and remain silent on issues that affect this community as a whole and people that look like you in particular then what did you come to Boston College for? 75% of your time is spent outside of the classroom. Please invest some of that time in making this university the best it can be. Because then and only then can you walk across that stage on graduation day and say that you've done all that you can.

Ladies and gentlemen we are gathered here at a time when there is deep political and social upheaval on college campuses not seen in this country since the 1960s. Marginalized groups of students are taking bold steps to publicly question the actions of schools and administrations. Last week students at Yale, a bastion of bucolic beauty asked their university for answers. This week we have seen the power of students and administrators standing up for each other in Missouri and making history. Over the last year students at Harvard University have publicly told their college that I Am Harvard. And Boston College students have pushed the envelope here in acts of public protest as well. I believe that there is a common thread that connects the struggles of students in New Haven, Cambridge and Missouri to you all here at Boston College. It is the same thread that connects people protesting in the streets of cities around the world screaming black lives matter and I can't breathe. It is the same thread that throughout American history has led us to the streets screaming I Am Somebody as we sang we shall overcome while the hoses and the German shepherds tore at our flesh but never quieted our steady resolute voices. It is the same thread saying on one hand that we support the work and efforts of law enforcement but we will not support flagrant abuse of that power especially in our communities. Yes Black Lives Matter because historically they have only seemed to matter when we are financially beneficial. You as Boston College students must not sit idly by as your fellow peers at this university and in the streets beg for recognition. Do not sit in the comfort of the Boston College bubble. People fought so you could be in that bubble. What will you fight for?

In conclusion I want to urge you all to reach out to members of the faculty and staff. The long lasting relationships that I forged while a student have stood the test of time, even now as I get ready to celebrate my ten-year reunion. There are people here who believe in you and who want to see you succeed both as students and as leaders. Dan Bunch, Joanna Maynard, Inez Maturana Sendoya, Paul Bonitto, John Mahoney, Howard Singer, Richard Paul, Christopher Darcy and David Altenor are just a few of the people that, have enriched my life and continue to do so after all these years. Connect with them and others. As a result your experience and your lives will be enriched.

I would be remiss at this moment not to thank Karl Bell for who he is and what he has meant to this institution. I had the chance to meet Karl on his first day at BC. I walked into the Student Programs office as an overly confident senior. Someone looked at me and said “Akim have you met the new guy yet”. In strolled Karl. I was doubly surprised since there hadn’t been many men and definitely none of color in that department. We instantly clicked. It was as if I had found a long lost friend. When I graduated Karl was one of the first people to find me and we promised we would keep in touch. I never imagined it would last this long. I have watched this man from the Midwest make Boston College his home. I have seen him tirelessly give all that he has. A few years ago after a successful black family weekend Karl and I shared a really deep moment. Karl confessed that when he began working here he was scared. Scared that he would not be able to live up to the standards of Boston College. It was an "aha" moment for me. Here was the confident man who seemed like he had it all in control admit to me that he lived in fear of failing. I shared with him that everyday I was here I was scared as well. Scared that I couldn’t cut it. Scared that I wouldn’t adequately represent the people who looked to me for leadership. In this human moment for both of us God shone his grace. Karl and I talked about having this event years ago. Even though he can’t be with us tonight I know he is proud of all of you for making this possible. I hope that I was able to make all of you proud as well. I can honestly say that Karl is much more than a friend. He has been that older brother and father figure to many. When he returns next week, stop by his office and tell him thank you for all that he does. Then find another person who has shaped your journey here and tell them the same thing. We do not walk this journey alone. We do not fight the good fight without people supporting and praying for us in the background. When you see these men and women on evenings and weekends, remember that they are sacrificing time away from their families and friends because they believe in you. I am reminded of the gospel with the following words “Oh my living will not be in vain, oh my living will not be in vain, if I can help somebody along the way, then my living will not be in vain.”Video of the conclusion of my remarks


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