Boston College Black Family Weekend Speech: Blackness Without Boundaries

Black Excellence on Full Display at Boston College

Good afternoon. It is great to be back. I attended my first Black Family Weekend as a high school senior in 2002. The people that I met that weekend, many of them becoming my closest friends, solidified my decision to attend Boston College. In the past fifteen years I have only missed one Black Family Weekend because of what the weekend symbolizes. The 2002 version of me would have never imagined that I’d be speaking here today. Dr. Donald Brown, is a Boston College legend. He spoke and continues to speak truth to power, and has always urged the Boston College community, to do the same. I received a message from him on Friday sending his warmest wishes to everyone. I am humbled to be speaking at an event bearing his name and hope to honor his legacy today. The theme of this weekend is blackness without boundaries. My intent is to focus on that theme and how it has been important in my life and spend some time discussing what it means as we grapple with blackness under a Trump presidency. Before I begin I want to take a moment to thank a few people. To the Black Student Forum executive board, especially Chiamaka Okorie and Jada Sanchez, thank you for the invite and congrats on executing another successful Black Family Weekend. This weekend continues the long history of black students pushing to make this university realize and recognize that our history, culture and presence is integral in making Boston College the world class institution that it is. It is my hope that those that follow in your footsteps will continue to keep this weekend alive and make it even better than it already is. To Karl Bell: I remember meeting you 12 years ago. I have watched you work tirelessly with BC students to make their experiences matter. I know the personal sacrifices that you have made because you believe in the greatness of those who walk this campus. You have served as a confidant, friend, mentor and father figure to so many people. On behalf of them I want to thank you for your continued service to our institution. You are a true example of the Boston College motto: Men and Women for Others. To the alumni in the room, thank you for coming out. You serve as symbols of what the current undergraduates can be. I urge you all to continue living the Ignatian ideal of setting the world aflame. Take some time and reach back to support the students that attend Boston College. Never forget that not too long ago we were once them. They may not admit it all the time, but they need us. And I will tell you as someone who has spent almost half of my 33 years on earth as an educator, one of the biggest lessons that I've learned is that we need them even more. I want to publicly acknowledge members of the Boston College Ahana Alumni Advisory Council. The Triple A.C. was created to promote AHANA Alumni involvement in all aspects of the university. I was asked last year to become a member of the Council. It has been one of the greatest honors of my life. Your leadership, friendship and belief in this university has been nothing short of a blessing. I am proud to call you all Boston College Ahana Alumni but even more so to call you friends. Would any members of the triple AC in attendance please rise to be recognized.

Blackness without boundaries, or as I like to call it, unapologetic blackness, is built into my DNA. My family hails from the Caribbean, and I grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn. There is something unique about people, black people from Brooklyn. Jay-Z said it best “My swag different/I brag different”. We carry ourselves with a certain gritty confidence that makes people know without a doubt where we are from. Growing up the symbols of the black diaspora were everywhere. From the Jamaican restaurant selling jerk chicken on the sidewalk, to the brothas on the block who could trace multiple generations back to those same Brooklyn streets. From the Caribbean rhythms of Bob Marley, to the sounds of the OJays to Brooklyn’s very own Notorious BIG urging us to “spread love its the Brooklyn way.” Brooklyn became the place that solidified my blackness. And its a place that nurtures it, even today as the results of gentrification radically change the place I call home.

“Everyone sees your glory but few know your story.” Allow me to share a bit of mine. People like me don’t normally end up where I am today. I was a premature baby born to high school sweethearts. My mom was 14 and my dad was 16. I like to joke that even in my mom’s womb, patience was never my biggest virtue. Modern medicine wasn't what it is now so being born premature was a big deal. There were lots of doctors visits. During one such visit my family entered a white room, and a white doctor in a white coat walked in and ran some tests on me. White rooms are horrible for infants as I am sure some of our School Of Nursing folk can attest to. So naturally I ignored much of the doctor’s commands. Upon completion he looked at my folks and said that he didn't think that I would walk, talk or be a functioning member of society and that my family should prepare for that likely outcome.

How many of y'all have or had a praying grandmother? A woman who gets her strength from generations of black women who have come before her. A woman who may be unassuming physically, yet with a simple look or word commands a room. Well I have one of those. My grandmother was the age I am now when I was born. She came to the United States from St. Lucia as a child. Now my family name St.Omer is prominent back there. My great uncle Dunston designed the St. Lucian flag. His contributions to the arts garnered such praise that he was knighted by the Queen of England. Nobel Prize winner and poet Derek Walcott was simply Uncle Derek in my house. But all of those family accomplishments didn’t mean much to anyone when my grandmother arrived in America. But they did mean a lot to her. There was power in her name. There was a legacy that she stood on, even if others didn’t know it. Boston College, there is power in your names. There is a legacy that you stand on. The legacy of your families and the legacy of those who trodded along the stony road as Boston College students so that the path would be a bit smoother for you. Never forget that. My grandmother after graduating Cathedral High School, went on to Medgar Evers College, the only HBCU in the northeast, where she became friends with Betty Shabazz, the late widow of Malcolm X. They participated in sit-ins that helped create a women’s resource center that still exists today.

So that woman I just described looked at the doctor who had just diagnosed my life and said “you're wrong” and walked out of the office. For the next six years before I started school, she, herself a teacher would go to work, teach her class and come home and redo those lessons with me. I became her master class. I sincerely believe that had it not been for her work with me, I wouldn't be where I am today. She is retiring this year after more than 33 years in the classroom teaching kindergarten. Her passion for education, especially for black and brown children is what led me to be an educator. And it is her legacy that I stand on everyday I walk into school. A legacy rooted in knowing where you came from but more importantly giving back so that others can drink in the beautiful bounty that is blackness.

Most of the key moments in my life have occurred in educational settings. Even some of the most racialized moments. I attended a segregated public elementary school. I yearned for black teachers, but rarely had them. Sound familiar? In fourth grade my teacher asked the class what were we looking forward to most in fifth grade. I, nine years old, rose my hand and said “I’m looking forward to having a black teacher.” Needless to say, even at this young age, I had no problem being unapologetically black. I was admitted to the Prep For Prep program in fifth grade and ended up enrolling at the Little Red School House/Elisabeth Irwin High School, a private school from 7-12th grade. Now when people hear private school, thoughts of rich white kids, expensive tuition and ridiculous bat mitzvahs come to mind. While these were definitely an aspect of my middle and high school years, there were others that made it special. It was a deeply progressive school that believed in diversity to its core. When political activist Angela Davis left the South as a teenager, she ended up enrolling at the school that I attended. If it was good for her then it was going to be good for me. I attended my very first rally protesting the brutal sexual assault of Abner Louima at the hands of members of the NYPD with seventh grade classmates. A few years ago students walked out of school and marched in the streets of Manhattan in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I learned about the history of the fight for gay rights, civil rights, and the rights of other marginalized groups. My school valued my blackness and helped me solidify that foundation through the lens of social justice. I cherish that experience to this day.

I have always believed that college should challenge who you are and what you believe in. Boston College did just that. Being here pushed my boundaries. From the white kid during freshman orientation from Iowa who asked if I knew how to do the Original Harlem Shake, because obviously all black folk from New York know how to dance like Diddy, to the time in class where slavery was a topic and a professor looked at me, the only black student in class and asked me how I felt about it. Boston College taught me how to confront ignorance, biases and respond accordingly. BC also taught me the value of stepping out of my comfort zone and pushing my community to confront issues that were uncomfortable or taboo. During my junior year a movement to have the Boston College administration change its non discrimination clause to include sexual orientation gained steam. The university decided to put the vote up for referendum during UGBC elections. In an effort to dramatize the issue, there was a march organized by various students held on campus. I, as President of the Caribbean Culture Club as well as a board member of The Voices Of Imani, had to make a decision on whether I would participate in the march. Caribbean people and the black church have notoriously looked down upon LGBTQ people. I made the decision that I needed to publicly support that community and would deal with any backlash from people after. Personally I have always felt that I have no right to withhold freedom to any group of people. In the grand scheme of things black men just got their freedom relatively recently. And it's a tenuous freedom at best. Who am I to say that LGBTQ people shouldn't have the same rights that I have? I’m glad that I stood on the right side of history during this pivotal moment at Boston College.   

Being unapologetically black while working in white spaces has been a tricky dance. In most of the places I have worked I am often one of few black men in the building. One of the ways that I coped with this was by prescribing to the concept of respectability politics. This only got me so far. Over time I have come to realize that my very presence as a black man is uncomfortable for some white people. It doesn’t matter if I am in a suit or if I can quote the most famous white dead authors. If they are uncomfortable with blackness then they are by extension uncomfortable with me. It has also dawned on me that many white people view comfort as a right. Black people know that comfort is a privilege. Often one that we can never fully partake in. I can not go on trying to make white people feel comfortable around me by negating aspects of my blackness. In order for me to be a fully present person, my blackness has to be part of that present. Once I accepted this I truly became free. Free to be who I am and free to push others to analyze who they were. Too often we accept the belief that there are white spaces and black spaces. My personal belief is that every space I enter can and must become a black space. Whiteness as a concept seeks to exclude people. The All-White, excuse me the Alt Right movement proves that. When we hear Donald Trump say “Make America Great Again” we all knew for whom he meant. We knew that America was never great for us. But like Talib Kweli says “life is a beautiful struggle.” Blackness at least on a theoretical level has always been an inclusionary concept. If you're down with the cause we will take you in. Creating black spaces allows for a deeper opportunity for cross cultural learning to go on. And more importantly it allows full participation in the education that I believe is vital. It allows for the freedom that Beyonce describes in the chorus of her song of the same name “I break chains all by myself/ Won’t let my freedom rot in hell/ Ima keep running/ Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.”

I hope that you will allow me the remaining time to discuss the importance of blackness without borders in our current political climate. Firstly I miss the Obama family. I miss them for not only what they accomplished but what they stood for. They stood for unapologetic blackness in all its forms. They were far from perfect. But they were like us all, beautiful black imperfection. Presidents are supposed to be the soundtracks to a nation. They are the ones whose voices help shape and mold who we are and push us to even greater aspirations. It is safe to say that the current soundtrack sounds off key. I remember election night in 2008 like it was yesterday. The first person I called was Karl Bell. Karl and I were speechless which for the two of us is a rarity. We simply wept by how far we had come as a country. Fast forward eight years later and on election night 2016 we spoke again, resigned to the fact that as the Greek tale of Sisyphus teaches us, we can push the boulder up the hill but it will always roll down to the bottom. Now is NOT the time to grow weary but the time to renew our energy and push that boulder back up the hill.

The day of November 9th will live on in our collective memories. The darkness that descended upon much of this nation due to the shocking election results shook many to the core. I walked into work and saw ashen faces everywhere. The toughest moments were having my students, all 10 years old and under ask me, what was going to happen next? I reassured them that as long as they were at school that they were safe and most importantly loved. But I knew that the results of the previous night proved to them, that safety was not a guarantee. It was the first time as an educator that I felt my words meant little.

Over the past few months I have regained my footing and realized that my biggest strength, our biggest strength is our collective voices speaking out. We must speak truth to a system that has elected a president who was supported by the KKK, who refuses decades later to apologize to the Central Park Five for calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, for boys who were ultimately proven innocent. We must speak out against a president who has selected in Jeff Sessions as the nation’s top lawyer,  a man who Rosa Parks herself said was unfit to serve as federal judge because of his racist views. I have had the chance to learn about Donald Trump as a result of growing up in New York City. Nothing he has done has surprised me. The question is what do we do to ensure that he only serves one term?

We can not run away from the tough task ahead of us. Black people have stood up on this campus for our rights from the very first day we were enrolled here much like blacks fought the battles in the streets to achieve the elusive goal of equality. History has a weird way of repeating itself. We owe it to those, many whose names we will never know to keep the tradition of resistance alive. Our freedom depends on it.
It pains me to hear the discourse from many talking about the need to move away from identity politics. I am a black, straight, cisgendered man. My body is literally identity politics, whether I want it to be or not. My work whether it is in the classroom or on the street aims to create spaces where dialogue and effective action can happen.

Black Lives Matter was a rallying cry for many of us the past few years. As the madness of the Trump presidency overtakes our lives, deaths by police officers are on pace to break records. Since the death of MIchael Brown we have watched videos of law enforcement operate much like the KKK, except the robe has been their police uniform. Their biases and fear of black bodies manifest themselves in the bullet of a gun, the strike of a baton or the zap of a taser. Where once a rope and sturdy tree branch sufficed as the murder weapon of black people, guns and tasers have replaced them. Where postcards of the macabre scene were mailed off to people, we now have cell phone, dash and body cameras. Black lives have never mattered to those with the wanton authority to dispense a legal system. A system whose scales of justice bend--- like the tree branches of those lynched, unfavorably against black and brown people. Don't ever think that when we watch these videos of police killing citizens that we aren't watching lynchings. Because we are. The question is will we honor the strange fruit or will we continue to watch them spoil, over and over again. History calls upon us now more than ever to speak up, stand up, march, and be a voice of the resistance. That is blackness without boundaries.

I am glad to see that college aged folks are leading this new social media driven social movement. I love the young generation because they have achieved something that it took me a long time to achieve. Frankly they don’t care what older folk think about them. Some older folk might see that as disrespectful. I urge those that do to remember that older folk said the same thing about you when you were young. Young people have been the ones to start every social movement. Women have often been the ones to sustain them. The power of technology to galvanize large numbers of people to collectively act by merely tweeting or updating statuses is important. Black Lives Matter wouldn’t have caught on had it not been for twitter. Phalando Castile’s death might have gone unnoticed had his girlfriend not have the mindset to broadcast it for the world to see on Facebook live. Activism comes in many forms. Not everyone is comfortable protesting publicly but everyone has the power to use social media as a tool. In this day and age we can not look at social media activism as invalid. Doing so would ignore the many successes that black people have been able to accomplish using it. The power harnessed via social media, when aimed positively can change the world, not just domestically but internationally as well.

My life's work has been about working with young people of various races. I believe that the success that I've been able to achieve with them has come from the realization that respect is a mutual thing. White students want the same care that black students do. They want nothing more than to be heard by older folk. By listening and learning about them, what their hopes and dreams, interests and quirks are, and allowing them to learn the same things about me then our relationships became stronger. By being unapologetically black with students, then it gives them the freedom to be their authentic selves with others.

In closing I would like to leave you all with two suggestions that have helped shape my life. First, consider what your legacy will be. Everyone is guaranteed two dates. The date when God brought us into this world, and the date when we are called home. In between those two dates is where our life really matters. What will you do with those days to make this world a better place. How will you be remembered? It is my hope for each and everyone that you will live a life of service to others. A life unapologetically black. And I also hope that when God greets you at the gates of Heaven She will look at you and say “You have done all that you can do. Now its time to rest.”

Lastly I have been asked by many people what keeps me going, even when things have been bleak. The answer is simple. I work with people younger than me. Looking at the world through the eyes of children allows me to remain forever young. Their boundless energy, unyielding optimism and thirst for what is right and fair have been my heartbeat since I began as an educator at the tender age of 17. Somewhere in your lives find that same energy. My hope for you is best articulated in the following verses and chorus:

May God bless and keep you always/ May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others/ And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars/ And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young/ May you Stay forever Young
May your hands always be busy/ May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation/ When winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful/ May your song always be sung
And may you stay forever young/ And may you stay forever young


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