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  • Leila E. Cole

2020: Impact, Insight and Introspection

There are a number of things we can attribute to this [COVID-19] pandemic. This period has seen a rebirth of certain seemingly common phrases like, "now more than ever", "pivot"... And other phrases have become synonymous with a time of social crisis "I can't breathe".

A couple of weeks ago, I heard someone say, "To borrow from the popular vernacular, 'Black Lives Matter'". Is it just me, or is there something quite insulting about that comment? Popular vernacular? The only trend I see is the number of senseless acts of excessive force, resulting in countless Black lives being lost at the hands of law enforcement. "Black Lives Matter" is not meant to be a catchy saying. There's so much power behind what those three words represent collectively.

In the thick on protests and the societal trauma resulting from the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, "Blackout Tuesday" was born (June 2). The social media movement was a means of protesting the rampant racism and police brutality riddling this country.

Disbelief, fear, anger amongst the series of emotions myself, along with so many others, shuttled between. In recognizing that such barbaric behavior could happen stateside - in the 21st century, let alone in the year 2020 - one quickly realized the depths of hatred that exist in the U.S., and how much further this country still needs to progress.

As a kid in primary school, we were given Summer reading assignments every year. In addition to the list of fictional literary options given to us, we were required to select a biographical work of our choosing. Each year, like clockwork, I chose Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for my biography. I was incredibly captivated by him. Not to mention he reminded me so much of my Uncle [or rather, my Uncle reminded me so much of him], in terms of appearance, booming voice, and strong presence. You're telling me this man faced such great opposition, but persevered as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, serving as an advocate for equality? He kept marching on, in spite of all that came against him? Incredible. Selfless. A true leader, indeed. The work of Dr. King is not lost on me. This great man of the 50's/60's fought hard so we could enjoy so many of the civil liberties we've been afforded today.

Without Dr. King and countless other figures in history, who knows where we'd be. They fought a good fight. Now it's up to us to ensure that our kids don't have to endure generational failures and cultural injustices. Sometimes the pressure feels immense when you think about the work that lies ahead, but it's important to remember the influence we have on our country by exercising our right to vote. It's crazy to think that we're already through the first week of September. It'll be November, and then Election Day before we know it. Where do we want to go from here, and who do we feel is the best candidate to see us through?

At the height of the lockdown a couple of months ago, and with the influx of race-related news coverage everywhere, I was confronted with thoughts of my own experience, identity, and insecurities about the color of my skin. The word privilege is defined as a benefit enjoyed by an individual or group beyond what's available to others. Interestingly enough, I've never experienced blatant racism from other races. Born in Sierra Leone, with a trip to London before I came to the U.S. at the age of 4 I started the school system all over again, here in New York. My time at the public school I attended from kindergarten to 2nd grade was pure bliss --and then I moved to a new school for 3rd grade; Martin Luther King, Jr. High Tech Magnet School. New neighborhood, new kids, new teachers... new... new... new. The school was merely feet away from the housing complex DMX grew up in, and a few years later I learned that my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Sileo, had taught Mary J. Blige, years earlier.

(My Martin Luther King, Jr. High Tech Magnet School class t-shirt)

I made friends. But I was also introduced to personalities I'd never come across before. Martin Luther King, Jr. High Tech Magnet School presented me with my first encounter with racism and bias. For a kid that had never experienced this before, it was pretty traumatizing. Sometimes I wonder if it was privilege that shielded me from racism before that point. I vividly remember one day (in 5th grade) at the lunch table, I was eating a cream cheese bagel and some cream cheese got on my face. One of the kids sitting across from me made a snide comment about the contrast of the cream cheese against my skin. She was black, but a lighter complexion than me. I was mortified and extremely blindsided by this hurtful comment, and the laughs that followed. I started becoming hyper aware of the color of my skin. Given my love of playing outside, and because my skin seemed to soak up the sunlight so easily, I just got darker. I began noticing things I'd never noticed before, like changes to my complexion, feeling the need to classify myself as "dark-skinned" before anyone else did, and shying away from certain colors because I felt they made me look too dark. It was almost like I started to feel like a stranger in my own body —sensing a major disconnect within myself.

(5th grade yearbook, Martin Luther King, Jr. High Tech Magnet School "...feeling the need to classify myself as "dark-skinned" before anyone else did...")

After I graduated elementary school and moved on to middle school, those feelings followed me. For one of the first times in my life, I heard black kids using the N-word amongst themselves. When that word was used towards me, it stung. It was off-putting and made me feel super self-conscious and attacked. Till this day I'm not a fan of that word. To me, so much pain lies behind that word, and I'm not talking about my own perplexity about the skin I was living in —I'm talking historically, the origins of that word are rooted in ill-intent. I find it hard to wrap my mind around the notion that using that word now is, "taking back power". I feel like the weight of that word is too heavy a weight to bear.

Words can be awful. Comments can cut deep, and they can breed self-doubt.

  1. "You're such an oreo!"

  2. "You talk like a white girl."

  3. "You're really pretty for a dark-skinned girl."

I can't even recall all the times I was told these things when I was younger. As I reflect on all of this, and think back to some of these experiences, I'm pretty astonished at how easily people could say these things. Although it's now over a decade later, and I've evolved quite a bit in my thinking, I still feel for my younger self —the girl who had not yet developed the armor to withstand, and possibly respond to such comments.

To anyone that this may resonate with, whether you're black, brown, or neither —just know that you're not the only one that may be feeling what you're feeling. We all have things we've needed to work through, and possibly still need to process. You are every bit as entitled to your feelings as the next person. I read something the other day that said,

"You're an original. You can't get any more prestigious than that. [You have] been wonderfully made. Don't go around feeling ordinary when in fact, you're extraordinary."

I hope this fills you with comfort, as it did me.

I'm so incredibly proud to be African, to live in the skin I'm in, and to consistently learn more about my culture and both sides of my family's history.

I hope that in the media you consume and in the ways you choose to spend your time, you feel valued and represented. Representation truly matters. I can't tell you the amount of joy I feel when I see Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira (particularly in the context of "Black Panther") and Michaela DePrince —such appreciation and admiration. According to "Black Panther" Director, Ryan Coogler, "[Chadwick Boseman advocated for his character, T'Challa to speak with an accent], so that he could present T'Challa to audiences as an African King, whose dialect had not been conquered by the West."

Last week around this time, I, like the rest of the world was shocked by the news of Chadwick Boseman's passing. The Black Panther. This phenomenal actor had been living with an illness for the past 4 years, yet worked relentlessly to use his God-given gifts and bring us works of art? I just couldn't believe it. What I found really heartbreaking was when I read that there were a lot of negative comments whirling around earlier this year, pertaining to his apparent change in appearance. I honestly had no idea such talk was even happening. Unbeknownst to so many, Chadwick was dealing with something so major. I can only hope that these insensitive comments did not weigh on him, and that he still recognized the incredible joy he brought to so many people all around the world. There's an old proverb that says, "This journey called life is never short of teachable moments and life lessons." One of the things Chadwick Boseman's passing teaches us, is that we must always be kind. You never know the struggles someone may be facing. Kindness costs us nothing, and it is so powerful.

This year has been something. I don't know what the rest of 2020 has in store, but I do know that "In the darkness is where light shines the brightest" and it's in my best interest to continue to live with a grateful heart, good intentions and ambition to give back and help others.



Today's Word with Joel + Victoria

Be Amazing: "You're an original. ..."

(You can read the full message, here. And if you'd like to receive daily inspirational and encouraging words, you can sign up here.)


Elle Sees NYC
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