On the Anniversary of America’s Racial Reckoning and Reawakening (in solidarity with Juanisha Brooks)
On May 25, 2020, the events surrounding George Floyd’s murder, combined with the longer list of other acts of violence against African-American men and women, seemed to become a catalyst for America’s racial reawakening.
It was such a bold, vile and hateful act that it created an outrage that crossed racial lines, and began to engage White allies in more intentional work around race relations.
This engagement has been important and critical to moving America to actualize a vision for a more just and inclusive community.
My blog post almost a year ago was called Dear America, interrogating a long history of African-Americans in the United States. http://menahprattclarke.com/2020/05/30/dear-america/
Through the course of the summer, I reflected on ongoing civil rights issues in other blog posts: the deafening silence of the church; allyship; White supremacy, and being an chief diversity officer.
At Virginia Tech, as at many universities, we continued existing programming and began new programming to respond to the heightened awareness locally and nationally about race. I shared a deeply personal video with a colleague at Virginia Tech about the impact of this work:
In addition, Making the Chair Fit and #VTUnfinished became regular video productions about race and racism. Now, there are over 35 episodes on the InclusiveVT YouTube channel that raise important and critical issues about race.
These videos have included conversations with senior leaders at Virginia Tech, including the president, the provost, the vice president for student affairs, the director of athletics, the directors of community and cultural centers, and directors and leaders of other diversity related programs. They have included conversations with alumni, including our first Monacan Nation student – the tribal community on whose land Virginia Tech sits. It has included conversations with our first African -American student and our some of our first African-American women students.
Our work has not been limited to these video productions. We also started a leadership series: White Allies as Transformational Leaders, involving a group of almost 20 department heads who have been meeting monthly and working through An Inclusive Academy: Achieving Diversity and Excellence by Abigail Stewart and Virginia Valian.
We accelerated our diversity education offerings through our Office for Inclusion and Diversity. https://www.inclusive.vt.edu/Initiatives/DiversityEducationandPrograms.html
We offered the InclusiveVT Inclusive Excellence Series: Inclusive Climate, Inclusive Advising, Inclusive Excellence, Inclusive Teaching, and the Inclusive Workplace. Almost 900 faculty and staff enrolled in these programs. Almost 500 faculty engaged with creating an inclusive classroom workshop at the beginning of the semester. And almost 10,000 students and over 4000 employees completed the pre-enrollment diversity course.
Our work continued even as America continued to struggle with democracy and the attempted insurrection on January 6. http://menahprattclarke.com/2021/01/18/martin-luther-kings-america/
And as we plowed through the spring semester in 2021, we waited with apprehension for the verdict on George Floyd’s murder, a verdict that we were not sure would create even a hint of justice: http://menahprattclarke.com/2021/04/22/trying-to-thrive-through-trials-tears-and-trauma-revisiting-abolition/
And, then we thought we could breath a “collective,” (perhaps) sigh of relief. But, sadly, it seems, we cannot breath sighs of relief.
There were acts of violence against Asian-Americans, and the acts of violence and harassment against African-Americans continued.
Most recently in a story released early this month, we learned that one of our own alumni and fellow Hokie, Juanisha Brooks (an African-American woman) had a horrifying experience with an illlegal traffic stop and arrest in Virginia.
Although the charges were dismissed with the prosecutor asserting that there was no legal basis for the arrest, her experience hits close to home in Virginia and in the area so many of our alumni, current and prospective students reside. The video of the arrest and the story was shared through interviews and original reporting in the Washington Post, NY Times, USA Today, NBC News, CNN, Associated Press, and additional national outlets. She was also interviewed by all four local Washington D.C. news stations.
I have had the wonderful privilege of getting to know Juanisha over the past five years that I have been at Virginia Tech. She has dedicated countless hours and years of service to Virginia Tech by supporting and growing diversity programs. She currently serves on the Virginia Tech Alumni Board of Directors as a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I want to share a bit more about this amazing woman.
She is a 2008 graduate of Virginia Tech with a B.A. in Communication (Broadcast concentration) and Psychology double major. Currently, she is a Senior Video Producer for the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C with top security clearance. Prior to her work with the Department of Defense, she served as a Media Coordinator for the CNN Washington bureau where she helped produce political coverage for the network and the Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer during the 2012 election season. She received her start in broadcasting after being selected out of more than 8,000 applicants nationwide to be a part of the prestigious NBC Page Program, and next worked as a Production Assistant at the MSNBC headquarters in New York City. As an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, she was selected as a Fellow for the International Radio and Television Society, received the Steger Award for Undergraduate Poetry awarded by Nikki Giovanni, was awarded the VT NAACP Female Undergraduate of the Year Award, and was a finalist for Undergraduate Woman of the Year.
I share this background to illustrate the reality that our pedigree as people of color does not shield us against racism. My brother, Awadagin Pratt, created an entire podcast about his experience of driving/walking while Black, including being arrested while running late for a rehearsal with his violin in Baltimore as a student at Peabody Music Conservatory
The reality is that as a person of color in America we have no shield. Our identity and often our skin color makes us targets for hate and prejudice. So, we often carry an awareness of our vulnerability wherever and whenever we walk into a room. This vulnerability and powerlessness, particularly as a woman of color, has to constantly be countered by affirming our magic and majesty and meaning in the world:
Recently, I, too, was pulled over by police in Virginia. As soon as I saw the sirens, I grabbed my phone. I was going to call a friend so that someone could hear my conversation with the officer, in case, just in case something happened to me. I cannot describe the fear that I felt when I pulled over. I was so scared, especially after I realized I didn’t have any cell service and could not call anyone. I was so nervous that I almost had an asthma attack. The police officer asked for my registration and I was so discombobulated, I handed him my car inspection report and then my insurance card, before finally finding the registration. The White police officer, though, was kind, respectful, and gave me only a warning for speeding. As I drove off, grateful beyond grateful, I wondered why I only got a warning. I think I was legitimately speeding because it was through small towns where the limit changes to 45, to 65, to 45, to 55, and you have to really pay attention. I was just trying to be mindful; I just didn’t notice the speed limit change. But, there are places just on the outskirts of Blacksburg that I will try to avoid, especially rural roads and areas where I know cell service could be limited.
As I drove off, I wondered if I only got a warning because I was a Black woman in a BMW wagon which perhaps had an “air of legitimacy,” or if it was because I had VT license plates, which I deliberate choose, not only because of my affinity and loyalty for VT, but also hoping that perhaps it might matter if I was ever pulled over; or if perhaps angels and ancestors were watching over me.
But, Menah could have been Juanisha. My experience could have been hers. Recently, the state released new data showing that Black drivers in Virginia are more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. These types of pre-text stops often can be more deadly or have dire legal and traumatic consequences. Black Drivers in Virginia Study. So, as a Black woman, I empathize with Juanisha, and the many other Black women that have created a legacy of #SAYHERNAME.
Yet, there are good efforts underway in the state with the appointment in 2019 of Janice Underwood, who became Virginia’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. She was the first person in the nation to hold a state Cabinet-level position focusing on these issues and she is leading transformational efforts:
And, so, America’s Racial Reckoning and Reawakening must continue, because our skin color is not a shield against discrimination and racism. Our skin color can never be shielded, nor do we wish it to be. We simply wish to move through the world without fear, without anxiety, without apprehension.
And, so, America’s Racial Reckoning and Reawakening must continue.