I wasn’t always an intersectional activist and anti-racist advocate. In fact, I was probably the furthest thing possible from that. I was a conservative, homophobic, republican Christian girl, full of internalized racism, whose only reason for moving to Lancaster was to attend Bible College. My goal back then was to graduate with a degree in Bible and Musical Theatre, audition for Sight and Sound, and live happily ever after.
Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view) this dream was slowly shattered over the course of my three years at my soon to be alma mater, Lancaster Bible College. The reason I bring this up is because it was at this very college that I learned to find my “voice” in social justice and activism work. Our school had no BSU, no Black counselors, no Officer of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and little to no curriculum regarding Black History. And of course, a daily dose of dehumanizing microaggressions from the general student population.
Out of my frustration was born a voice I didn’t even know I had. I learned to challenge the assumptions made about my blackness. I learned to write emails, set up meetings, draft up proposals for Black empowerment clubs, cultural events, and ways to implement real and lasting anti-racist policies to help the Black and brown students there.
It was in the bowels of that campus that I, with neither textbook nor teacher to guide me, began to embody the four steps for a nonviolent campaign outlined in Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
“There are four basic steps to any nonviolent campaign, according to King, and these steps are”
(1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive
(4) direct action
The first step was simple. I learned to keep a written record of all the racism I was seeing around me, partly because I knew if I didn’t have proof no one would believe me (the burden of being both Black and woman). I learned to write emails to those in leadership, set up meetings, and go through the list of issues, concerns, and manifestations of injustice I was seeing.
In other words, I learned to negotiate. When that didn’t work, I moved to the third step, self-purification. This can look like many different things to different people, but it basically means checking your life and spirit to make sure you are truly prepared for all the outcomes of the final step (backlash, slander, judgment, success, etc.) And then finally, moving onto the fourth step, direct action.
Until May 31st, 2020 I had never attended a protest in my life. The farthest I’d gone towards taking direct action was to boycott the callbacks for my school’s musical because they were attempting to whitewash a character who was written to be Hispanic. After all my efforts to enact change using steps 1-3 bore no fruit, I switched out of my fulltime theatre program and into online studies back in the summer of 2019.
Writing had always been my weapon, but I didn’t even know how to engage in direct action or what that would look like. I had never done community organizing work and even though I tried to gather students at my campus to rally with me, it seemed most felt the effort to create an anti-racist environment on our campus was hopeless. So I tried to move on but I still kept reading.
I began reading books by Black authors like Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, Alice Walker, bell hooks, and others. I filled my social media accounts with Black excellence, watched documentaries, lectures, relearned history through the words of the marginalized. I got racial trauma therapy and rebuilt my racial identity and moved from an assimilated token Black girl that white people used as a weapon in race conversations, to “Why does she have to make everything about race? Why is she so pro-Black, Why is she so LOUD” Black woman. It was so liberating.
Still…there was something missing. With all the knowledge I was accruing, lies I was unlearning, I still felt like I was standing on the sidelines. Too scarred from my last attempts at activism work to try again in a different setting. By this time, I had moved to Lancaster city and when the first protests began for George Floyd, I was there.
It was both terrifying and wholly freeing. It was terrifying in the sense that I and my friends were attacked by police officers for doing nothing more than proclaiming Black Lives Matter. It was terrifying because as I watched police attack innocent people holding cardboard signs and children on their knees, I realized no one is really safe. I realized that it is the calling and duty of a people, to stand up and use their voices to cry out when the people who are meant to protect us seek to harm us.
It was freeing because it was the final piece of my activist puzzle. I had been writing and emailing and crafting carefully worded messages for years. Trying so hard to mold myself and my message into something that would make white people stop being complicit in racism. When I march, I reclaim my dignity. When I link arms with protestors, I reclaim my humanity. When I lift my full Black voice in protest, all the little pieces of me that were stolen by white supremacy are reclaimed. I break through white cultural norms & respectability politics. And with confidence I can proudly proclaim: I am here. I am Black. And my voice will always matter.