It was the Spring of 2012 and I was closing in on my junior year at East Carolina University. I got a phone call from the sitting Black Student Union President, where he had notified me that I overwhelmingly won the support of the Black Student Union (BSU) body to serve as their president the following school semester. I was thrilled and motivated to assume this position. I’ve had political ambitions dating from 2008 when at the age of 16 I worked as a field organizer for Obama for America. After school or after track practice I would spend my afternoons canvassing North Raleigh suburbs and phone banking from the Obama HQ in Raleigh, NC. I finally felt that the long nights I spent volunteering as an events committee coordinator for the BSU had finally paid off, and I would now take the lead of a student organization I cared about so deeply.
The next day there was a formal announcement of my election held at the BSU general body meeting, following my inaugural reception, I was greeted by a group of peaceful student protesters in the student center. They had come together to hold a candlelight vigil for 17-year-old Trayvon Martin who was unarmed and gunned down by George Zimmerman — a white community watchman who would, later on, be found not guilty for killing him. This verdict happened on the premises of a notorious “stand your ground” and an all-white jury who failed to empathize with the harsh reality that Zimmerman had killed Trayvon Martin because of a long vicious cycle of hate, fear, and white supremacy.
A reporter who was amongst the student protesters from the Daily Reflector tapped me for a quote on the issue. Here I was only a few hours into my new role and I was already being syndicated in a public forum on an issue that would later shape the national conversation of this country for years to come.
In addition to the coverage of peaceful demonstrations — the publication also published the sentiments opposing the candlelight vigil in a column called “Bless your Heart,” where local Greenville residents could offer their opinions on an issue anonymously.
The outcry of anti-black sentiments and public denial of our trauma would continue to shadow over our organizational efforts. It’s what eventually would deplete my willingness and energy to serve as the BSU President. I abruptly resigned from my position in January 2013 — devastating my peers and student leaders who indirectly saw me as the face of the Black community on campus. I set off for a semester in Italy to study digital photography and color theory in the hills of Tuscany. It was during my time in Europe that I was able to reflect, grow, and work through some of the things that kept me awake at night — like systematic oppression and racism.
I returned back to the states later that summer, and never entered a professional arena that resembled politics or community organizing again. I became dedicated to an expression that was more therapeutic and freeing for me which is art. It’s my painting, photography, illustrations, and writing that has propelled and distracted me from destruction. But as we sit and watch the world fall to utter unrest once again, I am finding that the two worlds I so adamantly tried to isolate have conveniently been placed at parallels.
Fast Forwarding to 2020
Today I stand before you as a 28-year-old, bi-sexual Black male, who has navigated the world’s of marketing and public relations for over five years now.
I am exhausted.
I have been active in this fight since 2012.
George Zimmerman’s non-conviction corroded every ounce of optimism I had that this country would turn it back on the institutionalized racism that I had learned about in the history books.
For eight years I’ve been hitting the streets screaming at the top of my lungs, asking you not to shoot, telling you I can’t breathe, that my Black sisters are underpaid, unsupported, and going missing. This moment, this day, and this conversation is proof that you have ignored me and everyone else.
Because you ignored me, your world is now full of unmeasurable calamity.
Now that I have your attention, it’s important that you understand that your silence has been heard. Your continued silence is causing a tremendous amount of harm to myself and my fellow Black peers. I know that many of you are ready. Ready to speak, and ready to take action. My recent silence amongst white colleagues, friends, and family members has been intentional. I’m reserving my voice in preparation for listening to you.
I can no longer advocate and explain to you who I am or why the people who belong to my culture deserve the basic human rights of our government and the respect from our white counterparts in every aspect of our lives.
So I want you to have the floor. I want to hear from you because you’ve heard from me for far too long. I am already at the table, thanks for inviting me — but what is on the agenda?
If you don’t know, here are a few questions to ask to shape the agenda.
Why does this company not have Black executives and mid-level managers?
Why are the Black employees disproportionately underpaid and overworked for their level of skill?
Why don’t you speak to me in the hallways but will shoutout the “n-word” when your favorite song plays?
If me asking those questions offends you, then I will get up from the table, as we are not ready to listen and make progress.
But if that question only makes you feel a little uncomfortable and you are not afraid of the challenges of having that conversation — let’s talk, devise a plan, and get to work.