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In response to the proposal from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) that congregations focus on the dismantling of racism, the Adrian Dominican Sisters began by identifying resources that can assist us in raising our consciousness of white privilege and white supremacy, both personally and systematically.
From January 2021 through June of 2023, our Toward Communion: Undoing Racism and Embracing Diversity Committee and our Justice Promoters collaborated on a project to provide information on prominent Black and Indigenous Catholics who have made significant contributions to the church and society, along with reflection questions and a prayer.
In May of 2022, Kevin D. Hofmann was named the founding Director of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion for the Congregation. With the goal of normalizing conversations about race and culture and discussing what it means to feel included and excluded, Kevin began contributing to this blog in June of 2022. He shares his unique experience of growing up Black in a white family in Detroit and educates on topics of equity and inclusion.
By Kevin Hofmann
Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion
The theme for this year's Black History Month is “Black Resistance.” I thought there would be no better way to showcase Black resistance than to highlight Black women. They are the backbone of the Black community and have played a monumental role in creating change through their resistance. Each week throughout the month of February we will learn about women who stood up, spoke out, and changed the world.
֎ Valerie Thomas ֎ Bessie Blount Griffin ֎ Lillie Mae Bradford
֎ Anna Julia Haywood Cooper ֎ Angela Davis
NASA, restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Associate Chief of Space Science Data Operations Office
Inventor of the Illusion Transmitter (3D/hologram technology)
Winner of the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit
Winner of NASA Equal Opportunity Medal
Project Manager for Space Physics Analysis Network
“Hobbies are for wimps who don’t have the guts to follow their passion.”
Superpower: Her brain
Valerie Thomas was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and she grew up with a love for math and physics. She decided to pursue that love in college where she majored in physics at Morgan State University. Valerie was only one of two women who majored in physics at Morgan State. She graduated with the highest honors and immediately began her career at NASA as a data analyst. She was tasked with creating real time computer data systems that would help interpret what the satellites were seeing when they looked at Earth. She would later take this technology and lead a team of 50 people, including scientists from NASA, Johnson Space Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They were able to prove that the use of this system could accurately gauge and measure yearly wheat yields. It was an unprecedented accomplishment to bring all these agencies together to collaborate and share information in a field that is very territorial when it comes to information.
While at an exhibition in 1976, she saw an optical illusion that projected a 3D image using light and mirrors. She went home wondering how she could use this technology in her work at NASA. A year later she invented the illusion transmitter. She was able to create a way to send a 3D image of an object across a distance, creating a hologram that allows you to view the object from all angles. This technology is still used today by NASA and is now expanding into the medical field to aid with surgery. This technology is also used in televisions and video screens. She received a patent for this invention in 1980.
In the mid 1980s, Valerie Thomas was project leader of the Space Physics Analysis Network (SPAN). Her job was to create a large computer network that would connect scientists from all over the world to allow more sharing and collaboration. Valerie and SPAN continued to develop this technology which would give way to the beginning of the Internet and networking. Indirectly, we can thank Valerie Thomas for Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and all the hours we have wasted on the Internet.
Valerie Thomas is now retired but spends much of her free time encouraging and mentoring women and girls in the fields of science and math. Learn more about Valerie Thomas.
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"Portable Receptacle Support," B.V. Griffin, April 24, 1951, U.S. Pat. No. 2,550,554 U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Inventor of three assistive medical devices
First Black woman to be accepted into advanced studies at the Document Division of Scotland Yard
“I’m gonna live just for spite, ’cause my work is not done.”
Superpower: The inability to sit still
Bessie Blount Griffin was born in 1914 in Hickory, Virginia. She attended school in a one room schoolhouse that was built by Blacks to educate children of freed enslaved people, enslaved children, and Native Americans. Early in life, when faced with an obstacle, Bessie found a unique solution. While attending school, Bessie, who was left-handed, would get her knuckles slapped with a ruler for using her left hand. Out of defiance and creativity she taught herself to write with the pencil in her right hand, her mouth, and in between her toes. Her resourcefulness would prove helpful later in her career.
By the time she was in sixth grade, she had learned all the schoolhouse had to teach her. She continued to learn on her own and eventually earned her high school diploma. Bessie studied to become a nurse at the Black run Community Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Newark. During her free time while working at Kennedy Memorial, she turned her attention to physical therapy. After earning her degree in physical therapy, she worked as a physical therapist and taught physiotherapy at the same hospital.
After World War II she found her calling when she began working with veterans that had lost limbs or been paralyzed during the war. Remembering back to her school days, she even taught some amputees how use their feet to type.
She became a huge proponent for the disabled soldiers and worked tirelessly to help them become more self-reliant. While working with the soldiers, a doctor suggested, “If you really want to do something for these boys, why don’t you make something by which they can feed themselves?” So, every morning for the next five years, between 1:00-4:00 a.m. Bessie would sit in her kitchen creating a machine that would feed soldiers who weren’t able to feed themselves. Finally, after investing about $3,000 of her own money, she had created a self-feeding device that dispensed food when the patient would bite down on the feeding tube. Small pieces of food would be fed through the tube and then shut off to allow the patient to chew. She had the device patented and attempted to shop the device to the Veterans Administration (VA). Even after several surgeons praised the invention and what it could do for amputees and quadriplegics, the head of the VA said it was impractical because they had nurses and aids who could feed patients. Bessie would later sign over the patent to the French government who would use it in their military hospitals. When she was asked about not getting any money for her invention, she simply replied that she was contributing to the progress of Black people by “proving that a black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind.”
Bessie continued her work as a nurse, a physical therapist, and inventor, yet she desired to do more. She began studying how certain things affected handwriting such as medication, disease, stress, or a person’s physical environment. She went on to publish a paper detailing her research with handwriting. Soon police departments were calling for her expertise as a handwriting expert. She trained at the Document Division of the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory in Scotland Yard. She was the first Black woman given this opportunity. When she returned home, she was often asked to testify in court as an expert where evidentiary handwriting samples were involved.
When she wasn’t a nurse, physical therapist, inventor, or expert witness, she spent her free time building a consulting business that reviewed historical documents relating to slavery, the Civil War, and Native American treaties for their authenticity.
At the age of 94, she took up another project. She wanted to create a museum where her small one room schoolhouse once stood to honor all the students that attended the school and their amazing accomplishments. A year later, she passed away before she could complete this project. What an amazing woman, inventor, nurse, physical therapist, expert witness, and museum curator she was! Learn more about Bessie Blount Griffin.
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Bradford Arrest Report, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement
The Original Rosa Parks
“But that day, I said to myself ‘If you don’t defend your right today, you never will.’”
Four years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, four years before Rosa refused to give up her seat, Lillie Mae had a decision to make that would impact her for the rest of her life.
When Lillie Mae was 20 years old, she boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to go home. She had just finished a long day as a caregiver for disabled children and was going home to rest. Her bus ride required her to get a transfer so she could catch a second bus to finish her commute. She boarded the bus, gave the driver her fare and requested a transfer. Even though she paid for the transfer, she did not get it. This happened routinely to Blacks who rode the bus. It happened to her before, and she had chosen not to say anything and paid the extra fare. But this day was different. When she noticed the mistake, she approached the driver and requested she get what she paid for knowing the act of her simply questioning a white man could have gotten her killed. When he refused to give her a transfer or a refund, he ordered her to sit down several times. Finally, she sat down right behind the driver, in the section for whites only.
The driver pulled the bus over to make a call and then continued his route. A few moments later, the police stopped the bus, pulled Lillie Mae off the bus, arrested her, and charged her with disorderly conduct. She later would be ordered to pay a small fine to resolve the case, at least she thought.
Over the next several years, she applied for jobs and was denied over and over. Finally, she recalled the small box on each application, the box that asked if you have ever been convicted of a crime. She answered honestly every time and would never get hired. Her quiet act of civil disobedience costed her several jobs and stayed on her record for over 50 years.
Fifty-five years after she sat in the “wrong seat,” the Rosa Parks Act was passed allowing civil rights activists to request a pardon for prior arrests. Although she was now 78 years old and wouldn’t be applying to too many jobs at her age, she requested a pardon because, “I want to have it removed, frame it, and put it on the wall. It will show I was arrested fighting for my rights.” Learn more about Lillie Mae Bradford.
C. M. Bell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Received a PhD from the University of Paris
President of Frelinghuysen University
Adoptive mother of five
“Mother of Black Feminism”
“Let our girls feel that we expect something more of them than that they merely look pretty and appear well in society.”
Superpower: The ability to succeed in hostile environments
Anna Julia Hayward Cooper and her mother Hanna Hayward were enslaved women owned by George Hayward in North Carolina. Hanna was taken advantage of by either George Hayward or his brother, Dr. Fabius Hayward – or possibly both – and as a result become pregnant with Anna.
At nine years old, Anna began her education. She was the recipient of a scholarship to St. Augustine's Normal School and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh. The institute was founded to help train and graduate teachers who would go on to help educate former enslaved families. While at St. Augustine’s she studied math, science, Latin, French, Greek, and literature. This was part of the “Ladies Course,” a track for women that also discouraged them from pursuing higher education. There she successfully argued for the right to take a course reserved only for men. She met and married her husband, George Cooper, at St. Augustine’s. Sadly, George died two years after they married.
Upon graduation, Anna remained at St. Augustine’s as an instructor but soon left to pursue her studies at Oberlin College in Ohio and continued taking courses reserved for men. She earned her bachelor’s degree in two years and went on to get a master’s degree in mathematics. She, along with fellow classmate Mary Church Terrell, were the first two Black woman to receive a master’s degree. Two years after graduation she wrote and published her essay, “Higher Education of Women." In her essay, she argued the importance of access to education for Black women. Almost ten years later, W.E.B. Du Bois, wrote a similar essay, “Of the Training of Black Men.” In a field designed and dominated by men, Anna not only competed with but out-performed the men in her field.
Anna become a high school teacher, principal, and author on the side. She wrote a critically acclaimed book, A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South. In her book of essays, she spoke about race, racism, gender, and the socioeconomics of Black families. She also wrote about the duty of successful Black women to assist those after them.
At 56, she began to work toward her doctorate degree at Columbia but was forced to postpone her studies a year later when she adopted her five orphaned nieces and nephews. She returned to pursue her doctorate at the University of Paris, but unfortunately, they did not accept the thesis she started at Columbia. Finally, at age 65 she become the fourth Black woman in America to earn a PhD.
After retiring as a high school teacher and principal, she became the President of Frelinghuysen University where stayed for another 30 years before retiring again. She lived to be 105 and remained an active writer and speaker. Learn more about Anna Julia Haywood Cooper.
Philippe Halsman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Founding member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS)
Member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA)
Made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list (only the third woman to make the list)
TIME Woman of the Year 1972
Professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
“We know the road to freedom has always been stalked by death.”
Superpower: The ability to speak up for those who can’t
Angela Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and grew up in the Black middleclass neighborhood known as “Dynamite Hill.” It was coined this nickname in the 1950s when several homes were bombed to scare Blacks from buying homes in this area. Angela’s mother, Sallye Belle Davis was a leader in the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an organization that had roots in Communism. Her senior year in high school she accepted a scholarship and attended Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York. While at Elisabeth Irwin, Angela was recruited by the Communist group, Advance.
Upon graduating from high school, Angela was awarded a scholarship from Brandeis University in Massachusetts. The summer after her freshman year, she attended the World Festival of Youth and Students in Finland, a communist-sponsored festival. When she returned to the United States, she was approached by the FBI and questioned about her presence at the festival. This would be the beginning of a long relationship between Angela and the FBI.
She studied abroad in France her junior year, and it was here where she heard about the bombing of a church in her hometown Birmingham, Alabama. Angela knew the families of the four girls killed in the bombing. Angela graduated magna cum laude, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and left to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Frankfurt. After studying abroad for two years, she returned to finish her master's degree at the University of California, San Diego. She went on to complete her Doctor of Philosophy in East Berlin at the Humboldt University.
She began her professional career when she accepted the position of assistant professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She was also recruited by Princeton and Swarthmore in Pennsylvania but chose UCLA because of its urban location. Soon after her arrival she joined the Black Panther Party. Her affiliation with the Communist Party and the Black Panthers concerned those in leadership and they began targeting her. The then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, urged UCLA to take a hard line against communism and as a result later that same year, she was fired. A judge would later rule they could not fire Angela Davis simply because of her connection to the Communist Party. She was reinstated only to be fired at the end of the next school year for using “inflammatory language,” in several speeches.
A few months after she was fired, an armed 17-year-old walked into a court room in California, gave weapons to the defendants on trial, and took the prosecutor, judge, and three jurors as hostages. The 17-year-old was the brother of one of the defendants in the Soledad Brother’s case who was in jail charged with the murder of a prison guard. It is assumed the brother was trying to use this takeover as leverage to free his brother. During the escape attempt, shots were exchanged, and the three defendants and judge were killed. The prosecutor and a juror were injured as well. The guns used in the failed takeover attempt were owned by Angela Davis. The weapon used to kill the judge was said to have been purchased by her a few days before the murder. The police also said she had connections with those behind the escape attempt through the Black Panther party. Angela Davis was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder of the judge. For several months, she refused to turn herself in and as a result was added to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted fugitives list. She was eventually found and arrested.
Several groups across the country began organizing and working to gain her release as soon as they heard of her arrest. A month after she was arrested and charged, over 200 communities in the United States and 67 in other countries were fighting for her release. Many public figures joined in the fight including musicians John Lennon and Yoko Ono who wrote the song “Angela” to bring attention to her story. The Rolling Stones also penned a song after Angela, called “Sweet Black Angel.” When the trial ended, Angela Davis was acquitted by an all-white jury. They found no evidence she played a role in the planning of the takeover.
Angela Davis continued to teach and speak all over the world. She clearly expressed her opposition to racism, sexism, the prison-industrial complex, and the Vietnam war. She lent her support to many social justice movements, including fighting for the rights of LBGTQIA+ community. Learn more about Angela Davis.
֎ Fannie Lou Hamer ֎ Ida B. Wells-Barnett ֎ Stacey Abrams
֎ The Founders of Black Lives Matter ֎ Afeni Shakur
Vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party
1964 Democratic National Convention Representative
Organized Mississippi’s Freedom Summer Project
Organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
Co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus
Mother of two adopted daughters
Inductee of the National Women's Hall of Fame
“I don’t want to hear you say, ‘Honey, I’m behind you.’ Well, move. I don’t want you back there because you could be 200 miles behind. I want you to say, ‘I’m with you.’ And we’ll go up this freedom road together.”
Fannie Lou Townsend was born in 1917, the last of 20 children to be born to Ella and James Lee Townsend, sharecroppers in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She began picking cotton at age six and by age 13 she was able to pick up to 300 pounds of cotton each day while fighting the effects of polio. During the winter months, when not picking cotton, she attended a one-room schoolhouse on the plantation where she worked. She excelled in reading, spelling, and reciting poetry. Unfortunately, by age 12 she had to leave school to pick cotton to help support the family.
In 1944 she married Perry Hamer and the couple continued their plantation work. In 1962, Fannie Lou was fired from the plantation when the owner discovered she tried to vote. Once the harvest was complete, her husband, Perry, was fired as well.
In 1961, she found out she had a uterine tumor. She scheduled the procedure to have the tumor removed but when the doctor went to remove the tumor, he chose to give Fannie Lou a “Mississippi Appendectomy” – the forcible removal of a Black women’s uterus without the woman’s consent to control the “spread” of Black people. Although Fannie Lou was unable to have children, she and Perry eventually became parents to two adopted girls.
In June 1963, after successfully completing a voter registration program in Charleston, South Carolina, Fannie Lou and several other Black women were arrested for sitting in a “whites only” bus station restaurant in Winona, Mississippi. At the Winona jailhouse, she and several of the women were brutally beaten, leaving Fannie Lou with lifelong injuries – a blood clot in her eye, kidney damage, and leg damage.
In 1964, Fannie Lou helped organize Freedom Summer, which brought hundreds of college students, Black and white, to help with African American voter registration in the segregated South.
Frustrated by the political process, Fannie Lou turned to economics as a strategy for greater racial equality. In 1968, she began a “pig bank” to provide free pigs for Black farmers to breed, raise, and slaughter. A year later she launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative, buying up land that Blacks could own and farm collectively. With the assistance of donors (including famed singer Harry Belafonte), she purchased 640 acres and launched a co-op store, boutique, and sewing enterprise. In 1977, Fannie Lou died of breast cancer at age 59.
Despite all that happened to her she never stayed down. Hardship, disease, racism, malpractice, and violence never stopped her from achieving what she was called to do. Learn more about Fannie Lou Hamer.
Early founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper
“I am only a mouthpiece through which to tell the story of lynching and I have told it so often that I know it by heart. I do not have to embellish; it makes its own way.”
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born into slavery in Holly Springs Mississippi, and at age three she was declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation. At age 14 she went to visit relatives; while away from home her parents and a sibling contracted yellow fever and died soon after. Ida was left to raise herself and her surviving siblings. She found a better paying job as a teacher and moved the family to Memphis.
It was in Memphis where she co-founded the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper where she was also an investigative reporter. Ida chose to expose the truth behind white mob violence and lynching. The white media continued to report that those getting lynched were criminals and those doing the lynching were the real victims. Ida’s articles showed the brutality of the lynching and how they were used to intimidate and control Blacks who were gaining power and prominence in society.
Ida became a trusted and needed voice in the struggle for civil rights. Soon her articles were being carried nationally by other Black newspapers and as her readership spread, she became a target. Her presses in Memphis were destroyed by an angry white mob and she and her family were forced to flee to Chicago for safety.
She continued to write and speak both nationally and internationally, pointing out the realities of racism in America and the brutality of lynching. She also became a leader for women’s rights and a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. She was present during the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) but is rarely listed as one of the founders.
In 2020, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was awarded a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for her investigative writing. Learn more about Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Founder of Fair Fight Action
Democratic Georgia gubernatorial nominee 2018 and 2022
Co-founder of NOWaccount Network, a financial services firm
First African American woman to give a response to the Presidential State of the Union address
New York Times best-selling author (twice)
CEO of Sage Works, a legal consulting firm that has represented clients including the Atlanta Dream of the Women's National Basketball Association
“Our ability to participate in government, to elect our leaders and to improve our lives is contingent upon our ability to access the ballot. We know in our heart of hearts that voting is a sacred right – the fount from which all other rights flow.”
Superpower: The ability to organize
Stacey Yvonne Abrams was born to Robert and Carolyn Abrams in 1973 in Madison, Wisconsin, and raised in Gulfport, Mississippi. In 1989, the family moved to Atlanta where both her parents pursued graduate degrees in Divinity from Emory University.
While still in high school, Stacey was hired to work on a congressional campaign where she was given the opportunity to be a speechwriter. She continued her education after college and graduated magna cum laude from Spellman University in 1995. Her post-graduate work was done at the University of Texas in Austin, and she graduated with a Master of Public Affairs degree in 1998. Stacey continued to law school and earned a Juris Doctorate degree from Yale Law School.
In 2018, Abrams founded Fair Fight Action, an organization to address voter suppression. She has been widely credited with boosting voter turnout in Georgia, including in the 2020 presidential election, when Joe Biden narrowly won the state, and in Georgia's 2020–21 regularly scheduled and special U.S. Senate elections, which gave Democrats control of the Senate. Learn more about Stacey Abrams.
Left: Patrisse Cullors on Ashley Graham, Pretty Big Deal with Ashley Graham, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons | Center: Alicia Garza, Citizen University, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons | Right: Ayọ Tometi, Web Summit, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Superpower: Their ability to create change
In 2013, in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Ayọ Tometi (formerly Opal Tometi) created Black Lives Matter (BLM). There has been so much misinformation about this group, so it is important to hear directly from the founders about the inspiration behind this movement.
Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.
As organizers who work with everyday people, BLM members see and understand significant gaps in movement spaces and leadership. Black liberation movements in this country have created room, space, and leadership mostly for Black heterosexual, cisgender men — leaving women, queer and transgender people, and others either out of the movement or in the background to move the work forward with little or no recognition. As a network, we have always recognized the need to center the leadership of women and queer and trans people. To maximize our movement muscle, and to be intentional about not replicating harmful practices that excluded so many in past movements for liberation, we made a commitment to placing those at the margins closer to the center. (Source: https://blacklivesmatter.com/herstory/)
BLM is unique is so many ways. It appears the founders looked to the successes and failures of the past civil rights groups to guide them. As stated above, they wanted to create a more inclusive group that honors women, queer, and transgender people as leaders and show all are integral in creating real change. Learn more about Black Lives Matter.
University of Central Arkansas, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr
Defended herself in the Panther 21 Trial in which all members were acquitted.
CEO of Amaru Entertainment
Founder of Tupac Shakur Foundation
“Trust me, you can't change anything without causing some degree of disruption. It's impossible, that is exactly what change is. Some people are uncomfortable with the disruption that change causes, but the disruption is necessary if anything is going to change.”
Superpower: Fierce litigator
When Afeni Shakur, born Alice Faye Williams, was 21 years old, she heard Black Panther Bobby Seale speak. When the Black Panther Party opened an office close to her home in Harlem she joined right away. She would soon meet and marry fellow Black Panther Lumumba Shakur. She changed her name to Afeni Shakur and became a section leader of the Harlem chapter for Black Panthers.
Six months after she joined the Black Panther Party, Afeni was arrested along with 20 other members, accused of plotting to bomb several New York police stations. During the trial she represented herself and described it in her autobiography, “I was young. I was arrogant. And I was brilliant in court... because I thought this was the last time I could speak. The last time before they locked me up forever... I was writing my own obituary." Her work in the trial is credited for getting her and the 20 others acquitted.
In total, Afeni spent two years in jail. During that time, she had the opportunity to get to know several Gay inmates who helped her to see the oppression the gay community was experiencing and how similar their fight was to the Black community’s fight. After her release, Afeni participated in the Gay Liberation Front and continued to fight for gay rights and the fight against homophobia within the Black Panthers.
On June 16, 1971, she welcomed son Lesane Parish Crooks. She would later rename him Tupac Amaru Shakur. Tupac grew up to be a gifted rapper and a critically acclaimed actor before being murdered in Las Vegas by a drive-by shooter. His murder is still unsolved. Learn more about Afeni Shakur.
Tyre Nichols loved photographing sunsets. We share this photo in his memory.
I didn’t plan on writing a blog this week. I was going to begin Black History Month focusing on Black history, but the Black present seems to be competing with the history to see which can be more traumatic. Last week the present was the clear winner… well, loser.
I haven’t watched the videos yet. It’s part of the process. I must charge myself up to watch it. I must take several days or weeks to prepare myself. I listen to – not watch – the news because I don’t want to be assaulted with the video when I’m not ready. I slowly page through social media keeping one eye out for videos of the beating. If I see something I accelerate past it. I’m not ready yet.
I concentrate on the positive stories (if that is possible after such a brutal tragedy). I like to hear what kind of person they were, what they liked to do, and the food they enjoyed. I listen to family members refer to them in the past tense and I wonder how they did it. How did they come to terms with their loved one that was so recently present but now past?
Through the consistent tragedy of Black lives meeting an early unjustified death, I have come to understand that ancestry has nothing to do with age. I always thought of my ancestors as older folks that are no longer here. I picture white-haired Frederick Douglass or frail little Miss Jane Pittman. Ancestors should never be younger than me. Yet, we keep adding to our ancestors from the same fountain. The fountain that convinces some that the color of our skin makes us a threat and blinds them to the threat that they have become.
The list goes on and on it seems. Emmett Till, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, John Crawford III, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Oscar Grant III, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and now Tyre Nichols.
I can see each of their faces just like Frederick Douglass or Miss Jane Pittman. They were killed for a number of reasons:
Talking to a white woman
Playing music too loud
Buying a toy
Passing a fake $20 bill
Playing in the park
Carrying a licensed firearm
Asking for directions
Walking in a neighborhood
Jogging in a neighborhood
No matter how I look at them, none of these “offenses” warrant the death penalty. There was a better way to resolve every one of these situations.
I’m tired of adding to the list. What can we do to stop the growth of this list?
In less than a week, we will launch Black History Month. I have mixed feelings about it. Part of me is upset that we have only 28 days to prove Black history is valid and worth studying. Part of me enjoys the attention given to people like me who have made monumental contributions to this country. Then part of me is sick of hearing about Martin, Malcolm, Rosa, Fredrick, James, Barack, Michelle, etc. We hear about the same few every year.
Each year, on February 1, my teacher would roll out the Black History Month kit that flashed bios of the same people, as if only a handful of Black people did anything noteworthy for this country. I would hear Martin’s “I Have a Dream” speech over and over, as if that was the only one he ever gave. I would hear about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, Malcolm X and why he was a bad leader and a bad human, and of course, sister Rosa would be mentioned.
Then we would move into March and the promise of spring. The blooming of tulips washed away the Black historical figures for the year. We exhausted all the notable Black people in those 28 days, so only a rare few would garner attention outside of February.
As I started to pull out my Black History Month kit this year, I decided to do things a bit differently. I chose to highlight 20 people in U.S. history who happen to be Black. Each working day in February, I will highlight a Black woman who has helped shape this country into what it is today. I choose Black women because we don’t honor them enough. I chose women most of us have never heard of because they have not been honored enough.
It pains me to admit that of the 20 women I chose to highlight, I only know surface-level information on 10 of them. My hope is that we all can learn and be inspired by the contributions these women have made. My ultimate hope is that someday we will no longer need Black History Month because we have grown to understand that Black history is American history and we can study the contributions of Black people all year.
“I’ve written a play and I was hoping you would consider playing a part in the play,” Sister Connie said to me after church one Sunday. She was Sister Connie because that is how we referred to each other at our church. We are all part of the same family. She would call me Brother Kevin. I liked that.
I asked her what the play was about, and she explained the play was called, “A Morsel of Bread: The Coretta Scott King Story.” Sister Connie had reserved the Valentine Theatre in Toledo, Ohio, a venue that is used primarily to host traveling Broadway plays. We didn’t have one rehearsal yet and Sister Connie had already booked the venue. She was a talented woman with a clear vision. She wanted me to play Coretta’s husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Before she finished her sentence I had agreed. It was an honor to attempt to play this man, and although these were colossal shoes to fill, I wanted to give it a shot.
Sister Connie asked me to practice one of his speeches and be prepared to “preach,” like the good Reverend had done so many times. She had suggested I do part of the “I Have a Dream” speech and I respectfully declined. As a writer, I really loved the poetic way in which Dr. King’s speeches flowed. His use of imagery combined with his southern preacher’s diction created a visual masterpiece in my head. I wanted to showcase what an amazing orator Dr. King was; I wanted people to hear he was more than just a “Dream.”
I was enthralled when I came across the “I’ve Been to The Mountaintop” speech. The fact that this was the speech he gave the night before he was murdered, the last speech he gave, made it irresistible. Below is my favorite part from that speech:
You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented Black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you, Martin Luther King?”
And I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it, I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you drown in your own blood–that’s the end of you.
It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me … to read some of the mail that came in … there was another letter that came from a little girl…. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the Whites Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. … If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they go somewhere because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.
- Excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” April 3, 1968
The first time I attempted this speech I summoned all the great Baptist preachers that had gone on before me and I poured myself in to the character. The speech calmly and gradually builds to a crescendo with these final powerful words:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The speech ends in a fiery conclusion and when I stood still, I was dizzy, breathless, and close to passing out. I too was so happy he didn’t sneeze and even happier that I didn’t lose consciousness. Over time I got the breathing down and the rhythm of the speech gave me energy instead of taking it away. We did three shows at the Valentine Theatre, and for three shows I got to take on this man’s amazing life. It was an honor to be him for such a short time.
Through the rehearsals I often wondered what would have happened if he sneezed and we lost this great man so early. Then it became very clear to me why he didn’t sneeze. He didn’t sneeze because his work wasn’t done. He did such great work after the stabbing. He didn’t sneeze because his purpose wasn’t complete. When he felt he led us to the mountaintop he understood intimately that his purpose was to lead us to the promised land even though he might not step foot in the promised land. He understood he wasn’t the movement but simply a gear in the movement that kept things moving forward. He understood the movement was greater than himself.
Dr. King is no bigger than anyone of us. We all have purpose. We all have a job to fulfill. We might be called to be caregivers to patients or children. We may be called to lead co-workers or called to speak for the voiceless. We may be called to protect people or protect this planet. We all have value and worth and Dr. King inspires me to chase my purpose until my last breath. Even though he didn’t get to the promised land he left us a map and our journey is not done.
By Kevin Hofmann
Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion
Once a year at my predominately white college, one of the fraternities held a party that they called the “Back to Detroit” party. It should have been called the “what you think Black is party.” The students showed up dressed as rappers, with fake gold chains, sweat suits, sneakers, and baseball hats. The drink of choice for the night was beer in a 40-ounce bottle, malt liquor, or cheap wine. The music was more diverse than it ever was at any other party… but not really. They played rap music and R&B music and limited to those two categories.
The students walked around with a 40-ounce beer in one hand and gave their best impression of what they thought Black sounded like. This usually meant that they used words and phrases they felt were used and owned by the Black community. The accent used with the words made it unbearable, along with the body movements, hand gestures, and attempts at complicated handshakes that failed miserably. Afro wigs and dread lock wigs were popular and often treated like a big red nose on a clown, as a funny accessory. It was a party to mock and make fun of people who looked like me and my city. Thankfully, we didn’t have any incidents of students wearing Blackface. After all, the students drew the line somewhere.
I didn’t go to the party out of fear that I would be seen and treated as a mascot for the party. I also didn’t go because I didn’t want to co-sign this abhorrent behavior. I never considered complaining to those in charge because my past experience told me complaining would do no good. There would be no actions to resolve the behavior but I would be labeled as an angry Black student. So, I stayed away and stayed quiet.
I knew a few Black people who went to the party and participated in the characterizations and imitations. I was upset with them, but I also understood. Often as a Black student in a predominately white environment, you are given a difficult choice. You can go along to get along and be considered “in” with the crowd, yet still a part of the crowd. The other choice was to object, complain, and try to educate, which often ended in you being labeled as “angry,” which helped to justify the shunning that would come your way.
Some students didn’t think about the bigger meaning when it came this party. They saw it as an excuse to drink and have fun. Some students took it to the extreme and seemed to enjoy all parts of the degradation, appropriation, and mean-spiritedness that came so easy.
As a child, I loved dressing up for Halloween. I would try on my home-made costume weeks in advance. It was always home-made because home-made was always better than the plastic masks and matching plastic outfit that would dissolve when the October air hit it. I loved running through the dark pretending to be someone or something else. The candy was an amazing fringe benefit for sure.
The last quarter of the year was magical to me. It included Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Halloween kicked off the last three months in a big way. Halloween brings back great memories for me but today it makes me nervous. Dressing up for some means an easy opportunity to put people down and then claim ignorance.
So, I go into this year’s Halloween excited because everyone tells me what a big deal it is at Adrian Dominican Sisters. I look forward to the creativity and imagination we will get to see. I am anxious because dressing up can be problematic and hurtful, whether intended or not.
I have thought about this a lot over the last three to four weeks. I thought about how I would handle Halloween. I thought about what I would say or not say. I did fear what people may think about me if I add caution to a historically cherished event. I concluded it was necessary, as I thought back to my experience in college, and how it felt to have people imitate and make fun of my culture, my city, my being. I was concerned I would ruin someone’s fun. Then I thought, if the only way you can have fun is by tearing apart someone else, then maybe you should have less fun.
I still look forward to Halloween. I just hope socializing, showcasing creativity, and eating food you shouldn’t will be enough and as people decide how they will dress up they will take into account the hurt that can come from mocking someone’s culture. I hope we can have fun and no one person or group has to pay the bill for the fun. Proceed with caution… please.
When I worked at Nationwide Insurance, I had a co-worker who became a good friend. His name was Doug and we grew up so differently. He was from a small rural town in Ohio, and I grew up in Detroit. Doug was kind, a little naïve, and very curious. After we had known each other for a while Doug would occasionally stop by my office to tell me about how great his Buffalo Bills football team was, and I would remind him that the Bills are the only team to ever go to four straight Super Bowls and lose them all. He would remind me that my Detroit Lions will only go to the Super Bowl if they pay for tickets to sit in the stands. In between the joking, we would have deep conversations about race, racism, class, politics, religion, and life.
One afternoon, Doug stopped by and somehow we got into a conversation about schooling. Doug wanted to know why the Black students in the inner city struggled so much in school. He wanted to know why they didn’t take school as seriously as the white kids in the suburban school he went to growing up. I trusted Doug and he sincerely wanted to know the answer. So, I felt comfortable, not obligated, to give my thoughts.
I explained to Doug sometimes privilege means you get access to things others don’t. The resources available to him and his classmates were much different from the resources given to students in the inner city. Those resources make a huge difference in how children learn and what they learn. Doug pushed back a little and said that a book in the suburbs is the same as a book in the inner city. I agreed.
Then I asked Doug if he believed that the test scores of students in the suburbs were higher than those of students in the inner city. He agreed with that fact and so did I. The “why” behind that is where we differed. I then said, “If you believe that, then you must believe one of two scenarios is taking place. You either believe that the resources and opportunities between the two communities are vastly different and unequal, or you believe one group is simply naturally more gifted. Do you think children in the inner city aren’t as smart as the students in the suburbs?”
Doug sat still. He wasn’t sure how to answer and I think he thought I was luring him into a trap, so he sat still trying to figure a way out. He had to either admit there was inequality or admit that he felt children of color were inferior, lazy, or lacked the ability or drive to learn. Doug chose not to answer.
Then I asked Doug if he had a computer class when he was in school. He said he did. I asked him to describe the class to me. He began by stating the computer lab had a computer at each desk, a smart board at the front of the room, a teacher, and a teacher’s aide as well. He then explained that during his senior year of high school, students were entrusted with their own laptop for school.
I asked him if he thought it would make a difference in what the children learned if they only had 10 computers for a class of 20 students. I asked if he thought it would be more productive and efficient for teachers and students if the students all had their own computers instead of having to share. I asked him if he thought having an additional teacher in the room might help the students learn. He answered “yes” to all the above questions.
Privilege assumes everyone is on an even playing field. It assumes we all have equal access to the same resources, which isn’t true. This does not mean that students with laptops don’t have to study. They still must work hard to get the grades, but the environment in which they must learn is more conducive to learning. The tools they have access to help greatly.
Doug then stated that he had a Black friend who grew up in the inner city and his friend was very successful. His friend didn’t let this disadvantage stop him. I responded by asking if he played a sport in high school. He said he a pitcher on the high school’s varsity team. I asked him who his favorite pitcher in major league baseball is/was and he responded, “Nolan Ryan.” I asked him why he didn’t turn out to be as successful as Nolan Ryan as a pitcher. Doug explained Nolan Ryan was a once-in-a-lifetime talent. He went on to explain Nolan had access to better facilities, better coaching, and better opportunities. I then asked Doug if he thought it was fair that I compared his success in high school to someone who was atypical when it came to athletic talent. I asked him if he thought it was fair that I judge his success in baseball based upon a “once-in-a-lifetime” talent. I asked him if it was fair to say that he must be lazy because he wasn’t able to rise out of his disadvantage. I asked him if it was fair to judge his ability based on someone who rose above his station to defy the odds.
Doug’s response was quiet. “I guess I hadn’t thought about all that.”
Over the past three weeks, I have written about the taboo subject of white privilege. I tried to point out that we all experience privilege. I benefited from my parents’ white privilege and was able to live in a wonderful neighborhood that was off-limits to my Black friends. What I didn’t share was that because my parents adopted a Black child, they gave up a lot of privilege. My father was blacklisted from the Lutheran Church in Michigan for decades because he adopted me. My parents were excommunicated from several communities because of their lack of whiteness. Privilege can be fickle, but I had to admit it gave me access to a better home and safer community than most.
Privilege can mean exclusive access to certain things. It gives the benefit of not having to worry about certain things. As a man I rarely worry about my safety when I am out alone. There is privilege in not having to worry about my safety often. There is privilege is not having to worry about dodging people in a public place to assure my safety.
Privilege can mean you get the benefit of the doubt. When Black children with fewer resources and fewer opportunities are outperformed by other communities, the assumption is they are lazy or less intelligent. Often, we blame those who are disadvantaged and write them off as the problem instead of assuming they have value and worth, looking to see what is broken and why, and taking the time and resources to fix the system. We need to think about that, too!
I appreciated Doug’s friendship. We were humble enough to learn from each other. He would occasionally ask questions that were offensive, but I understood his desire was to learn so I took the time to answer them. He did the same with me. Rarely did we agree, but we took the time to hear each other and I think we helped each other to see a world different than before we met.
It’s okay to admit we may have benefited from privilege. Once we understand that, it is up to us to use the privilege we have to make room for others to share in the same privilege.
When I was 10 years old, my favorite thing to do was go to the mall. I would spend the weekdays trying to be on my best behavior. If I could make it to Friday without any major infractions against the Hofmann family rules, I had a chance at talking my mother into dropping me and my friends off at Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn, Michigan. Most of the time we would go to watch a movie and after the movie, we would play tag in the mall. I remember sprinting through the mall in and out of fellow shoppers, trying to avoid being caught by a friend just a few steps behind me. We would bump from one person to the next and the looks of disgust would rain down on us from disapproving adults. We didn’t care. My desire not to be “it” trumped any kind of look.
When I became a teenager, the mall was still my desired destination on the weekends. The mall and the games we played were slightly different. We requested to go to Northland Mall and the games of tag were no longer appealing. We went to the mall in hopes of meeting girls, but my shyness always got in the way. It is more accurate to say we went to the mall to look at girls because the courage to speak to a young lady I didn’t know was not in me.
The game we played was more low key. The game didn’t have a name. The object of the game was to walk through the crowded mall and not give up any of our space. We would walk through the mall and when we passed someone, we were not allowed to turn our shoulders, shrink ourselves, or move out of someone’s way. If you did, you would be ridiculed by your friends. They would shout, “Agghhh he punked you out!” The last thing in the world we wanted to be was an easy target or a punk.
My strategy was simple. I would walk casually until I saw someone heading toward me. I would then look down at the ground. As I approached the person my head and eyes would raise, and I would lock my eyes with theirs when I was about 5.2 feet away. I wanted to be sure they saw me. This strategy had a 35.7% success rate. Sometimes I would brace for impact and catch a shoulder to my cheek, or I would brace for impact and involuntarily my body would flinch, and I would turn my shoulders to avoid impact. Then I would brace myself for the insults from my friends. Honestly, at 14, the insults hurt much worse than a sharp shoulder to the temple.
It was a silly game that we created because that’s what testosterone does to teenagers. It makes them do nonsense with a purpose. The purpose was always the same: to create a way to compete with friends and beat them. You’d be amazed at what young boys will do to win a game.
A few years ago I read an article about Manslamming and I thought back to my mall days. In the article, a group of women got together and decided to try our game for a week. I doubt that they knew it was “our” game, but I am taking ownership of it. The women were sick and tired of men assuming that woman should yield to them. They noticed that in public men displayed the expectation that women should move out of their way. They wanted to test it to see if what they thought was actually a thing. The women agreed that for a week when they were walking in public, they would not yield to anyone.
After a week they reported back. All of them had become familiar with the sharp shoulders I knew so well as a teenager. A few women were knocked down or pushed out of the way. They spoke about how stressful it was to see someone coming and as the person approached there was a debate going on in the woman’s head. “I will not move; I will not move…” IMPACT!
Some spoke about the realization that too often as women they choose to shrink themselves or yield their space because not only did others expect them to move, but deep down some women felt they should give up their space. They were expected to be the kinder, gentler traveler. Many women were surprised at how easily they conceded their space.
When I talked to my wife about the article, we both agreed we would try it on an upcoming vacation. We decided we would try walking through Detroit Metro Airport and see who would yield and who wouldn’t. My wife found that men just plowed along their path expecting her to move and when she didn’t, they blamed her for running her over. What I found was that white men and white women expected me to move. The bigger lesson I learned solidified a pet peeve of mine.
I can remember back to when I started remembering things and I have always been very spatially aware. I am very cognizant of my surroundings because my safety depends on it. I have always been aware of when I should shrink myself, when I need to yield my space, and how I am perceived. I purposefully walk through life hypersensitive to my spacing and those around me. I have been trained to do so because my safety depends on it.
My frustration comes when white people aren’t as aware of the space they take up. Too often, I will be out, and someone will enter my space and I tense up. They are too close, too personal, too darn close. The alarms in my head are going off. I see red. My perimeter has been breached. I feel unsafe and vulnerable when people walk into my space unannounced.
I often feel like I am renting space temporarily. My frustration comes when I encounter those who feel they own the space. Their spatial awareness is turned off. They have no alarms going off because society has taught them they do own this space and certain people are required to yield to you.
These societal rules get heard by us all, so by the time I was five years old, I understood for my own safety that I would have to learn to pivot. I understood I would have to study and expend some mental energy surveying everywhere I go. I understood that if I am in the grocery store about to walk down an aisle and halfway down the aisle is an unattended cart with a purse in it, I must turn around and avoid the cart. I must reroute around a potentially dangerous situation where I could be accused of being a thief looking for an opportune moment. I understand my skin color will make we walk the extra distance.
Privilege has more to do with what you don’t have to do than what you can do. So often when privilege is brought up the automatic response is, “I don’t get anything handed to me, I work hard for all I have.” What many people miss is that with privilege comes the opportunity to just be. Privilege means you can walk through a crowded mall and not worry about sharp shoulders or confrontation. Privilege means you don’t have to spend the mental energy worrying about your Black children in a world where often they are targets. Privilege means you don’t have to worry about your children refusing to drive because the anxiety around what might happen if they are pulled over outweighs the freedom of a driver’s license.
I miss those days of running through the mall playing tag and not worrying about the impact of my skin. I should say I miss the days I was oblivious to the true power of my skin. I miss the naïve thoughts of adolescence. Those same challenges were still there, but I just hadn’t been trained yet to see them.
Over the next week, try the Manslamming challenge. Walk in a public space and pay attention to who concedes their space and who refuses to give up their space. How are you at holding your space?
I can’t wait to hear what you discovered.
“Do you think you benefitted from white privilege?” The young college student posed it as a question, but I could tell by his tone that he had the answer already in his head – he just wanted to hear me say it and I couldn’t. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. At best, it was a silver-plated spoon and never had I been confronted with this possibility.
Twelve years ago, after finishing the first edition of my book, I called the Sociology Department at Lourdes University in Toledo, Ohio. I spoke to Dr. Litton, the department head, and asked if we could meet. To my surprise, she agreed, and I presented my book and asked if I could come to speak on campus. Dr. Litton was gracious and seemed interested, but I have been to plenty of hopeful meetings that end up vaporizing and disappearing into nothing. I walked out of the meeting feeling good but realistic. Fortunately, what I asked for never came to be. Instead, Dr. Litton made my book part of her required reading for one of the university’s required classes. Every student that wanted to graduate from Lourdes had to take Dr. Litton’s Multicultural Class and was required to read and write about my book.
I was asked to come in once every semester to talk to the students about my multicultural life. During one of those classes, a student asked the question above and I ran from it. I didn’t want to admit that I had benefited from my white parent’s privilege. I pushed away the question. I side-stepped it like it had the power to kill me. No way did I benefit from privilege! I worked hard to get where I was. I could cite situation after situation when I felt slighted because of the melanin in my skin. No way! No way!
On my ride home, I remembered back to the beautiful neighborhood my family and I moved to when I was eight. In the summer of my eighth birthday, we moved from our lower middle-class Black neighborhood to one of Detroit’s best neighborhoods, Rosedale Park, an upper-middle class white neighborhood. A neighborhood where most of the deeds still had written in them that one condition of the loan was the buyer had to agree to not sell the home to Black people. On that ride home, I had to come to grips with the fact that I had benefited from my parent’s white privilege.
At eight years old I moved into a neighborhood that real estate agents didn’t show to Black families. I was able to “move on up” like the Jeffersons because my parent’s whiteness gave them access to nicer, safer neighborhoods. The realization of this fact sat askew just under my heart above my diaphragm. I had been given an easier road to travel then a lot of my Black friends. It wasn’t because I was better than them or because I hadn’t worked hard. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t struggle. If this home wasn’t in foreclosure, it is doubtful that we would have been able to afford it. So yes, we struggled, but we were given options others weren’t. Processing that thought in my mind made me flinch, lurch, and gag.
The young student was right. When I met with a different group of students the next semester, we talked about privilege, and for the first time publicly I admitted I benefited from privilege. It hurt to say it, but it was true.
When I first started speaking and training groups I would avoid talking about privilege because the response to it from my predominately white audience was explosive. If I just mentioned the word, I could see several in the audience flinch, lurch, gag, and then check out. They had no interest in hearing anything else I had to say because they assumed I was shortly going to say their lives were easy. I was going to tell them they didn’t work to get anything in life. They simply had to walk through life and things would be handed to them. I understood that line of thinking. I gave those same arguments when I was confronted with it.
In her essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh defines white privilege as, “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” Access to a community some can’t access is privilege. Every day we drove into Rosedale Park we were cashing in on our privilege and we did nothing to earn this exclusive access.
Access to this community gave me access to community sports leagues that gave me something to keep me busy and out of trouble. Access to this community reset my expectations as to what I could do in life. It was easier to live in the new neighborhood. This had more to do with money than race. The lack of resources will force you to make decisions you wouldn’t normally make. The lack of resources creates a very intense environment where people feel like they must get others before others get them. I was on constant alert in the old neighborhood, and it was mentally exhausting. Fortunately, I walked away from the neighborhood hating poverty not Black people. I hated the struggle. I hated the feeling of lacking. I hated the inability to completely exhale. The stress of that type of environment eventually wins. People who grow up in this type of environment die earlier, have more chronic health problems, and struggle to stay afloat financially. There is privilege in not having to worry about those things. There is privilege is being able to exhale.
Over the next few weeks, I want to talk about privilege. I want to point out where I notice it, what it looks like, and the many ways we can use it to our advantage to help level the playing field.
A few years ago, my wife, Shilease, and I decided to mark our anniversary every year with a vacation. Last week we celebrated our 29th anniversary aboard Carnival’s cruise ship, The Horizon. It is hard to comprehend that on a Saturday almost 30 years ago, after the University of Michigan defeated Notre Dame, we got married. The wedding was by far the most important event that day. But a Michigan win is a Michigan win, and it too should be celebrated.
Soon after getting married, we bought a house, had two sons, and got swept away with our careers. In the flow of life, there wasn’t always time or resources for luxuries like a vacation. We took small vacations with the boys, but the real vacations went on hiatus for about 20 years. When my wife suggested we make sure to plan a vacation once a year around our anniversary I was all for it.
Last week we traveled to Detroit Metropolitan Airport to fly to Fort Lauderdale. Just after we cleared security, on our way to our gate, there was a new display sponsored by Delta Air Lines called the Delta Parallel Reality Board. It was a large electronic board that hung from the ceiling, measuring approximately 20 feet long and eight feet wide and looked like an oversized departure/arrival board you typically see at the airport. The only difference was this electronic board was blank. As we approached the large board a Delta employee motioned us over to her kiosk. She instructed us to scan our boarding passes and walk toward the display. My wife went first, and I followed. As my wife looked at the board, she could see filling up the entire board was her flight information, that followed a simple greeting that read, “Hello Shilease!”
I stood three feet away from my wife and when I looked up, I too had a warm greeting. It read, “Hello Kevin!” Below was my flight information stating my departure time, gate number, and destination. I assumed since my wife scanned her ticket first, the board would show her information for a few seconds and then switch to mine. I was wrong. We were seeing two different screens. When others walked by the board appeared blank to them. The Delta employee then instructed my wife to come and stand directly in front of me. When she did, she could see the board from my point of view and saw, “Hello Kevin!” When she moved one foot to the left or right, she again saw her information. I saw the future and the future was ours!
As I settled into my seat on the plane I thought about this magical board. It was interesting – unless my wife entered my space, she couldn’t see what I was seeing. Isn’t that what we talked about recently? Just last week I wrote about how true inclusion commands us to stand in the position of someone different from us.
We landed in Fort Lauderdale and stayed overnight in Miami. The next morning, we made the short trip to the docks to board the ship. As we sailed by Cuba the following day, there was an announcement over the PA system on the ship: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have rerouted the ship in response to a distress call from a small boat stranded in the middle of the ocean. Once we get close, we will send a team from our ship out to assist those on board the boat. Once this is done, we will resume our journey.” An hour later another announcement came over the PA system: “Ladies and gentlemen, as you can tell we are turning the ship back to our original course. We were able to contact the small boat carrying five men. We offered to bring them on board, but they refused and simply asked for food and water which we gave them along with a radio. They requested we let them continue their journey and that is what we did.”
I sat in the dining room about to eat my pancakes and thought to myself, “Why would they risk so much? Why wouldn’t they accept our help?” The idea of Delta’s magical board came back to me. I was stuck looking at the world from how I would handle things. I had to force myself to step three feet over and view the world from their point of view. These five brave men decided their living conditions in Cuba we untenable. They decided the risk to find a better life was worth dying for. As I sat in comfort, I was ashamed of the judgement I had for these men earlier. As I sat in comfort, I clearly understood that not for the grace of God, there go I. I was afforded a privileged life and that made their decision incomprehensible for me if I choose to view it from where I stood.
Throughout the next week I thought a lot about these men. I wondered if they ever made it. I thought about their small rowboat that would not be fit for a fun Saturday on Lake Erie. I prayed that they made it to Florida safely, but odds were not in their favor.
As I wondered about the five men, I heard about the 50 immigrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard under the pretense that they would be given services and employment once they arrived. Instead they were used to make a political point, and they arrived in a community that didn’t know they were coming. Again, I was ashamed. I wished that the individuals that shipped off these immigrants like Amazon packages would have taken the time to step into the space of those seeking asylum to see the world from their point of view.
I pray that we as a community will always look to change the position from which we view the world. I pray that we will always challenge where we stand to view the world. I pray that we will find different angles to view the world. In doing so I think we can create a better view for others.
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Black Catholic Project posts
Hofmann's Equity & Inclusion posts
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Printable bookmark of African Americans on their Way to Sainthood (PDF)
Black Catholic History page by Seattle University
Timeline from the National Black Catholic Congress
Sister Jamie T. Phelps, OP, discusses Black Catholics in America with Dr. Paul Lakeland for Fairfield University's "Voices of Others" video series
News report on one of the oldest Black Catholic parishes in the U.S., St. Elizabeth Catholic Church (formerly St. Monica) in Chicago, Illinois