I’m three generations in the Bronx. My grandfather came from St. Kitts to the Bronx and my grandmother came from South Carolina to the Bronx – both as little children. The Bronx is part of my family’s identity. I grew up in what they call the south Bronx which is really the west Bronx, around Jerome avenue. I also grew up right at the dawn of Hip-Hop becoming more mainstream. Seeing people like Slick Rick and Dougie Fresh and growing up as a teenager, Hip-Hop in the 90s was a big part of my life. Public Enemy coming out was the marriage of what I loved, which was Hip Hop, being from New York, and also social justice.
I was always moved by thinking about Hip-Hop as an organizing tool particularly Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers or even Tribe in the ways they told stories and presented an alternative for Blackness. I come from a family that was very Black. I couldn’t wear combinations of red, white and blue. My grandfather would pick me up on the weekends and we would drive to 125th street to Harlem Music Hut, where you could get all your mixtapes from, but they also had cassette tapes of elder scholars like John Henry Clark or Dr. Ben Joseph. And we would drive around listening to that. We were Black like that.
And when I was in the seventh grade I was in catholic school and my grandfather started telling me about how Catholics had slaves, and started giving me books to read like Roots, then Before the Mayflower and They Came Before Columbus in the seventh grade. I was like ‘why are you trying to destroy my life and what I understand to be the way the world works.’ I appreciated what he did, but I also wish it had been done differently because then I went through a period of anger. That carried me halfway through high school and then I found a way to take that feeling and make that become work.
I joined 21st Century Leadership Movement at 14. It became a way to take all this knowledge and cultural awareness and historical awareness my family gave me, and put that into action. They helped me identify and understand what injustice and justice looked like.
I remember in the 6th and 7th grade loving history and American history. I used to know the preamble to the Constitution. I was drawn to the story of America and how we came to be. Even though I knew about slavery and I knew about how we were enslaved, there was still something that was attractive about the American story until my grandfather introduced me to all these different narratives that started peeling away at that. I remember when I recited the preamble to the Constitution to him, he was appalled. That’s when he gave me They Came Before Columbus and said ‘You need to read this.’ And as I was introduced to these different narratives, on my own, I started to understand the complexity of what it is to be American, and what America was. And then the truth, and also the idea that the truth is not just the truth. The truth based on who you are and who’s telling it, and how it’s been told, and when it’s being told, and who it’s being told to. I didn’t realized that Black people had our own truth of what it was to be American, and what it was to be in America.
That understanding made me confused. It made me angry trying to grapple with that. Then I was introduced to this idea that you don’t just have to read about oppression, you don’t just have to study and look at it and see it and be angry about it, but you can be active. You can be out here. The premise of 21st Century, the organization, was to continue the legacy of the civil rights movement, Black power movement, labor movements, in a new generation. When I was introduced to those narratives, I realized these people were my age. They were in the marches getting hosed. Once I saw that, I realized that we shape history.
Our truth has always been weaponized against us. The way to push back against these other false narratives is to weaponize it for us. It’s also what I’m dealing with now around the #MeToo movement. People keep saying ‘oh the white people have taken it from you, the white people are co-oping, the #MeToo movement is not for us, it’s for white people.’ Here’s a thing that you know is true. You have a person here who founded or started doing this work. How can it also then be true that it’s not for us? And so I’ll continue to hold it up and say this is for us. This is true this is for us. Non Black people are going to do whatever they want to do, it doesn’t matter. We stay so focused on what they’re doing as opposed to what the power we have that we just give our power over. If we teach our children and teach each other to stop relinquishing our power – it is what we say it is. This is powerful because I said it’s powerful and it doesn’t matter what somebody else is saying.