Black Voices of Chapel Hill (NC) Share Their Wins
I could feel the anger starting before I even finished watching the media clip. A 14-year-old Black boy, the son of award-winning jazz artist Keyon Harrold, was being violated in the lobby of a boutique New York hotel by a White woman who claimed he had her smartphone. Another racial incident went viral because of the glaring abuse of privilege whereby irrationality disses a respect for life.
This trauma made me pause and think about how many times this year and in the past Blacks have observed or experienced acts of racism by systems, institutions or well-intentioned people. I’m not like the victim’s mother who repeatedly asked why this would happen to her gentle son. I know why. I analyze and reflect on the why in my daily racial justice work. It is hurtful and tiring to know that there are people who hate you, institutions who work against you, or policies written to hold you back just because of the color of your skin.
And yet, it is the close of the year and the holiday season of love, peace, and joy is upon us. To that end, I know that this year has not only been one of the most challenging in racial matters but also economics, healthcare, and politics have divided Americans. We are polarized on issues and in need of hope and belonging. So, I decided to contact some Black friends who reside in my local community of Chapel Hill-Carrboro to hear of their good news. Black Americans are a people who have overcome enslavement, Jim Crow or segregation, lynching, exclusion, and now Jim Code. We’ve been managing two pandemics: coronavirus and racism. What has been our triumph this year? What are the blessings that have sustained us?
Sibby Anderson-Thompkins (Interim Chief Diversity Officer, UNC) — “For me professionally and personally, 2020 brought tremendous growth, abundance, and purpose. Professionally, I agreed to take on a challenging job, one that I wasn’t sure I wanted. Still, I was able to successfully leverage my experience and expertise as a seasoned diversity, equity and inclusion architect to move campus leaders towards meaningful charge. 2020 was also a growth year for my son, graduating from high school and starting college virtually. He had his ups and downs, but he finished his first semester with a 3.3 GPA. I’m grateful and blessed to serve.”
Sylvia Black (CEO, Black Star Strategies) — “Since COVID-19 has prevented us from seeing our grandchildren as often as we normally would, my two grandchildren and I now have standing appointments to talk via phone every other week. They each call me at their appointed time and we talk for 30–45 minutes about what is going on in their lives. As a result, I feel much more involved in their lives than I have in several years now that they are teenagers.”
Michelle Laws (Community Activist and Assistant Director, NC Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services) — “I’ve witnessed the amazing resiliency of historically marginalized populations who came into the pandemic shouldering a disproportionate share of the disease burden due in large part to the effects of historical and durable structural inequality and racism. Although communities of color have been hit the hardest in terms of COVID-19 related mortality and morbidity, we have been fighting back hard to survive in spite of the challenges operating against our favor including the economic fallout from this pandemic. And personally, being turned inside out from the pandemic has forced me to draw from my inner strength, hope and faith (inside/internal work) to explore the new opportunities (outside) that this crisis presents. I’m focused on what really matters and realize the role my gifts and talents play in helping to make my community and state better have been the wonders of 2020. I didn’t break during this pandemic and all of the tragedies and losses that occurred in 2020; I got better.”
Elmira Mangum (EM Plus 3 Company) — “I am grateful to be a witness to monumental changes in our society — to see love continue to win because love can use anybody — the most unlikely among us. Being a person born before we had the right to vote, I am so grateful to see 2020 prove the importance of that right when exercised to its full extent. I’m thankful that it is just the beginning of the changes to come. And on the lighter side, I’m grateful that my black cake and peach cobbler can share the same table.”
Marilyn McClain (Physical Therapist, UNC Healthcare) — “In spite of all that has gone on that is perceived as negative, the spirit of love prevails. This quarantine provided me an opportunity to be intentional about connecting with friends and family. I also participated in three global meditation events for love, peace and unity that were powerful and energizing. I am also grateful to have remained free of COVID-19 even though I have to go into the homes of patients who tested positive to provide physical therapy. I am blessed.”
Paris Miller (Community Activist and NAACP Officer) — “Soon after the U.S.A. went into COVID-19 lockdown, the holy month of Ramadan began for millions of Muslims around the world. Ramadan is usually a very communal period of time, but this year I was forced to be still, break-fast, and worship in the solitude of my home. This solitude would usher in a spiritual journey and awakening I hadn’t experienced since my initial embracing of Islam over 20 years ago. As the death toll climbed, and anxiety and stress rose for many, I set my goals of spending more time with the holy Quran and standing in the late-night prayers as much as possible. Although I was hungry, tired and sleep deprived, a PEACE descended upon me, and my faith was renewed and fortified in ways that continue to sustain me during these difficult times — I pray to see another Ramadan.”
Chi Nwogu (Founder, GameFlo and Entrepreneur-in-Residence, UNC Entrepreneurship Center) — “This year I was able to face my depression head on through adversity. A childhood friend was arrested in New York City on May 30, the fourth straight night of nationwide protests against police brutality. His arrest brought communities of people together, but also sent me into a deep depression. Two months later, I told my six siblings for the first time about childhood trauma that was the root cause of my depression. Being vulnerable is not something that happens often in my family, and my courage to tell the whole truth has freed me to have deeper conversations with my family, particularly my parents who celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in November!”
Halona (Founder, Breakroom Consulting, Inc.) and Ted Shaw (Julius L. Chambers Distinguished Professor, UNC School of Law) — “What was great for us in 2020 was the time our family had together in Chapel Hill. That included dinner at home every night, movies, games, puzzles and conversation. We were reminded of the deep bonds of love that hold us together. On a societal level, while it came as the result of racial injustice, the awakening among many White Americans and institutions to that injustice has been a positive development. Racial progress has always been bought and paid for in blood.”
Soteria Shepperson (Artivist and Coordinator, Interfaith Council of Social Service) — “Artivism inspires community and transforms culture. Be inspired, live courageous, and transform the world. This work has been my joy.”
Robert Smith III (Associate Chair for Administration, Department of Neurology, UNC School of Medicine) — “We were blessed with our first grandchild. A pure joy in the midst of these trying times.”
Nicho Stevens (Community Activist and Marketing & Communications Associate, Broadstep Behavioral Health) — “Professionally, I started a new full-time job amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic. On a more personal note, I learned to value myself more! I’ve always been the one to work hard to please other people. However, this year I took more time for self-care (mentally and physically) and as a result I feel like a more confident and happier person.”
These voices of gratitude and perspective give us the language and hope to breathe more. As the cliches go — “in the midst of it all” and “when you add it all up,” life really is too short. The racial tension and violence won’t end tomorrow. However, we all have the capacity to learn, evolve, and transform ourselves to be better neighbors and coworkers. I refused to allow that crazy reaction and mishap by that hostile woman to dictate my joy. I trust that over time Keyon Jr. will rebound and find support from his loving family. And just perhaps, the woman will accept counseling to heal her own insecurities.
I have no doubt that 2021 will bring to us exactly what we believe we deserve. There is too much work to be done to allow evil doers to impede our purpose. Therefore, my frustration towards an interrupted routine, mask-wearing, and thwarted travel plans pales in comparison to my many 2020 blessings. The spirit of my friends (as noted in the aforementioned testimonies) provides a demonstration of the will and beauty of humanity. This past year I’ve especially enjoyed the exploration of deeper loving relationships, more focused study and reading, new passion-filled clients, and jaunts on my new electric bike.
I’m looking forward to the next chapter. Why? I see blue skies and more triumphs. How about you?
Special thanks to my amazing friends of Chapel Hill-Carrboro who shared their testimonies for this writing. Their individual stories and journeys are uniquely powerful. I wish you were able to know them more deeply to appreciate their courage, faith, and strength to work for justice and peace.