Persistence: A Minority’s Response to Adversity
By Tamia Bradham
(This is the winner of our Summer 2020 Essay Contest.)
I have learned the term liberation when I first learned to read from books such as Henry’s Freedom Box, and Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. I have grown up on slavery without toiling on a plantation.
I have bled the blood and breathed in the animosity of a thousand slaves before I was 10. I have let the suffrage of racism fuel me with compassion without being restrained to its chains before I could walk. I have been edified by the testimonies of slaves, the death of my uncle, and everything I was not alive to see.
Speaking of life: yes, I am alive and I can still inhale and exhale air and I am fortunate enough to walk on my own two feet but sometimes I feel like I might as well be dead. I have enough freedom so that I can still walk to the store around the corner in case I get thirsty but I am not promised that I will not get shot on the way there just because the police may think that the hood, on the top of my head, is suspicious or the phone in my hand looks like a weapon. I am seen in my rural town in New Jersey as black before I am a woman. And I am a woman before I am Tamia.
I have the privilege of being called ghetto, too dark, unattractive, or a monkey, by my peers. I had the honor of watching an unarmed black man take a knee to his neck from a bigoted police officer for eight minutes while he begged for his life. I could hear him calling out to his dead mother. I had to watch him cry. I had to witness the story of a young black woman get shot for sleeping on her couch.
Every day I wonder when it will be my turn to face the consequences of my skin tone. I can not be guaranteed that I can succeed in this country because this is White America and my skin does not fit its standards. I do not blend in in my predominantly white school. I am the sore thumb that sticks out amongst the crowd. I am unorthodox and I do not fit into the box that confines the beauty standards of my high school. I have to suffer through the rejection of boys of all skin tones who resent mines the most. I have to smile through the hallways as I am faced with bodies more petite and alluring than my own. I am trapped inside of the confinement of my brass skin. I am paralyzed with the fear of getting killed because of it. But I live in a well-off community. I have a bed to rest my back on, food to put in my belly, and a family to confide in me. I should not be allowed to complain. I feel restricted like a slave but I have never been beaten like one so I must feel liberated because that is what has preached to me.
When I think about oppression, I think about Martin Luther King Jr. I think about survey results that stated, “32.8 percent said whites were less violent than blacks” (NEYM 1). But, then I start thinking about marching and water hoses and police brutality and jail cells. I think about Martin Luther King Jr. surviving his assassination by James Earl Ray, just to be taken to the hospital where a bigoted doctor suffocated him with a pillow. When I think about suffocating, I think about my uncle. I think about how he was a father to three kids and a husband to a loving mother.
I think about how he was a devoted Christian with supernatural artistic abilities. I think about how he made my grandparents happy to call him his son. I think about how he made my mother and my uncle proud to call him their brother. But often, I find myself lying in my bed or in my shower or eating lunch with my friends thinking about how he died. I think about him dying in a hospital waiting room from an asthma attack while all the white nurses just watched as if the sight of him fighting his death did not phase them. I think about my mother crying. I think about my grandfather telling me he misses his son. I think about my grandmother speeding down the highway while my sister is in the backseat wheezing. I
think about her saying “not again” as she clutched the steering wheel so hard that her knuckles turned white. I think about hating the feeling of losing my breath. I think about breathing all the time. I think about how angry my family must be. I think about how angry the black community must be to live in constant fear. I fear that one day, my pigmented flesh will finally kill me. How I might die walking home from school. How I might die when I get pulled over at a stop light. How I might die from getting my breath taken away from me. How a police officer might press his knee so deep into my chest that it leaves a print. That that police officer might press his knee so deep that my lungs give out on me. That I will be the new face of a Black Lives Matter protest. That my friends will post old pictures of me on their social media. That my mother will not be able to take the pain anymore. I constantly think about how only minorities know what it’s like to have the breath sucked out of them.
I think about how only we know what it’s like to be oppressed. When I think about Martin Luther King Jr’s memorable quotes, I think about this, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” (Martin Luther King Jr. 1). Martin Luther King Jr’s words have inspired me to inspire you. They inspire me because Martin Luther King Jr. had the weapon that bigots feared the most: persistence. He did not back down. He preached that rioting was the language of the unheard. That the black community will be heard some way, somehow.
So, I want you to cry until you have no more tears to drench your cheeks with. I want you to bleed until you have nothing left to spill. I want you to fight until you feel too weak to carry on but then I want you to pick yourself up again. I want you to understand that your pain could not hold a candle to our pain. I want you to know the difference between getting stabbed and getting shot. I want you to know the difference between scraping your knee and getting the skin torn off your back with a switch. I want you to learn this level of pain until it is engraved in your brain so every step you take, you hear the crack of a whip, the jingle of chains, the melody of spirituals to keep you faithful, and the light of stars to navigate you on your journey. I want you to learn until you hear gunshots in the dark so often that it puts you to sleep like a nursery rhyme. Until you are too scared to exhale because you do not want it to be your last breath. Until you can not wear necklaces anymore because they remind you of a noose. Until you remember your little cousin’s eulogy like the lyrics to your favorite song. I want you to know what it is like to lose the battle but still have to get up on shaky knees and blistered feet because you still have a war to win.
I know it may be hard but I want to challenge you to understand. Because you cannot change what you do not know. You cannot improve upon what you do not comprehend. In order to make a change, you have to know that without suffrage, there would be no compassion. So, I implore you further. So, if you really want to change, you have to strip yourself bare and forget everything you thought that you knew. If you really want to feel our oppression. If you really want to end the bigotry in America. If you really want to know what it’s like to have guns pointed at your head. You have to fight.
Nelson Mandela taught me to love and hatred before anybody else could with this quote: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” This is what I want you to take from this quote: Hatred is taught. You are not born with hatred in your heart. Your heart was created to love.
When I was really young, back when I went to Sacred Heart, a private Catholic school in Mount Holly, I only saw one difference between those people, I saw gender. And that was it. When we think about our
hearts, we think about love. I think about the little ways you show you love someone. I see love by giving someone your jacket when they are cold, I see gifts and hugs and kisses. Your first kiss, at that. I had my first kiss when I was five. His name was Connor. He had brown fluffy hair that bodied in waves around the crown of his head and he had brown eyes and pale skin that washed out in the sun. Me and my heart both agreed when I said that I ‘loved’ him. And when we kissed, I felt my heart beating ten times faster. Pulsing with admiration.
But, hearts are also meant to break. That’s where we start to feel not hatred, but pain. That’s when we start to act on our impulses. That’s when hurt people begin to hurt people. I had my first heartbreak in 7th grade. He was a tall Hawaiian boy with hazel eyes, and wavy hair. Your heart was made to love the people that you admire. When the people that you admire hurt you, your heart will follow suit. So, I started to hate my skin, my hair, and myself. That’s when the hatred starts. Hearts were not made for hate.
When I think about hate, I also think about being black in America. Not because I hate my skin, but because other people seem to hate my skin. Being a person of color comes with its baggage. Or what I like to call: stigma. We are taught from a young age that dark is ugly and that light is beautiful. We are told not to sit in the sun too long and when we go out we automatically navigate toward the shade.
Regarding stigma, I always think about this slam poem I have watched on Youtube called: “Black Privilege” by Crystal Valentine. It was one of the most emotionally raw poems I have ever heard to this day. Valentine takes a spin on the common term, “white privilege”, to show the oppression that black people in America face, “Black privilege is dying to become another twitter hashtag… Black privilege is being so unique that not even God will look like you” (Valentine 1).
But the most powerful quote from this poem is toward the ending. The speaker is engorged with the thought of death so much that the only time she has mentioned being alive is at the end, Black Privilege is, “the time a teacher asked a little boy what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said alive” (Valentine 1).
When I look at the people present in my life, I know that everyone is alive, but I also know not everyone feels alive. I want you to learn the difference between being alive and feeling alive. And when you figure it out, I want you to breathe life into someone else. Someone who does not feel alive. I want you to encourage yourself and others. I urge you to break free from the limitations of your comfort zone. I beg you to explore foreign territories, physically and mentally. I pray that you all give to people who yearn to receive. I want you to recognize the blessings in your life, and I want you to pass on those gifts bestowed unto you in your life. I hope that you all find success and sew it into your loved ones. Find that one thing that makes you special and water it like a plant. Perfect your craft. Perfect yourself. Live a selfless life.
For my final message, I want to briefly discuss persistence. It is one of my most favorite words other than prosperity. I want to influence you to be persistent. No matter how cliche it sounds: I want to encourage you to never give up. Persistence is a beautiful aspect most yearn to obtain. It is a blessing that God has bestowed upon the prodigious groups of any race, gender, sexuality, and religion. We all belong to the prestigious fellowship that has been proclaimed as strong and sturdy in our own beliefs. Though egregious acts of ignorant souls try to break down the shields that protect us, we shall never waver. Even when our so-called inane dreams are thought to stand as the epitome of foolishness, we
shall be amassed through the hardships. Even when we stare at the effigy of Martin Luther King Jr. asking “where is our freedom now”? Even when the stone stares back with an impassive look. No answer, no reason for the several deaths of the black men that passed with no justice. Because their life meant nothing. Our life means nothing.
Even when the disdainful words from the higher-ups emanate the sky with frivolity, we will not buckle under pressure. Even when we grow poignant from the foul words that spew from the other man’s lips, we will keep our guard up. Even when they threaten that we will burn in hell based on our sexual preference, we shall never allow it to protrude our skin. Even when the rain of anguish falls to the earth with unrelenting force, our umbrella shall remain unshakeable. Even when the light of our ambition begins to grow dull, God will provide the natural light of our fluorescent sun. Because we are unyielding. Stubbornness is a barrier of change, but persistence can break its walls. I hope that you all stay persistent, continue to prosper, and understand things that you have never understood before. I hope you preach the gospel of oppression to the oppressors, I hope you look in the mirror and like what you see, I hope you change the world around you, and I hope that you continue to love and be loved. Thank you.
My name is Tamia Bradham and I am from New Jersey. I have a deep passion for writing and criminal justice and I someday hope to become a criminal justice lawyer. I have always been an advocate for minorities and for others who are not privileged enough to live a life like the one that I have been blessed to have. I also have a business that I am starting called MiaMora, and I am going to be putting forth 50% of the profits toward charities and my community. I am going to college after I finish out my senior year and I am going to further study sociology, literature, and history in order to be better educated so that I can perfect my craft which is becoming a lawyer. I am deeply inspired by Bryan Stevenson and all that he has done for the black community and I intend on doing the same in the future.