Being Black in America comes with complications embedded in American history. From the first major documented slave ship arriving on the Virginia shore in 1619 to the lynching of teenagers like 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 Mississippi to “the talk” that Dr. Yohuru Williams said many African Americans have had to have with their own children regarding racism and police brutality in the nation he calls home.
Distinguished University Chair, Professor and Founding Director of the Racial Justice Initiative Williams recently told Twin Cities Fox 9 News reporter Maury Glover, “’The talk’ is this grim rite of passage that African Americans in particular, but most people of color, understand given the history of the violent encounters between the police and African Americans.”
This is a part of America’s Black history.
“Black History Month should be both celebratory – sharing the notable accomplishments of people of African descent both in the United States and around the world, and reflective – facing the hard history of the many obstacles and challenges that have contributed to racial injustice in the world,” Williams told the St. Thomas Newsroom.
“One manifestation of this hard history is ‘the talk,’” he said. “I spoke with reporter Maury Glover to discuss the history of this sober rite of passage and why it continues to be important today. While my conversation with Maury focused primarily on the police, it is important to note that ‘the talk’ also applies to encounters with other potentially hostile parties engaging in belligerent behavior that is racially motivated.”
He recounts, “The cell phone video captured over the holidays of a woman assaulting a 14-year-old African American teen in a New York City hotel after falsely accusing him of stealing her cell phone is an example of this type of encounter. My own encounter last fall in the parking garage of my own home here in St. Paul is another.”
These situations reveal how everyday citizens perpetuate the stereotypes that can cause fear in an African American, and potentially cost these innocent people their life. High school student Trayvon Martin tragically became a part of history when the hoodie-wearing Black teen was fatally gunned down by a “concerned” Florida citizen who reported him as appearing “suspicious” during the child’s routine walk home from a store.
“I can’t help but wonder if there will ever be a time when such brutality will end and when people will stop trying to explain away murder as the unfortunate consequence of bad fashion choices and the ever-present reality of racial bigotry in this country,” Williams wrote in an opinion piece.
Destigmatizing clothing trends and strategically challenging perceptions of threat associated with Black, Indigenous and people of color is the topic behind one of the Black History Month events being co-sponsored by St. Thomas’ Student Diversity and Inclusion Services (SDIS) and the Diversity Activities Board. “Humanize My Hoodie Documentary and Dialogue” will take place on Feb. 16 via Zoom from 5:30-7 p.m. A full list of events designed to educate the St. Thomas community about diversity, equity and inclusion can be found at the SDIS website.
“The reality is that while we have much to celebrate in terms of Black achievement, we should never lose sight of the important work still left to be done with regard to dismantling systemic racism that fuels such encounters – sometimes with tragic consequences like the Duluth lynchings of 1920, the 1955 murder of Emmett Till or more recently the 2020 police killing of George Floyd,” said Williams.