On the day that I happened to visit Tallahassee last summer, a group of student activists who call themselves The Dream Defenders were going into their 3rd week of physically occupying the lobby to Governor Scott’s Capitol office in protest of the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in specific and the Stand Your Ground law in Florida in general. The Dream Defenders, who were principally students from Tallahassee’s two main universities, Florida State and Florida A&M, had set up a mock legislative “People’s Session” in the governor’s office, inviting in civil rights leaders, academic experts and local citizens to come share testimony as to their experiences with racial prejudice and injustice in the State of Florida. When I showed up at the Florida State Capitol, the Dream Defenders were discussing the problems concerning what has been colloquially called the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”, a phenomenon that has essentially prepared millions of impoverished and minority children in America for correctional facilities as opposed to universities.
Part of what made this people’s session so interesting is the fact that it was actually taking place in the lobby of a working governor’s office and, therefore, the usual business of government was trying to continue to take place around them. As students were giving testimony about being arrested at school for coming to class late or for “passing gas excessively,” and the Vice President of the Florida NAACP was talking about the funding flaws inherent in the Safe Schools Act, a steady stream of white folks in pinstripe suits and pleated skirt suits would pass by the rabble to let the receptionist know that they were there, which would prompt some administrative assistant to come out and give them the country club handshake before taking them through the double doors that led to the office proper. Naturally, when 5 members of the Florida Congressional Black Caucus came into the office to try and advocate for Governor Scott to call a special session of congress to debate the future of the Stand Your Ground legislation, the double doors did not open, no hands were shaken and the representatives had to be content to simply read their letter aloud to everyone gathered in the lobby and leave.
I soon followed the Florida Congressional Black Caucus members’ lead and left the governor’s office so that I could grab a coffee with Nisah, a woman who I had met in Baltimore two years earlier while we were getting our masters degrees in social work. Nisah was born and raised and now works in the Philadelphia area, but had gotten her undergraduate education at Florida A&M, a historically black college that shares Tallahassee with Florida State University. Florida A&M, also referred to informally as FAMU, has long been considered one of the best historically black college’s in America and was actually named “College of the Year” by Time Magazine and the Princeton Review College Guide in 1997. Unfortunately, the school’s successes have recently been overshadowed by a glut of national news coverage surrounding the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion, a member of FAMU’s famous band, the “Marching 100.” The band returned to action last year after being on a two year probation, but the university itself is still reeling.
If I were to describe Nisah in word, it would probably be “polished.” She is the type of woman that would’ve been head of the debate team in high school and probably has,“most likely to succeed” under her name in her senior yearbook. Now, were I to actually say this to her face, she would undoubtedly become self-deprecating and try to downplay her achievements and demeanor, at which point I would remind her that she was one of two students picked to give a convocation address to the entire school at graduation and then do the Cabbage Patch for an inappropriate amount of time. By way of contrast, I feel I should mention that I was listed as “most likely to runaway and join the circus” in my high school yearbook. We work with what we’ve got.
“I guess it’s just that I’ve always felt like I was on the outskirts of the in crowd.” Nisah told me as we sat down with our 3 dollar cups of coffee. “All my life. I just think back on my childhood and my experience and where I come from and it’s like, who am I really? And I think as I get older—I mean, I am older, but I’m still young enough to where you know, I’m just coming to find out who I am. And, although I’ve done a lot of things, I think that I thought those things were who I was, but they’re not. Maybe that’s why I kept my distance when I was younger, because I never really knew how I played in and I knew that I wasn’t similar to a lot of my classmates, but they weren’t…they weren’t friends and they weren’t foes. I don’t know. I guess I just had different ideas. I just thought differently from them. I felt like. How do I explain it? It’s an interesting dynamic when you live in a place that would be considered suburbia, but is still so close to the city. You get a lot of people from Philadelphia who go to school just for the education, so there’s that dynamic. And then you have people who—I don’t want to make assumptions or blanket statements, but—people who may have a little more resources and feel like they want to identify with…you know, the city life.”
“Like posers?” I asked.
“I don’t know if I’m explaining that correctly.” Nisah said. “I think when I interacted with people I was like, I just wasn’t buying into that. Like, I didn’t aspire to be cool and I didn’t worry about wearing the latest thing, but it wasn’t even about that. It was about an attitude or, like, I don’t know if I can explain it. I don’t know if I really knew what it was until I started doing community service. There were times when I was really struggling and I would ask myself, ‘why am I having such a difficult time?’ And then one day it hit me that, you know, I’m black, but I can’t relate to some of the challenges these people are going through and it’s almost like they see that coming, so I have a very difficult time. But, in my mind, I’m black…like, I’m Black. I’ve had challenges. They may not be the same thing, but, it’s still…you overcome what you overcome. But, you know, I guess not. It’s weird because in the same sense I’m saying like…I didn’t aspire to…I—I thought that I could still be me and still be in service because I know the challenges associated with race and class in this society, but yet, I didn’t recognize what I represented to the folks that I was trying to help.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Having people look at you and think that you don’t have street cred, that you’re not down for the cause. That you’re not like us, you didn’t struggle like us. And it’s like, I had my own challenges and I’m still black in America. So, don’t act like that’s not a challenge even though it might not have necessarily been like, I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from, but, I do know what it feels like—whether it has to do with race or being a female or whatever—just challenging stereotypes about how, you know, you physically look and how you can be discriminated upon for that. All of these different ways that you can be discriminated based upon. It’s not just about race, but to assume that someone didn’t have these challenges because they didn’t grow up in the inner city, or that the didn’t have any challenges or can’t relate is…I don’t know.”
“Did that feeling of not quite fitting in fade away when you went to Florida A&M?”
“Definitely,” Nisah said. “So, at Florida A&M I felt like I was…I felt in place. Like, I felt like this was, this was the group of people I most identified with. I mean, the people that I grew up with in Yeadon1 were all…we all pretty much had the same type of background, but I was always the person reading or the person wanting to learn more. I guess I was an idealist. I wanted more, and more in the sense that’s not about money, but just about life’s experience. Like, living out an ideal. So, I felt that, you know, that was my mission, like, there were things that I wanted in life and they had a lot more to do with being, like, spiritually attuned and being comfortable, than it had to do with having the right type of job or, you know, living in the right community, whatever that means to you. But, yeah, that was my focus. I guess sometimes I look back and I think about people that I thought would do these amazing things—like, they were smarter than me, and totally could have made different choices in life, but are still kinda small town. I don’t know. So much of it has to do with upbringing, you know? Like, my mom—I know like everyone says their mother’s their ‘she-ro’ or whatever, but she really was because she had to raise 4 children practically by herself. Like she was a teacher and she was a single parent and, you know, having to educate other people’s children and then coming home and making sure that we did our homework. She was involved in everything under the sun. I also think that was like, her strategy, but anyway, we were in girl scouts and marching and band and…”
“Wow. She kept y’all busy.” I said.
“Exactly, keep em busy. And, like, it worked out. She was able to do a lot of things with a little, you know, considering she had like, 4 children and then herself. Part of that was because my mom was able to keep a relatively tight leash on us, but at the same time, like, if I wanted to go and hang out somewhere, I could.”
“Did you have a curfew?” I asked.
“Oh, I had curfew.” Nisah said. “My mom was at the extreme, because you’re raising 2 young women and 2 young men by yourself, so you have to be a little extreme and a little crazy and a little unpredictable to keep them in line. I never really tested my mother. I can only remember really testing my mom once the entire time I was growing up, and it wasn’t because I was like…terrified of her, or because she was somebody that was like, heavy handed or would hit you. It’s just that you didn’t want to disappoint her.”
“Well, if you grew up outside of Philly, what made you decide to go to school down at Florida A&M?” I asked.
“That’s where my family’s from.” Nisah told me. “My grandfather is from Leesburg, Florida and my grandmother is from Sanford, Florida. It was my grandmother who actually went to FAMU, along with all of her 11 brothers and sisters, so, FAMU is like a legacy in my family. And, it’s interesting because my grandmother and my mother went to FAMU and my grandfather, he went to Bethune-Cookman and they’re rivals with FAMU, but anyway, yeah…they’re both from the South.”
“Was it hard acclimating to life in the South?”
“It’s definitely a culture shock down in Sanford,” Nisah said, “but going down there helped me understand kind of why my mother chose Yeadon. I had actually been to Sanford with my grandmother when I was younger and it looks…I mean it’s different, but it’s the same kind of feel. And my mom would always talk about how she loved going to visit her grandmother, and I think that’s why she chose that. Often times my mom and I talk and she’s like, ‘but you don’t know’ and I’ll want to start getting on all these rants with her until I realize, ‘but, Nisah, you actually don’t know what it’s like.’ Like, you have to acknowledge that you don’t know what it’s like and you can’t ever really know…at least not in the way that they did. Like, I think I’ve come from humble beginnings but then you start exploring, and I’ve had the opportunity to go abroad and see what poverty looks like abroad and it’s totally different than what it looks like in the States. You recognize just how blessed you are. I feel like the more service I do, the more I acknowledge that. Like, when you’re young, you don’t acknowledge that. Like, you know your own struggles but, you’re pretty much selfish in that everything is happening to you. So, once you realize that that’s not the case it kind of flips your world upside down, because I’m really passionate about community service, but I struggle with how other people perceive me.”
“For instance, I served with the Peace Corps in South Africa and South Africa is interesting because they’ve had, you know, they’re probably 16 years off Apartheid, but it’s still very segregated. I lived in a town where, you know, all my friends, if they weren’t Peace Corps volunteers, were, like, English and white. And I even had maybe…well, I wouldn’t say any Afrikaners were my friends, but they would pick me up. Like, I used to go workout and they would be like, ‘oh!, see me walking…it took ’em about six months, but eventually they were like, ‘hey, you need a ride?’ But, with the black South Africans it was very difficult for me to make friends because I represented…I represented an opportunity that they didn’t have. Like, a lot of the times I thought they were just mistreating me because I was a black American, but 9 times out of 10 it wasn’t. I actually had a friend who was a white guy—he was Jewish and he was from Ohio—and he’d say, ‘you know, Nisah, it’s not just that they’re assuming you’re a black American. They’re assuming that you are one of the black South Africans who has had a certain level of wealth and now you don’t want to speak to them in your language.’ And I didn’t even realize that that was a thing there.”
“What was the biggest takeaway for you after being in South Africa?” I asked.
“It helped me to see the similarities between South Africa and how it operates now and the kind of experiences that my mother talks about” she said. “Like growing up in a time when there was a lot of advocacy and when they were trying to gain some degree of equality. And so, I guess to have people that you, that you identify with, that you see yourself in, not accept you…that’s tough. Oftentimes, I feel like I’ve got to work harder just to gain the respect of people who I think I identify with, but who don’t identify with me. Or that I represent something for them that they’re not willing to accept. So I think that when I come into a community thinking, oh, well, you know, I can identify with this because of challenges that I’ve had in my life, they’re looking at me like, no…you’re not like us, you can’t possibly understand and it’s almost like an insult that I’m there. It’s almost like they’d rather take…like, they’d rather be served by someone that wasn’t them, or, or a white person.”
“I’ll tell you about the experience in South Africa.?” Nisah said. “So, we had like three months of training for the Peace Corps and then they put us with our host families for the rest of the two years. Umm, and it’s kind of done like a lottery, like, ‘oh, you win this person…yay!’ Well, it only works if they’re winning people that they want to have. Nobody wanted a black volunteer because you’re like…you’re…we could see you every day. You blend in, like, you’re not a badge of honor.”
“It’s tough, you know what I mean? Like, you’re yanked out of everything you’ve known and I honestly feel like that was the first time I…I always identified myself as African American, as if the two parts carried equal weight concerning who I was. But, when I got there and had the experiences that I had, I found myself being more similar to the other Americans that I tried to separate myself from. And it’s not like it was me going, ‘I’m different’, but just because that’s the society that we live in and we’re all categorized into different ethnicities and races and whatnot. So, it was kind of a shock to realize, you know, during that experience, that I’m more of an American. Like, I would complain, like, ‘oh my gosh, they complain about everything…they’re so obnoxious and entitled,’ you know? It always has to be their way…and then I recognized, like, I am the ‘they.’ I am all those things that I…which is usually said, right? Like the things that we hate most about others is what you find in yourself? It was like this a-ha moment when I realized, ‘you know what? I am American.’ I think black South Africans did a good job of going, ‘no, you’re not like us.’”
“So, it wasn’t exactly what you were expecting when you decided to do service work in the Africa?” I asked.
“It wasn’t, but that’s another thing.” Nisah said. “Being African American, it was important for my family and for me to know my history. Not just my family history, but, you know, the history of how we came to be, and its a natural thing for everyone to sort of romanticize Africa when they’re doing that. So, like, I was going to go back to the Motherland and then I got there to find out that everyone there’s like…’uh, you’re not like us.’ And then you’re like, Oooookay…it’s, it’s it’s…it’s interesting. I don’t know. I feel like I keep coming back to that topic. It’s interesting, the things that come up.”