Black Lives, Black Voices

The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd within a span of three months in 2020 set off thousands of protests in the United States and elsewhere, and sparked a new national conversation about race.

For people of color, what happened wasn’t new—it was merely a reminder of what they have seen and experienced all their lives. To gain perspective, we asked three people to reflect on the issues the country has been grappling with. One is a Black student who has struggled to feel comfortable at Puget Sound—and who is trying to make the path easier for others who follow her. Another is an alumnus whose lifelong activism dates to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And the third is a faculty member in African American studies who believes that creating a better future requires having a more accurate and complete understanding of our past. 

Illustrations by Ekua Holmes
Ekua Holmes is a Boston-based mixed-media artist who has devoted her practice to sustaining contemporary Black art traditions as an artist and curator of exhibitions. She was invited to create the Google Doodle for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2015. 

We Keep Working

After a rocky start at the university, I found my place—and my voice. 

By Mimi Duncan ’22 

I grew up in Tacoma, just a three-minute drive from the University of Puget Sound campus, in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the Pacific Northwest. I expected that college would be a place where I would flourish, learn, and love. Instead, it became a place I wanted to escape from. It felt like an invisible “whites only” sign was hanging above our campus. I can recall walking to the SUB and seeing my white peers’ faces in frowns as they sidestepped to move away from me. Moments in class when I raised my hand and was met with eye rolls and glares. Professors who didn’t reassure me; questions I asked that went unanswered; comments I made in class that were met with a simple “That’s an interesting point.” No one cared about my opinion—it felt like no one wanted me there. By the end of my first year, I felt like a failure; I was heartbroken, confused, and angry. I spent most of my time overthinking, procrastinating, crying, and doing anything to take my mind away from the growing feeling of fear. I stopped attending classes and extracurriculars, gave up on my passions, and completely forgot who I wanted to be.

Puget Sound began to feel like a bubble of whiteness. I couldn’t find a place on campus where I didn’t have to leave a part of myself behind to fit in. I had to find a space where I could be me, wholeheartedly—a place where my opinion and voice were heard, where my life mattered. I found it in the Black Student Union. 

The BSU has been my saving grace. I went into my sophomore year, a year ago, with the title “Black Student President”—and it’s one I use proudly. The Black Student Union was in a difficult position when we began the 2019–20 school year; our community was struggling and fractured. We started with a completely new board and one common goal: to strengthen the Black community on campus and create a presence for ourselves. I can say happily that we have met it. BSU meetings are filled with laughter, comfort, vulnerability, and love—a space where Black students can grow, and still feel safe in that growth. The Black Student Union is what I look forward to at Puget Sound. It has become my home on campus. 

When summer of this year arrived, I wishfully thought COVID-19 would pass and we would return to normal; however, normal never came, and I now realize I don’t want it to. This summer has been described as “the start of a revolution,” but I couldn’t disagree more: This summer has been a continuation—a continuation of 2017 Charlottesville, of the 1969 Stonewall riots, of the first slave revolt in 1663. This summer was hard. Our country was turned upside down, our minds were terrified, our bodies anxious. The news was filled with violent, dehumanizing, and public Black death. Going on social media felt exhausting and violent, as my timelines were flooded with videos of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd being murdered. 

On June 2, I was on the phone with Serena Sevasin ’22 and Jaylen Antoine ’22, who I have grown close to through the Black Student Union. We were talking about the protests we have been seeing and attending, and I casually mentioned, “I want to do one.” Jaylen and Serena responded in seconds: “We should.” From there we opened a Google document and got to work. 

Our first step was to email the African American studies department. We didn’t know where to start, but we knew we could ask them. Dr. Dexter Gordon, the head of the AFAM program, got back to us that night with a list of nine steps to take in organizing the protest. The list was fairly simple: Contact security, have an emergency plan, and so on. However, there was one step all three of us were scared of, and that was Step Nine: “Contact the police.” Calling the police so that we could protest police brutality against Black people felt contradictory—how can I trust them with my safety, when I’ve only seen them as a threat to it? When I got the call back from the police department, we talked for three minutes, and for three minutes it felt like my heart wasn’t beating—that’s how terrified I was. But we got the green light from the police and the university, and we started advertising. We were immediately met with support: All three of our phones were filled with messages, people offering to volunteer or to donate supplies and money, emails from our professors asking how they could help. On the Facebook page we set up, the attendance number kept growing. We had told the university we expected 75 people to show up, and when I saw the number surpass 800, I felt a little over my head. 

I woke up on the day of the event—less than a week after we started planning—and got ready. While doing my hair, it finally hit me: Here I am, 20 years old, in the middle of a pandemic, about to lead a Black Lives Matter protest. 

We all arrived at the Memorial Fieldhouse parking lot at 10:30 a.m. It was Jaylen who had the idea to start the protest on campus. We wanted to make a statement to our university: We aren’t satisfied with our treatment; we want more resources; we want more opportunities; we want to matter on our campus. We want our campus to take a stand against racial injustice and inequality and stand up for their students of color. 

The parking lot quickly filled with volunteers, friends, family, professors, and Tacoma locals. I gave my speech, highlighting the humanity of the fallen—these people are more than hashtags and poster signs. They had souls, families, and futures. After the speeches ended, we began to march to Wright Park, and it was a moment I’ll never forget: To my left was my little cousin marching alongside me and my other family members, and to my right were students I went to class with. We were all marching as one. Halfway through our journey, we occupied one of Tacoma’s busiest intersections—6th and Division—and there we took a knee for eight minutes, in honor of George Floyd. When we arrived at Wright Park, people flooded into the park, raising their arms and chanting, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Once we were set up, our scheduled speakers spoke. We wanted the people speaking to be intersectional—we wanted every voice to be heard—because this isn’t only a Black issue; this affects everybody. That day, Wright Park was filled with many different backgrounds, experiences, voices, feelings, and faces, but there we stood, for one cause. I still look back on that day with chills—the day more than a thousand people in Tacoma showed up for me, for George Floyd, and Blackness. 

Since the protest, many people have asked me, “What’s next?” and the only answer to that is, We keep working. We start our semester at the university ready to fight racial inequality in our institution, we check ourselves and others on racist behaviors and ideologies, and we grow. We use this moment as momentum to make real tangible change—so that no other freshman feels the despair I felt during my first year. 

Mimi Duncan is a junior majoring in history and politics with an emphasis in African American studies, and co-president of the Black Student Union. She was one of three students who organized the June 7, 2020, Black Lives Matter protest and rally in Tacoma.

Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win

What’s taking place in America today is nothing I haven’t seen before—and yet, amid the challenges, I see signs of hope. 

By Lyle Quasim ’70, Hon.'05
As told to Tina Hay

I grew up in Chicago, and I was raised in a household where practicing civic engagement was expected. Whether it was cleaning up someone’s yard, volunteering at the church, or working on a political campaign, it was not an option not to be involved. 

Most of my family members were active participants in the labor movement. My mother worked for the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union, and my brother and my aunts and uncles were all part of the labor and civil rights movements—the struggle for equity, equality, justice, inclusion. 

My mother talked about not being a victim. She said, “Things are difficult, and the power curve is against us. But I will not allow my family to think or act as victims.” She made us understand that every day you need to bring your “A” game and, no matter how many times you get knocked down, you have to get back up. She’d say, “There’s no place on the doormat for you.” 

When I enrolled at the University of Illinois, I was not academically or functionally prepared to succeed. I didn’t know how to use a card catalog; I didn’t know about the Iliad and the Odyssey. But I had been taught to be resilient, so I said, “Well, here we go. I need to figure this out. I will stay in the hunt, and I will try to succeed.” Effort and success are not always traveling partners. No matter how hard you try, sometimes your efforts are not successful. And my attempt to gain a college degree was, at that point in my life, unsuccessful. I lost my student deferment from the military draft, and I went to work on an assembly line for the Zenith Television Corporation. I learned to speak some Spanish. I learned more about organizing in the labor movement. 

While working at Zenith, I was drafted. My mother said, “If you get put in jail for organizing, organize in jail. Never let the external forces define your internal reality.” So when I went into the military, I organized in the military—I became the head of the Airman’s Advisory Council. And when I was sent to Vietnam, I said, “Well, we’ll start organizing here.” 

I’m proud to tell people when I became a liberal, it was a move to the right. I was on the far left of liberal thought and practice. But, again, it’s a question of making adjustments. The social change, especially regarding race, that we struggled for in the 1960s was not the reality of the ’70s. White people were not about to give up the advantage they had in being white. Doesn’t make any difference if they were poor; they’d rather be white than be rich and a person of color. In today’s scene, why would millions of working-class people vote for a billionaire? Because that billionaire supports the psychic advantage that they believe they have in being white. And even though it works against them, that is more important to them—that perceived psychic advantage—than equal justice, equity, and progressive social change. 

After I came back from Vietnam, I enrolled at the University of Puget Sound to finish my degree. I was not in tune with the social norms of the university. I had already had the on-campus experience at the University of Illinois; I had had the urban experience at Roosevelt University in Chicago; and I had just come back from being a medic in Vietnam. Most of the things that interested the students at Puget Sound did not interest me. And I was still in the military, so I drove from then McChord Air Force Base to campus for classes. (This was before we had the freeway system that we have now. I would arrive at the university just in time for class. I had so many parking tickets that I thought I might not be allowed to graduate.) 

It’s quite ironic that most of my attachment to the University of Puget Sound came long after I graduated. I was, in some ways, agnostic about my university experience when I was a student. My relationship with Puget Sound was functional, transactional: I was taking the courses that I needed to finish my degree. I’ve grown to admire the university much more since then, and I now believe the university is in position to play a leading role for social change. 

I’ve just begun as president of the university’s Black Alumni Union. Our number one goal is to support the university experience, both social and academic, for Black students. That is our reason to be: to do what we can do to mentor, advise, be an example of successful completion of our university experience, so that students will see us as one of the resources available to them. We say, “Whether it’s in the sciences, the humanities, education, health care, whatever it is—whoever you are— there’s somebody on our list who’s been through the portal that you are about to enter. We’re here to acknowledge your presence and assist you in your goal to graduate from Puget Sound.” 

When I look more broadly at what is happening across our nation in 2020, at the challenges Black people today are facing, it would be easy to compare them to where we were 50 years ago and think, “Oh, my god, we’re not getting anywhere.” But today’s struggle against racism and the fight for social justice are not the same as they were in the ’60s. They are a continuation. It’s like a relay race, where one generation hands off the baton to the next. Equity, diversity, and inclusion are not destinations that you reach—it is a constant process of engagement. It requires a daily commitment. 

The slogan of Black Power has evolved to the vision of Black Lives Matter. The movement has a different geographic footprint—the struggle in the ’60s occurred in Selma, Atlanta, Jackson, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, while today, the movement is all over America: in Nebraska, in small towns in Idaho, in Arizona, in Mississippi. The current movement also is much more intergenerational, and it has a broader expanse of people: white, Black, people of color, LGBTQ, and indigenous people all saying, “We want to change the American experience. We want to take charge of our lives.” 

Now, are we in a better place today? I think so. But there are a lot of diversions that we have to deal with. I think the police are a diversion. The police get to do the dirty work for institutional, structural, individual, and interpersonal racism. When we engage the racist institutional hierarchy, that’s where the real practice standards will change. 

I use an old analogy that informs me every day: There’s a rough side of a mountain and there’s a smooth side. And I’ve been on the rough side of the mountain for 77 years. Being Black in America, I don’t expect to wake up on the smooth side of the mountain. It is on the rough side of the mountain that I get to do what I’ve been doing most of my life: work for change. The change is evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary. That keeps me engaged in the struggle. 

I am disappointed when I hear people from my generation say, “I’ve paid my dues in the struggle; I’m exhausted, and now it’s time for me to disengage, to take a rest.” We are obligated to struggle until our last breath. And if we can’t find hope and joy and opportunity in this struggle, then I suggest we’re looking at it the wrong way. I am not discouraged by people who are racist, who say to us, “We will deny you your equitable position in this society.” I am encouraged because they’re not as strong as they were, their narrative doesn’t engage the way it used to, and we can see that we’re making inroads into changing that system. I am encouraged because we have the will to resist. I am encouraged because we have put our bodies, lives, and careers on the line to fight racism. 

Lyle Quasim has been a Cabinet member for two Washington state governors, president of Bates Technical College, and co-chair of the Tacoma Pierce County Black Collective, among other roles. He is an emeritus trustee of Puget Sound and current president of the university’s Black Alumni Union. He lives in Puyallup, Wash.

Black Curriculum Matters

I teach to correct history. And that is more important now than ever before. 

By LaToya T. Brackett

A seventh grader from Wisconsin emailed me this summer. She had seen an op-ed I wrote in June for the Tacoma News Tribune, in which I placed some of the disturbing racial events of 2020 in historical context. I described a lynching of three Black circus workers that took place in 1920, and said, “A hundred years later, we are seeing American lynching adjusted to our times. A knee on a Black man’s neck is a noose.” We must understand our history in order to not repeat it, but we also must call out our histories as they reappear—and this young seventh grader wanted to know more. While interviewing me for her history project, she asked me, “Why do you think white people didn’t try to stop lynchings back then?” And, as we wrapped up our conversation, she said something else that has stayed with me: She said that her middle school saw no need to celebrate Black History Month, because there are no Black students in the school. 

Why had she reached out to me? Because she knew that Black curriculum matters to me the way she wishes it mattered to us all. 

I am a Black woman. I immersed myself in the interdisciplinary field of Black studies—the study of people of African descent—for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I now teach Black studies. I embrace the three tenets of Black studies: teaching, scholarship, and activism. And I believe that Black studies matters more today than it ever has. 

The summer of 2020 has been one filled with communal tragedy and communal work. COVID-19 has altered the lives of us all. The fight for Black lives, likewise, has altered the lives of us all. It has made us more aware of the reality that America does not treat everyone the same, and that the histories of America are not so long gone; the foundations laid in the past are perpetuating the harms of today. 

I teach to correct history; I teach to alter the outlook of youth. And in a time like this, what I teach is required. In a time like this, Black curriculum matters. Let me give you a reason why. 

University of Puget Sound is a predominantly white institution, or PWI, and teaching about race at a PWI matters. Because on the first day of my African American studies introductory course, AFAM 101, I ask students to fill out a survey, and one of the questions I ask is how many of them had K-12 teachers who were Black. In my six semesters of teaching here, fewer than 40% ever had a Black teacher. And here they are, in front of me. I ask if they have had a Black professor in college before me. That number is a bit higher, but still, more than half have never had a Black professor. And here they are, in front of me. I am their very first experience with Blackness in authority, in teaching, and that’s a heavy lift. A really heavy lift. 

I ask them to share with all of us in the poll if they are nervous, excited, or unsure about the class, and most of them fall into the category of nervous. Many state: “I don’t want to say the wrong thing.” They are worried, because never have they talked about race in a curricular way. Many of their parents live by a colorblind approach to race, in which they teach our students not to talk about race—because it’s not an issue. Even more disconcerting, they were taught that everyone is equal. 

This 2020 summer we all were made highly aware that everyone is definitely not treated as equal, and that race is one of the most central variables to this understanding. We must teach all students that race does matter, and that racism is our American history. We may wish it were not, but it is still the reality. 

In a time like this, Black curriculum matters. Let me give you another reason why. 

It was at Cornell University, I believe in my junior year, that a visiting professor taught a course on the history of lynching in America. One of the texts was the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, a collection of postcards—found in the basements and donations of white American families—of the public lynchings of Black people. People used the images of hanging or burning Black men to write a note to their family members. One I always recall said, “This is the Barbecue we had last night.” Another had a piece of the Black man’s hair taped to it. This was in the height of lynching, in the early 1900s, and here we are in the early 2000s, and we no longer have white folks sending postcards—instead we have three white men in a pickup truck following and chasing down Ahmaud Arbery as he’s jogging. They went looking for a lynching. And with a cellphone to capture video, they created a new-age lynching postcard. 

So what we are seeing in America today is not new. Let me repeat that. This is not new. And if we had Black curriculum, if we were teaching history correctly, folks wouldn’t be surprised to see history reconstituting itself, renewing itself, repeating itself. 

Black curriculum matters because, without it, Black students are not taught the fullness of our history—and neither are white students. How can we say we teach our youth their history, when they do not know of the lynching postcards? How can we say we teach, if they do not know of Black Wall Street and the 1921 Tulsa white riots that destroyed the economic power of Black Americans? How can we say we teach, if they do not know of the so-called father of gynecology who used the bodies of enslaved Black women to experiment—without anesthesia—to learn of the female anatomy in order to care for white women’s bodies? How can we say we teach, if they do not know how white men rioted in 1910 after Black boxer Jack Johnson defeated the “great white hope” Jim Jeffries? How can we say we teach, if they do not know how white doctors experimented on more than 200 Black men in Alabama for more than 70 years to see how syphilis would progress differently in a Black body—and then refuse to cure the participants when penicillin was proved as the remedy? How can we say we teach, if they do not know that Trayvon Martin was not the first Black person to be murdered by a white vigilante, but rather was one of many, because we do not teach them about Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and James Chaney? How can we say we teach them, if they hear the term “abolitionist,” and they picture a white person, but forget that each and every Black person who was enslaved and chose to say no, chose to run away, chose to fight was the quintessential abolitionist? 

In a time like this, Black curriculum matters. Let me give you yet another reason why. 

Because Black curriculum teaches agency, reflects stamina, and provides the tools and techniques for being a change agent. On June 7 of this year, three Black students from the Black Student Union at Puget Sound led a most powerful, peaceful, and pertinent protest in Tacoma with more than 1,000 marchers. It was not in the marching that Black curriculum showed up—it was in the planning, the preparation, and the presentation. I went to the march. I watched the student leaders speak from a pickup truck bed, in front of the stadium with the university’s name in large lettering, reminding us all of where we stood. The student leaders used the megaphone as their microphone, and delivered into our Logger history the reasons why they brought us all there that day. 

As one of the three organizers—Serena Sevasin—spoke, my ears were filled with the reminder of why what I do matters, and how teaching is especially needed in the times we are in. Serena was only a sophomore, but from her first-year introductory course with me to the Public Scholarship course this past spring, she had grown. Her voice had blossomed into one to be heard. That was my student. 

That was what Black curriculum, from a Black studies scholar and Black female professor, did. In that moment, I knew that my classrooms had changed the landscape and propelled those after us into leading those after them. I stared in awe, and I wondered, Was I, too, once the “that’s my student” for one of my Black studies professors? I believed that I was, and I beamed at the thought that I made my own professors exhale and rest their mind, the way that I did when I knew this student did not need my help in that moment. I beamed at the thought of our ancestors. As a dark-skinned Black woman from the South, born to a mother who raised her four kids on less than $20,000 a year (and yet worried that she failed us in her last weeks of life as I cared for her), I am not allowed to show pride. I am not allowed to think that somehow what I do is different than others. But give me one moment in this one summer of Black minds mattering for me to brag a bit—not on myself, but on my ancestors, who survived capture, the middle passage, the auction block, and potentially 246 years of enslavement, to ensure that I exist. 

Seeing Serena, my student, propped up on the shoulders of our ancestors filled me with pride, and I said out loud to my colleague beside me, through my Afrocentric-themed face mask, “That’s my student. Black studies did that. We did that.” 

We both stood still, unyielding, and radiating with the resilient energy of our ancestors. Millions of our ancestors.

LaToya Brackett is assistant professor in African American studies and a member of the Race & Pedagogy Institute leadership team.