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.