I am an Atlanta native. To be clear, I am from southwest Atlanta, a place that throughout my childhood was a nurturing and affirming Black community. I moved daily in a world where everyone looked like me. Seeing iconic leaders such as Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson and Joseph Abernathy were common occurrences, from the grocery store to the gas station. One of my fondest, most vivid memories is being introduced to Daddy King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s father in a parking lot. Growing up in this world during my formative years, I deeply appreciate the power of representation, seeing oneself reflected in leadership and positions of authority, and existing in a space where you are not judged or evaluated based on race. I understand community.
I learned that I was Black, not physically, but politically and socially, when I was eight years old. This is when I watched “Roots” with my parents. I slept with them that week, laying quietly, praying that I would not be stolen during the night and enslaved…as I had no sense of the historical distance between myself and the legal end of slavery in the United States; a distance shortened by the fact that I represent the first generation in my family born with all of its rights. As a post-Jim Crow Black child, my upbringing was very different than that of my parents. I was raised with the familiar adages that many Black Americans were taught, such as, “you have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good,” because there was always the reality that regardless of personal accomplishment, racial prejudice would attempt to undermine your achievements. But, I was also taught that I was just as good as anyone else and that I could do anything and I could be anything that I “set my mind” to be. I understand hope.
Buried in a family plot in Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, my paternal great-great grandparents were entrepreneurs, civically engaged and committed to the advancement of the race. My great-great grandfather was a blacksmith in Athens, providing a valuable service for University faculty, while not being able to imagine this institution for his own children. My maternal great-great grandparents were laborers in Athens, buried in unknown graves, with personal stories that history did not record. Fast forward to today, I work at an institution where my parents were not allowed to attend, because of their race. I stand on the shoulders of generations of ancestors, who made the daily decision to survive, so that I could live today. I understand progress.
“Windows down, hands on the seat in front of you, look straight ahead and no sudden moves.” This is the protocol that my family has in case we are stopped by the police while driving. Both my 6 and 11 year old daughters know this drill. Now, we are talking about George Floyd, and my daughter wants to know what she should do if she sees a white policeman. One of the girls suggested that she will just run and hide. I was stunned by her question and pained by her solution, but all I could say was, “Don’t run, never run.” Like every other black household, we are having these conversations on a daily basis right now, as adults try to parent in the midst of their own pain, anger and frustration. I sometimes find myself processing as I teach, until I am silenced by my emotion and tears. I understand survival.
There is so much that we understand as a result of being Black in America. So much that grows from the seeds of our individual experiences, unique perspectives and shared history. But, at this time, in this place, there are some things that I may never understand. I do not understand the impenetrable nature of racism. I do not understand why simple truths, such as Black Lives Matter are met with such resistance and fury. I do not understand why we continue to struggle to name racial violence and call it out. I do not understand why we are here once again.
The reality is that we will move beyond these troubling times in our history. We will exist on the other side of this pandemic. But, will we be better? Will we do better? Will we require better? In the midst of my anger, pain, frustration and fear, I choose to lean into optimism. I will lean into believing that there is a shared humanity that can transcend racism and racial violence. I will also lean into doing the work that is necessary to move us closer to this reality. So, when the protests have ended, the statements have been made and social media has moved on, will we remember how we feel during these difficult days? Will we stay committed to what we see so plainly right now? We must. We must also say the names of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and many others, so that we never forget. We again are at a fork in the road of humanity, and our very future depends upon which path we take. Choose carefully, the stakes are high.
Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Strategic University Initiatives
The statement from President Morehead follows:
Dear UGA Community,
I want to start by saying directly to each of you, I condemn racism in all of its forms. The senseless acts of violence and hate that are taking place across our country have no place in our society. To our black students, faculty, staff, and alumni, I want you to know that I stand with you. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, along with too many others, have caused grief and adversely affected our lives and the lives of those we care about in significant ways.
As these events have unfolded, I have worked with members of my administration to identify steps we can take to ensure that this institution is one where people are truly safe and supported. I want our University community to know that campus resources are available to support you. I encourage you to utilize them as needed to prioritize your wellbeing.
Again, I want to reinforce my firm belief that racism has no place in our society. During my presidency I have committed to working to create a UGA that is better tomorrow than it was yesterday. I know we don’t always get it right, and mistakes are made. However, together, we must continue to move this work forward in a constructive manner despite all the challenges. In the days ahead, let us move forward in seeking racial justice by engaging in thoughtful listening and constructive dialogue, showing care and understanding, and by demonstrating our ongoing commitment to do better while working together for a more united and just world.
Jere W. Morehead