Anonymous Essay

By a Potomac Student
Art by Kennedy Ferguson | Potomac

My grandfather should have been the first Black fireman in Dallas. He aced the written exam, and as a former soldier, he was in excellent physical condition. Yet, he was still denied the job because he “failed” the physical. In reality, he never had a chance. They’d changed the test and its requirements when they saw him walk through the door.

This story lit a fire that would propel my journey towards self-actualization. As a Black girl who has gone to majority-white schools and lived in majority-white neighborhoods my entire life, I have been in a constant identity crisis. The longer I’ve been immersed in this world, the more I have felt as if I have no foundation––no real identity I could comprehend enough to claim. When I visited Dallas, my home for six years, my cousins would tell me I “talked like a white girl” but in Virginia, complete strangers were fascinated with my “exotic” hair. I dared not speak in a classroom where I was the only person of color, but in Black Student Alliance meetings I also felt I lacked the right to speak. The path to self-understanding has been both confusing and exhausting, so pouring my energy into understanding my Blackness through literature and history became imperative. Both passions came from my grandfather.

When I was twelve, my grandfather introduced me to the novelist James Baldwin, specifically his iconic work, The Fire Next Time. Too often, Blackness is dismissed as a deviation from what it means to be American. Baldwin reminded me this couldn’t be further from the truth. Black literature holds history. Black literature reminds me that social change is both possible and necessary. With this understanding, I began to build my library. While nowhere near as full as my grandfather’s office, my room is full of books that have been read, re-read, and thoroughly annotated. I have Coates, Adichie, Ellison, Woodson, and Lorde. I have books on mass incarceration, segregation, imperialism, and global poverty. On the top shelf, I have eight notebooks and my copy of the Bible. I desire to have a holistic understanding of Black people’s role in this world and an authentic depiction of the complexity of the Black identity.

Each trip to Texas, my grandfather sits me down in his office to talk about our family. This meeting is mandatory for all grandchildren. Thus, I mistakenly assumed our most recent conversation would be routine. He began by handing me a glossy, black and white image about fourteen by twelve inches. In the center there was a dark-skinned woman, holding her four children’s hands. Her face was hardened, and she looked as if she had something she desperately needed to tell me. I pointed, “Who’s this woman here?”

“That’s your great-great-great grandmother Texanna Rockwell Davis. She was born a slave.”

More than anything else I’d ever seen or heard, that image was proof of my ancestry––my foundation. Despite all the literature I’d read, nothing could have prepared me for something so deeply personal to my own heritage. Fury, grief, whichever was guiding me at the moment, I walked away with one certainty: I belong here. My family has been in the United States for seven generations, and we have the right to every ounce of dignity and respect as anyone else. In order to pay the proper respect, I need to live a life of meaning and self-awareness. For me, this means joining the fight for racial equity in our justice and legal systems.

My grandfather always tells me: “Once you reach the top of the mountain, turn around and lift someone else up.”

Instead of becoming a firefighter, my grandfather had to settle for being a mailman.

I don’t have to settle.

My ancestors, my family, and my people walked so I could run. I intend to run far.