The Burden of Anger
Over the last week and a half, I’ve wanted to write many things. I’ve started writing, stopped and started again, over and over to come to this conclusion: I am afraid. I am afraid to write about what has gone through my mind because I am afraid of losing the approval of others. I am afraid that I will be misunderstood. I’m afraid of the awkward feeling that follows when you let someone know how you really feel. I am afraid that my anger might not be as righteous as I think it is.
The good news is, I recognize that I have a natural bent toward sin. So my anger will not be perfect. Through many conversations with brothers and sisters that I trust in the past weeks, my own biases have been exposed. I am convicted that my desire to be vindicated and for the vindication of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and so many many more often leads me down a path of frustration that is more momentous than my moral compass can manage. This I confess. I am in desperate need of a Savior; I am in desperate need of the perfection in Jesus Christ and have sought forgiveness from my heavenly Father, who unlike myself, is perfect, and full of grace.
While I acknowledge this flaw, here is where I cannot just, “throw the baby out with the bath water.” There is a precious and just cause for the deep sorrow and anger I feel after watching two human beings being murdered. It only affirms the dark U.S. history that I earnestly sought to learn about back in the year 2003. A year that changed my life.
The Naivety of a Third-Culture Kid
During my formative years, from ages 3-10, I lived in Germany. I spoke the language and I lived amongst people that we here would consider to be “White.” One set of neighbors in particular were like family. When we would move to a different city in Germany, they would travel to spend the holidays with us. I didn’t grow up with a suspicion of white people. To the contrary, I had enjoyed the love and care of family, from people who looked very different than myself. This vantage point has served me well in my adult life and I am grateful to God for having given me this experience.
When I moved to the United States, at the age of 10, I quickly learned that I had a “place” in my new culture. Because of the illogical nature of being treated differently, solely based on the color of my skin and having been loved so dearly by “white” Germans however, it would take years for me to admit and understand this social construct called “Racism.”
Confessions of the First African-American Miss Georgia Southern University
Fast-forward to college… On February 1, 2003, after 2 years of being volunteered to represent campus organizations in a Miss America Scholarship Franchise Pageant, I decided to get serious. I had learned the pageant culture and criteria. I knew that my interview (which accounted for 40% of my total score) was going to be great! I had studied and decided that I would speak of public policy on education and give a witty commentary on the last several Presidential Addresses. My talent (accounting for 30% of my score), which was singing had been rehearsed until it was second nature. I did laundry in my competition hi-heels for several months to make sure that I could walk effortlessly across the stage during the competition. I had accumulated about 400 hours of volunteer time teaching immigrant Hispanic children to speak English, which was a part of my platform: “Empowering Youth With Education; The Inalterable Investment of a Lifetime.” Yes,… I was ready to win that night.
When the host announced, “and the winner of the 2003 Miss Georgia Southern University Scholarship Pageant is,… Erika Brayboy!” I was overjoyed, and excited about the year ahead. I took photos with the student pageant volunteers and went out of the ballroom, into the student union, where in the past two years, I remembered there being an informal celebration/meet and greet that usually lasted a couple of hours. But when I walked out that night, the union was closing.
I cannot remember who whispered it to me, but someone said: “ You are the first Black Miss Georgia Southern.” The next day, there were rumors:
“You know she only got it because it was the first day of Black History Month.”
“It was rigged.”
While I went to great lengths to win the pageant, I was completely unprepared for the inherent trials of being the first minority, the first African-American to win. I just wanted to celebrate,… instead, the Lord would shepherd me through a time where I was judged, not by the content of my character, but by the color of my skin.
One requirement of the winner is going on to compete in the Miss Georgia Pageant. As apart of my winnings, I earned a free professional photo shoot from a local photographer. The photos were to be used to submit to the Miss Georgia Pageant that was only months away. After calling and leaving several unanswered messages with the photographer, I drove to the photography studio and walked in to see 2 Caucasian women. One asked “May I help you?”. I explained that I was excited to take my photos for the Miss Georgia Pageant. They walked to the back and only one woman returned and said “[Photographer’s name here] …is not available.”
Throughout that year, I was subject to the affects of both subtle and overt racism. I was laughed at playfully in Columbus, GA when my roommates and fellow Miss Georgia Contestants asked who I thought would be a semi-finalist and I answered 5 names,… 2 of which were myself and another African-American contestant. The next day, as I predicted I was awarded a semi-finalist position. Side note: The following year, the first African-American Miss Georgia, Danica Tisdale (Miss Atlanta), was crowned.
I went back to the university weeks later, and was stopped late one night by a University Police Officer for what he said was a “rolling stop.” I gave him my license and registration, and he proceeded to put his face in my window to explain how I broke the law. He then called for back-up. I was a young female, all alone, not posing a threat, yet he called for another policeman. Together they “explained” to me the depths of my error. They surrounded my car and held me there for 45 minutes. Once they were finished talking to me and issued my ticket, I went back to my dorm room in shock,… I wept.
The Miseducation of Miss GSU
It was painfully evident to me that year, that I could not waste another day of my experience as Miss Georgia Southern University, and remain ignorant about the system that had undermined my hard work and dignity. With an extra senior year and some open classes, I finished the remainder of my Political Science minor with all African- American studies courses. I then ran for and became the Vice President of the Black Student Union. For the first time in my life, I saw a much bigger picture of the systematic dehumanization of an ethnic group of people. A professor of mine who was writing a book entitled, “Pursuing a Promise: A History of African-Americans at Georgia Southern University,” interviewed me and quoted me in the book saying
“There seemed to be a pride amongst black students when I won. I would go places and people would say, ‘There goes Miss GSU!’ Or they would say that they were glad I won Miss GSU, so I tried not to do anything to embarrass the school, the title or black people.”
Whether I intended it or not, the crown I had won was not mine, it was figuratively won for the entire African-American student body. I took on the responsibility as an advocate for the community. The best way I knew how to do this, was to make it my business to understand the pieces of our country’s dark past, that have been lost in modern education…the pieces that make up a system (many parts working together) that time and time again, have blinded so many (like myself prior to this experience) who do not believe or do not understand the plight of an oppressed people.
The light of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ has become more and more beautiful to my darkened eyes. It is in the acknowledging of our individual and collective sins,…even sinful history that we see our need for the beauty of Jesus who is unchanged by the times. Join me as I post some of the main historical events that I believe have brought us to the place that we are as a nation that is divided on racial lines. May the Lord be with us…
Of Ashes and Beauty