Skip Nav
Image
Members of the author's family celebrate during her sister's wedding in 2019.
Image Source: Michael A. Edwards Jr.

First-Generation Immigrant Perspective on Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter Is More Than a Movement to Me — It's a Powerful Self-Affirmation

I've only seen my mother cry twice, but both times rocked my soul. The first time was when she received the news that her father died. My family was forced to flee from Liberia at the brink of the first Liberian Civil War in 1989, and we didn't have the means to leave all at once. The plan was to send for my grandfather once we were settled in the United States, but life had other plans.

The second time was when I walked into our kitchen, back-to-school shopping list in hand, and found her sitting at the table in tears. After a 120-hour workweek between both of my parents, they still couldn't make ends meet, and it was too much for her to bear.

When I think about the weight of the Black experience in this country, I'm reminded of my mother at the kitchen table and of all the moments where I was taught to internalize the message that my life and experiences didn't matter. My parents graduated from the University of Liberia, had good jobs, and were building a nice life before the years of unrest that led to the war. But in America, their African degrees did not carry the same value. So my mom worked 16-hour shifts for more than 25 years at nursing homes. My dad started a small business, which also required long hours. They didn't have time to dwell on the inequities they faced. Often they summoned superhuman strength to overcome challenges and fought much harder for a piece of the American Dream.

When I think about the weight of the Black experience in this country, I'm reminded of my mother at the kitchen table and of all the moments where I was taught to internalize the message that my life and experiences didn't matter.
Image
The author at age 6.
Image Source: Kweighbaye Kotee

Despite these systemic hardships, my parents made sure that we grew up with a lot of love, joy, and faith in our household. My aunts, uncles, and cousins were always around, and there was always a Liberian dish like cassava leaf or palava sauce in the pot, a wedding to attend, or a family gathering in our home where my cousins and I would perform.

My parents saw education as a clear path for us to achieve our dreams. Although I took school seriously, the Newark, NJ, public school I attended was a challenging learning environment. Some families were experiencing poverty and hunger, some parents were abusive, some students were drug dealers, and some of my friends had brothers in jail. I was spit on, punched in the face, and sometimes bullied by both students and teachers. When I was in seventh grade, a representative from an organization called The Wight Foundation visited my school. They told us about their program and how they gave inner-city youth the opportunity to attend the best private boarding schools in the country, and I jumped at the chance. My parents were ecstatic when I got my acceptance letter to receive a scholarship to attend Blair Academy. However, I was low-key devastated because I realized that while public school was tough, I didn't want to leave my friends, family, and community. Nevertheless, even at age 13, I understood that very few Black kids had access to higher education. So I braced myself and cried all the way to boarding school.

I was a Black teen dropped almost overnight into a super-white and -wealthy world. But I soon learned that the type of Black person I was didn't fare well in that space.
Image
The author, center, in her freshman year at Blair Academy Prep School in Blairstown, NJ.
Image Source: Kweighbaye Kotee
When I arrived at Blair, I was loud, funny, and wore my hair in flat twists. I was a Black teen dropped almost overnight into a super-white and -wealthy world. But I soon learned that the type of Black person I was didn't fare well in that space. In class, one student hysterically laughed out loud at the way I spoke. I struggled to keep up with the daily dress code of khakis, tennis sweaters, collared shirts, and formal dinnerwear. I eventually started a series of diets to slim down because the white girls at Blair were a lot smaller than the Black girls in Newark. Although I was an A student in public school, prep school was a different ball game. I tried my best to fit in, but felt like my entire being was under attack. Still, the thing my teenage self had the hardest time processing was how white people got to be so rich, live in such beautiful neighborhoods, live safely, and have so many opportunities. How come my parents were always working but weren't able to live in big houses and drive fancy cars like the students at school? Why was Black life confined to the inner city?
I was grateful for Blair. I valued my experience, the education I received, and the lifelong friends that I made. But there was typically no discussion about race and inequality on campus. One year, a Black senior wrote an article about race in the school newspaper that disrupted business as usual. When my teacher brought it up in class, I chose not to comment. But because I was the only Black person in class, he asked me for my opinion on the issue. I immediately choked up and started crying. I didn't know how to explain the confusion and sadness I felt about the unfair differences between the two worlds I lived in. I didn't know how to relay how it felt to come back to a pristine campus one fall after having witnessed a boy I knew back home get shot and killed, then being interrogated overnight by officers who didn't notify my parents I was in custody. Other students talked about their summers in lake houses. What could I say to my classmates in that moment that would make them see the burden that I was carrying as a result of living while Black?
Image
The author graduating from NYU in 2009.
Image Source: Kweighbaye Kotee

When I got into NYU, I looked forward to living in New York City. Its diverse population would be refreshing. I found that everyone in the small community of Black students at NYU had unique Black experiences, but we all understood what it felt like to be one of the few students of color in classes. We understood the pressure and responsibility that came with getting through the university's doors. For us, there was no room for mistakes. So when I ran into a personal challenge, my GPA dropped and I lost one of my educational scholarships, I had to take periodic breaks from school to work full-time so that I could save for tuition. It took me a total of seven years and about $100,000 in student loans to get my BS in media, culture, and communication.

I believed that a degree from NYU and living in one of the most diverse cities in the world would make for a seamless transition into a career in the film and entertainment industry. However, when I walked into major media companies and found offices almost void of people of color, I realized that even with my scholarships and my education in prestigious white institutions, I still could not get in the door. I was only getting offers from low-paying jobs outside of my industry. This would make it nearly impossible for me to pay off my student loans before I was 60. Like my mother at the kitchen table, I felt defeated. I understood then that it would be nearly impossible for me, as a Black woman, to take a traditional route to a leadership position in the media and entertainment industry. I decided to forge my own path.

When I walked into major media companies and found offices almost void of people of color, I realized that even with my education in prestigious white institutions, I still could not get in the door.
I started working on low-budget film projects with friends and later launched my own company, The Bushwick Film Festival. This way, I could be intentional with how I built my platform and ensure that my staff, the films we selected, our audiences, and even our partners fully reflected the diversity of New York City. Today, The Bushwick Film Festival attracts more than 3,500 attendees and over 1,500 film submissions from 60 countries around the world. We've been awarded citations and proclamations by our elected officials for contributing to Brooklyn's cultural and economic growth. Since our inception, we have been committed to building bridges through the power of story and empowering underrepresented storytellers and communities. We've partnered with incredible organizations like Spectrum, B&H Photo, Chemistry Creative, LVR, POPSUGAR, Delta, Accountability Lab, and United Nations Peacebuilding Fund to do amazing work that elevates diverse voices and empowers the next generation of storytellers.
But even as an entrepreneur, I've run up against that glass ceiling again and again. As a Black woman, I've had to learn how to navigate hostile workplaces, subtle microaggressions, and the lack of consideration for my specific needs. When I walk into predominantly white offices for meetings with clients, sometimes the receptionist treats me just a little differently than other guests. Often, when I'm the only Black woman in the room, I get spoken over and reduced to taking notes, although I was hired to be the expert. When I gave a TEDx talk in the South about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, the list of hair and makeup professionals the organizers shared for speakers to use did not include anyone who did Black hair or makeup. The Black speakers had to band together to find one.
These obstacles make me wonder how much further along my business would be if I was white with access to resources and the ability to fail up like white men in Silicon Valley.
Living and doing business in an underserved community like Bushwick comes with another set of challenges. Black and brown business owners in the neighborhood lack direct access to capital, which often means having to go with predatory lenders or simply getting denied. Then there is an overall perception that Black businesses are not qualified to deliver high-quality service. These obstacles make me wonder how much further along my business would be if I was white with access to resources and the ability to fail up like white men in Silicon Valley.
Image
Protesters demonstrate on June 2, 2020, during a Black Lives Matter protest in New York City.
Image Source: Getty / Johannes Eisele
For Black people in America, racism and inequality have always been obvious. We see it in the whiteness of workplaces, magazines, television, movies, award shows, leadership teams, and property owners. We see it in the prison system, in immigration policy, and on the tired faces and bodies of our elders. We see it in how the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is disproportionately affecting our communities. However, I didn't realize how deeply I had internalized the message of racism, nor the depth of my own wounds, until I watched the videos of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd being killed. Seeing Black men lynched and murdered in 2020 brought up so much grief and so many repressed memories and myriad emotions.
For me, Black Lives Matter is so much more than a statement of support for the Black community and our struggles. It has become a powerful self-affirmation.

Part of me feels a lot of fear and anxiety in this moment of turmoil and transformation. In the name of peace and progress, it feels like Black people are being asked to be superhuman again. To quickly move past our pain, push down our anger, and be grateful that the white world has finally comprehended the impact of racial injustice on Black lives and minds. I am afraid that I will wake up tomorrow and this moment will be over without any long-term changes. Will violence against Black people by police officers ever stop? Will domestic policies that advance Black communities in America be actualized? Will companies transform the faces of their workforces? Will higher institutions be more accessible to students of color? Will Hollywood hire Black voices to tell the story of this moment?

Image
Image Source: Obed Obwoge

The larger part of me is full of hope. Seeing the world collectively raise its voice to protest against racism makes me feel, for the first time ever, that we are all in this together. For me, Black Lives Matter is so much more than a statement of support for the Black community and our struggles. It has become a powerful self-affirmation. The statement and the movement have helped to psychologically reverse the messages I've received throughout my life that I mattered less than my white counterparts.

My hope for this moment is that the senseless murders of our Black brothers and sisters by police, the weight endured and sacrifices made by our ancestors and parents, and the current global protests will not be in vain. Let this be the moment where we work together to build a world where being treated equally (and feeling equal) is the status quo — and where none of us sit at the kitchen table and weep for what could have been.

Related Stories