Have you ever listened to the song, “Umi Says” by Mos Def? It’s a fantastic song and in the chorus, Mos Def sings, “My Umi said, shine your light on the world. Shine your light for the world to see.” My mother would say the same thing to me when I was younger and she still says it to this day! But what once started as rhythmic words of encouragement, now has begun to transform into a deeper, more raw sense of self. It has taught me that we can brandish one’s individuality by sharing experiences, growing from adversities, and passing lessons learned onto my peers, and, to me, that is what I believe Black History Month is truly about. I never saw it as a design to cast blame or seek apologies; but rather a time to appreciate both Black culture and Black contributions. It is a time to develop a profound understanding of our current generation and those that came before us. Because from listening, comes understanding.
My family educated me on what being a Black person in America was like for them and what it may be like for me. They taught me how to navigate the waters and pushed me to hear others’ experiences when given the chance. And then in 2020, the George Floyd movement sparked discussion across the country and a societal shift began taking place. Various groups began broadcasting their desire for institutional change. Police training, workplace diversity, legislation geared towards discrimination; every facet that could touch bias or mistreatment within the Black community was under a microscope. Echoing a similar sentiment, different organizations and initiatives approached the problem in the form of open conversation. One of which was The Commit to C.A.R.E (Care About Racial Equity) Now initiative that was launched as a response to the consistent injustices, stereotypes, and negative attitudes about Black men in America. The initiative partnered with Dove Men+Care and the NBPA (National Basketball Player’s Association) to create a portfolio focusing on “celebrating the contributions of Black men in communities across the country and telling their stories as a part of our commitment to change the way Black men are seen and treated in our society.” This initiative brought to light the perspectives and stories from CEOs, comedians, NBA players, authors, and actors alike to capture them in a series of videos and photo shoots. I was fortunate enough to participate in this collaboration and got to share my own experience on what it is like to be a Black man in America. These conversations moved the needle forward in the larger conversation about racial inequity and emphasized the need for tangible benchmarks for measuring this change.
Participating in this program and listening to the other men who joined me in it, taught me what it means to persevere and implement change. I heard their struggles, their hopes, and their own thoughts of what could be done to improve our culture’s place in this world. Their views reaffirmed my belief: that when there is representation in any environment, avenues for change become achievable. At a granular level, having a diverse group of leaders can create networking opportunities for all communities through continuous involvement and influence. What were once one time donations, turns into institutionalized funding. Higher quality education becomes accessible rather than the faraway dream it used to be. These are examples of how equipping Black communities with the right tools can snowball into something that my community continually strives for: generational wealth in the form of capital, knowledge, and opportunity. Access to these tools allows for all generations to stand a chance against cronyism and social stratification.
While learning lessons from our current generation is powerful, I feel that it’s important to also spotlight and commemorate the feats that Black Americans have accomplished in the past. Despite the history of racism and oppression, the Black community has paved the way for people like me. This community has been fighting for equality and fair opportunities so that Black people today may experience life in a way that they could not. They have demonstrated constant efforts to leave the world a better place than when they entered it and these very efforts have percolated from leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. down into the communities he served. As a result, these communities place a great deal of importance on sharing the impact that these historical endeavors have had on their lives by passing their history down to the next generation. So when the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, my grandparents jumped at the opportunity to donate an artifact to the collection. Donating this artifact meant the world to my grandmother in particular because behind it, lies the history of her father.
Percival Leon Burrows was born in Barbados, and later in life, would move to Buffalo, NY and then Harlem to join the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) alongside Marcus Garvey. He then received a Black Star Line certificate for his service and passed it down to my grandmother who donated this very certificate to the museum. I’ll never forget how proud my grandmother stood while looking at a small piece of my family’s Black History on display in the nation’s capital.
I am thankful for everything the Black community has done for me and I am especially grateful to my family and colleagues who have shaped the way I approach my work and my life. For without these efforts, I would not be in the position I am today. I would not have had the tools to become a Carnegie Mellon graduate. I would not have had the skills to play college ball and try out for the NBA’s official minor league basketball organization. I would not have had the connections to intern under a U.S Senator. And I most definitely would not be a Security Engineer at Scale AI. But the efforts made by Commit to C.A.R.E Now, UNIA-ACL, and my grandmother, exhibit the lengths our community goes to progress the state of all African Americans and demonstrates what can happen when our community has a chance to shine their own light on the world. I hope that I am able to pay it forward with half the capacity that my community has done for me.
And Black history doesn’t just stop in February! If you live in D.C like me and you’re interested in learning more about the African American saga, I recommend visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It’s packed full with extraordinary exhibits and thousands of artifacts that have been donated by people all over the world. If you aren’t in the area but want to learn more, check out the Commit to C.A.R.E Now video (14:25) I was featured in! Or, if you use Instagram, checkout @blackarchives.co or @brownhistory.