Looking back on 155 years since the end of slavery, and eyeing the present and future of Black life in the United States, participants in an FGCU Juneteenth panel discussion shared the daily struggles they still face to show their lives matter. But they also expressed hope that the momentum of the current moment in the civil rights movement will continue to build toward a country where everyone is treated equally.
The university’s Multicultural & Leadership Development (MLD) Center hosted the hourlong discussion June 19 on Zoom, along with other virtual live events on Instagram celebrating the resiliency, triumph and liberation of Black Americans. Cultural discussions and performances, live music and a “Taste of Blackness” social media dinner were part of festivities marking the end of the institution of slavery across the U.S. in June 1865.
The occasion offered an opportunity to “celebrate to educate,” which was one of the themes of the panel discussion. A national day of celebration, conversation and contemplation could and should help more Americans understand the meaning of Juneteenth, historic struggles against racism, and the progress toward true equality that still needs to be made.
“The same way we celebrate July 4th, we should also celebrate Juneteenth,” said panelist Prisca Morisma, who graduated from FGCU in spring with a degree in integrated studies. “It shouldn’t just be a celebration for Black people. It should be a celebration for all people. Your brothers and sisters, other human beings, this is a day we can commemorate our liberation.”
She acknowledged there’s a long way to go for Black people to achieve the equality they deserve but is thankful for the progress that has given her access to education and professional opportunities. “There’s so much I am able to do because of this day. It’s a celebration as well as a reflection on what more I can do to continue this fight so that what my ancestors did wasn’t in vain.”
Dr. Christopher Blakely, who recently was named FGCU’s interim assistant vice president of Campus Life and dean of students after serving as assistant dean for Multicultural Leadership & Development, said he is “hopeful but vigilant” about the future based on recent events in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We, 155 years later, are still trying to get others to understand that we matter,” he said. “It is unfortunate that we have people in this world fighting against civil rights and equal rights. We can no longer use the American flag as a blindfold — we can’t blindfold ourselves to social issues. We have to make sure America is a place where all are treated equally and that we acknowledge systemic racism.”
Precious Gunter, director of Equity, Ethics & Compliance and Title IX coordinator at FGCU, said she believes Juneteenth encourages awareness and education about history and the fight for equality and representation. But it should also serve as a moment to consider what more can be done to further overcome racism and discrimination.
“We have lots of national, federal and state holidays we celebrate that may not necessarily have significance to us personally that we get excited about,” she said. “But Juneteenth certainly is one for the Black community and for all if you really truly care about the liberation of Black people — and everyone should care. It doesn’t mean we’re liberated and free in the sense of how we should be. There are still lots of struggles taking place in the current climate.”
While a holiday can inform and rally non-Black allies of the civil rights movement, those supporters should be actively educating themselves rather than depending on their Black friends to explain why Black people are upset, Morisma added.
“To be a real ally you can’t expect Black people to be the ones to educate you on everything,” she said. “There are resources out there. There are books you can read, websites you can visit. Ally-ship is understanding how you can alleviate some of the burden we are carrying. I have heard a lot of allies say, ‘How can we fight for the black community?’ We’re not expecting anyone to fight for us — we’re expecting them to fight with us. We understand this is our fight, but it should be everyone’s fight.”
About 90 students, alumni, faculty and staff members joined the discussion, which was moderated by Gervais Baptiste, a junior Honors College member with a double major in finance and supply chain management. He also serves as student director of MLD’s Emerging Eagles leadership development program and as an Eagle View Orientation leader.
“In our society today we talk a lot about inclusion, but we can’t truly be inclusive if we don’t celebrate each other. Inclusion without celebration is only segregation,” Baptiste said. “People go back to what they know, stay with their cliques, veer away from educating themselves and from taking part in conversations. It’s not just about reading or watching videos. It’s about engaging in conversations as well.”
Other panelists were: Sherrelle Findley, assistant director of conduct and training in Housing & Residence Life; Destiny Washington, coordinator of retention and engagement programs in the First Year Experience program; Saul Leguerre, program assistant in TRIO/Student Support Services; and Travell Oakes, MLD leadership development coordinator.
The full Zoom recording of their discussion about the Black Lives Matter movement and what it means to be a Black woman or man in America is available below. Following are some selected comments on questions raised in the discussion.
How do you envision the future based on recent events from this Black Lives Matter movement?
- Precious Gunter: “We are seeing a whole lot more progress and a whole lot more people that are allies in the current fight. Because of that, I like to be optimistic and hope the future is bright. Seeing corporations making statements about BLM, seeing Confederate symbols and signs and statues coming down across the globe, we are seeing a lot of progress.”
- Prisca Morisma: “This is a new era of another civil rights movement. It’s not just a movement or a hashtag or a trend. It’s our lives that are at stake. When I look to the future I see more and more momentum, more and more allies, more people adding on to the goal and vision of how we can live in a country that encompasses all lives. Truly that all lives matter – black lives matter, Latino lives matter, LGBTQ+ lives matter.”
- Christopher Blakely: “If we do not continue to move forward we are putting humanity at risk. I’m hopeful that we will not just be a country where we say, ‘my country right or wrong,’ but stand up and say, ‘my country, it’s time to right our wrongs.’”
What does it mean to be a Black woman in America?
- Sherrelle Findley: “When I think of all the Black women in my life and the Black women trailblazers who paved the path for us to walk today, I think of their fight and never giving up. That defines who we are. We are always doing more than what’s expected because what’s expected is never enough for us.”
- Destiny Washington: “Always being hyperconscious and hyperaware of everything. In a professional aspect, being hyperaware of how I show up in a space. How do I speak so people respect the message I have to say? How do I dress, how do I wear my hair, so I’m respected? There’s also the burden of being aware of the people I love. How can I make sure they’re safe? I’m constantly thinking about that.”
- Prisca Morisma: “I think of all these pioneers, and I just think no matter how difficult it is to be a Black woman in America, I still think that we are one of the most beautiful creations that the world has ever seen because despite the burden we still carry it.”
What does it mean to be a Black man in America?
- Saul Laguerre: “I have to make sure I walk a straight line when I’m out. I’m very cautious. I just want to know I’m going to walk on campus and be fine. I just want to know I’m going to be able to make it to my car and get home. I want my mom to have the peace of mind to know I’m leaving the house and I come back just fine.”
- Travell Oakes: “I can do everything right, have my hands up, listen to what’s going on, but if the other person is not feeling the right thing or having a bad day, I could potentially lose my life. I’m not scared as an African-American male, but I’m very cautious. As Black men we have to be impeccable with our word. If we say, ‘this is a problem,’ then let’s be the answer to it.”
- Christopher Blakely: “Our responsibility is showing up as Black men for our children, our women, our communities, our schools. We have to be the light. For those who have the light, we have to light other candles. We have to empower one another, lift people up, hold people accountable while not tearing (others) down.”