Working 9-to-5 In White Spaces

As a black woman, I had the unique experience of my first “real” job being at an entirely African American institution, Bates Memorial Baptist Church. Everyone on staff or in a position of leadership was black. Not only was everyone black, for the most part, most of us had some form of post-secondary education, from doctorates to bachelor degrees, and we were all united by our love for God, our love for black people and justice. I remember feeling like my soul was being ripped from my body when the George Zimmerman verdict came in, and the first person I texted was my pastor, and we expressed our hurt and anger. I didn’t have to return to work the next day and pretend the verdict didn’t hurt, all of us were angry, and we discussed it amongst ourselves as we did our daily tasks. Then, the death of Mike Brown and many others happened, and across the nation, churches were expressing their solidarity for an end to police brutality. I remember I was going to get a black hoodie made with Black Lives Matter on the front, and as I headed out of the doors of the church, I asked Pastor Bruce Williams if he would like one, and he said, “Of course.” His hoodie was adorned with the words, “I Can’t Breathe,” the last words uttered by Eric Garner, who was held in a chokehold by NYPD and killed. There was unity amongst us as we all stood for one goal, justice for black people. I didn’t have to go to work and debate my position. I didn’t have to listen to someone tell me, “If they would have just complied.” I didn’t have to hear any stories about white people feeling justified in “standing their ground.” I didn’t have to hide my pain. I was able to work through the painful experiences with others who understood me as we worked our 9-to-5 jobs.

Even beyond our solidarity, when a tragedy happened in the black community, there was just understanding for who we are as black people. I could come to work in my African attire, and no one asked me any silly questions. If there was a day that I wasn’t able to finish my braids and had to wear a headwrap to the office, it didn’t spark curiosity. There were no negative comments when I shaved all my hair off and wore my Afro. No one begged to touch my hair or pet me. If I woke up one morning and wanted to wear my “Descendant of a Field Negro” shirt to work, there were no side-eyes; no one was running to the Human Resources department talking about how they were offended by my T-shirt.

And the food. My goodness, the food! In the church there was an industrial kitchen, and boy did we use it! We would bring in collard greens and mac and cheese. We made fried potatoes, cabbage and fried gizzards dripping in hot sauce. And no one asked, “What’s that?” No one said, “That smells funny.” We would sit in the back room on our lunch break and laugh and slap high fives. We didn’t need to code-switch. We would drop all the Gs from the ending of our words, toss in a couple of Bs and throw around our slang as we discussed our lives, our hopes and our dreams.

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