The Global Context of Being of African Descent
Jessica Reed (Jess) is a writer, youth educator, and proud ice cream lover from Detroit, Michigan. She is passionate about encouraging others as she encourages herself. Her blog, Roots and Hope, share soulful reflections on faith, healing, and young adulting. She majored in African and African American Studies at Stanford University.
Getting out of the habit of pleasing people is a journey, and even more so as a young Black woman. Stereotypes build barriers to connecting with other Black cultures. Race is a construct and has been constructed differently in different countries. Breaking stereotypes between Black cultures is not easy. It requires work and intention to share stories, and frustrations to reach growth. With intentional storytelling, a bridge can be formed.
Snippet from Jessica:
I had this narrative of Detroit, but I was seeing this dominant narrative of my city, a predominantly black city, 85% black or so. And it was discouraging to see that so many people had this fear-driven narrative of the place that I came from, a place that defined so much of me and how I came to see my blackness. But when I went to college, I took that with me, and that determination to really learn more about my culture, and even more about my career, and also to carry that Detroit pride with me wherever I went. And majoring in African and African American Studies was one really affirming to my experience, but it also opened my mind to many different experiences of what black means, or what it means to be of African descent from within a global context.
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Produced by: Breadfruit Media
Full Episode Transcript:
Welcome to the Bridge to U podcast hosted by yours truly Monique Russell, where we focus on promoting black unity worldwide through conversations that help us understand ourselves and each other.
All right, and Hello, and welcome everyone. Today in the chair, we have our special guest, Jessica all the way from Detroit in the house. Well, good to be here. Thank you, Jessica. Jessica Reed. So tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do and what you’ve been up to.
Yeah, so I was born and raised in Detroit. And five years ago, I graduated from college came back home and ever since I’ve been working for a youth development program. Caught up in what I do is just help support students academically, but also kind of near to be a mentor and a role model for them. So I’ve been doing that for the past five years, and I’m really passionate about working with kids about encouraging people through my writing and just by being like a genuine presence, and I’m also passionate about laughing. I love to just learn so whenever I have opportunities to have a deep conversation with someone or it’s read up on anything, it just really makes me feel really passionate because I feel like there’s always an opportunity to gain wisdom. I’m reading the book that my coworker got me, it’s about just trying to get out of the habit of people pleasing and feeling like you have to fit into this box of nice,that is often put on place as a value in society. And I think that that’s something that I’ve been working through is just trying to navigate the difference between being unkind and being nice. And figuring out my boundaries and figuring out like, what are the shoulds that I really want to live by?
You know what, I think that is just a perfect timing for what we’re going through right now in the world anyway, in terms of people pleasing, I could definitely relate having been down that path as well. So based on the 2020 situation, the new awareness that we’re getting, and this whole aspect of not being nice and being yourself and stepping into your, your true greatness and your true passion, what advice would you say? or What lesson would you say you’ve learned so far, from the beginning of this year that you hadn’t considered before?
That’s a great question.
I think, I don’t know if there’s something that’s just like being Just now taught to me at the beginning of this year, but just really trying to really understand my value as a child of God. And I think that that’s something that has been big for me always seeking approval and like what other people think, and just feeling crushed, because I’m always hungry for something, I will never fill me up. So that’s just something that I’m really, you know, still walking through. But I think it’s a big part of my story and something that I hope with the rest of 2020 that I can, you know, really say that I’m thriving in that area. But it’s been hard to be honest.
I understand that too. Just going through the journey for me. I know when I started to learn more about myself, my history, and just the whole background and really opened up a whole new world for myself. And I remember you talking to me previously, one of the things I was so excited to learn more about was your whole journey, like your journey of your studies. You know, what does it mean to you to be a Black woman, a beautiful black powerful woman. What does that mean to you?
So to kind of clarify my studies on when I was in college, I went to Stanford, I majored in African and African American Studies. And that was something that I had declared fall quarter of my freshman year, because I took a class called introduction, African and African American Studies. And growing up in Detroit, I think, for me, I came even before I got to college, I had a lot of pride and being black and coming from a predominantly black city, but especially I want to say like, like right before I got to college, there was just a lot of negative stereotypes, negative portrayals about Detroit because we would have went bankrupt. We were always like, at the top of the list for the city unemployment rates, everything like that, and I had so many positive experiences growing up here. Yes, there are definitely tough realities connected. But I feel like I’ve gained so many mentors, I had so many just fun memories of like simple things like the ice cream truck or having like valuable features that I felt like I learned something from and just feeling really gracious grateful for like the programs that I was a part of that helped me to just mark parts of myself that I didn’t realize were inside of me powerful things. So I had this narrative of Detroit, but I was seeing like this dominant narrative of my city, a predominantly black city, 85% black or so. And it was discouraging to see that so many people had this fear driven narrative of like the place that I came from a place which defined so much of me and how I came to see my blackness.
So when I went to college, I took that with me that determination to really learn more about my culture, and even more about my career, my culture, I should say, but also to carry that Detroit pride with me wherever I went, and majoring in African and African American Studies was one really affirming my experience. But it also opened my mind to many different experiences of like, what black means of what it means to be of African descent from like within a global context. So I met so many different people you know from the Caribbean from different parts of Africa from different parts of the world who wherever African descent but their experiences were not necessarily near mine, but it also just opened my eyes that blackness, when it comes to like being an experience is not monolithic, but it’s definitely um, like beautiful so like that’s something that my major like really helped me to understand. I’m just really grateful for that and I was also pretty involved involved in the black community like, co leading the Black Student Union living in an ethnic thing dorm called ocean, we were just proud and unashamed and I think that that was something thing that I wasn’t necessarily expecting going to a predominantly white institution, but it was a gift. And I didn’t feel that it limited me in any way. I still, you know, built relationships with people in so many different backgrounds but, you know, it was it was kind of a way for me to help learn more about my voice and what I wanted to take with me after I left college.
There’s so many things you said in there that I’m like, you know we got to explore, we got to go deeper on this thing right here. So just what was hitting me first of all, is that there’s so many parallels. So your city, you were seeing this whole narrative, this negative narrative about your city, but it didn’t really match up with the reality of what you were experiencing or what you were remembering and just building up that pride. And I think that that’s just so important to make that distinction because for many of us, it we see the negative stereotypes. But sometimes that can be internalized. And then sometimes that impacts the self-esteem and the self-worth. And then you really don’t remember just how powerful you are. So for you to say, you know what, despite of all this noise coming around me, I was still connected to something that was just stronger than all the noise on the outside. Yes. So that that was just fabulous. Now, when you get into this whole African and African American Studies, yeah, let’s just pause there for a moment because there is a lot of conversation around biases and perceptions, stereotypes between African and African American even though what unites is that whole black experience, the African experience this experience just beyond that, so when you studied that and then I know you went later on to South Africa. What was that like for you? What was awakening or eye opening in that whole journey of studying both cultures?
So I’m going to answer this question in a way that I hope doesn’t like feel discouraging. But I think it just taught me how there are like barriers, sometimes that come up because of stereotypes on both sides, but just thinking about like the African versus the black American context, for instance. Um, I remember that there were like, several periods on campus where, you know, people didn’t always feel like they belong as a word, or like there’s this conversation about like, what does it really mean to be black? And I think for me, I just been trying to be intentional about trying to engage the power of storytelling and relationship building, because I think that that can help break those stereotypes that have existed for a long time for a large part because of slavery, you know, like, I’ve been as a black American, you know, we still don’t really know too much about where exactly we came from. Yes, there are DNA that we know that like West Africa is where, we were taking from stolen from, but I think it’s very complex. And when it comes to navigating, like those like misunderstandings within the African diaspora and trying to like bridge any gaps, it can require some work because we have to share our stories and we have to share our misunderstandings and share our frustrations in order to grow. But that was something that I didn’t necessarily know the depth of until I got to Stanford and I still don’t know the full depth of it. But I just always been really passionate about the power of storytelling and the power of like building relationships and being vulnerable. So to navigate those things, I don’t know if you want me to like jump to my experience trouble.
Yeah, you can jump right on in there because I think what you’re saying is the reality of what life is. Yeah, that is the reality of what we see. We see and we hear people feeling different ways and having stereotypes between within the black community. Yes, Africans and African Americans but we choose not to subscribe to that belief. And I think just like what you’re saying it does take intention, it takes work it takes self-awareness for us to be able to say, Wow, we’re not gonna buy into that scam of, you know, superiority inferiority like we truly are one.
Yeah. So tell us about that experience where you traveled?
Yes. I got to study abroad my junior year to go to Cape Town, South Africa for two and a half months, and I was definitely nervous. That was my first time like really going like outside of the country, except for going to Canada, which is close to Detroit. But I was really excited because that was a program that had a service learning component. So on one hand, we got to live in a different country. But we also got to build relationships with people in the community, they’re through surveys, so definitely have to navigate different conversations about like what’s problematic. I remember experiencing some problematic things at the hands of my college when I went on a study abroad experience as far as like, I just felt really uncomfortable about some of the ways that we were engaging with the community. But one of the most powerful things about that experience of going to South Africa in particular was like knowing your history of apartheid and learning more about that and how in America, you know, the Jim Crow experience and just the history of racism in general in the country has a lot of like close parallels, to the experience of apartheid in South Africa. And just knowing that, that ended the year that I was born, you know, in 1994. So it was so fresh, and I had moments where I could just like, I felt very grateful to be to be living, at least temporarily, especially like beautiful country with all these beautiful beaches, and just wonderful people and wonderful food and all it is so many so many wonderful things. But it was also shocking to like observe the level of disparity between right people in South Africa and black people in South Africa. And then also knowing that like race was constructed differently because you also had colored people in South Africa.
So I think that you said something powerful there is constructed.
Yes. Something really powerful. What do you mean by that?
Yeah, so that was like one of the biggest or one of the first things that I learned in college was just race was a social construct. It was created as a way to establish dominance and power between white people in America and black people in America because initially, there were even white people who are indentured servants in America, there were black people who were indentured servants for slavery, then it comes to be until they’re white people want to create that economic power, and treat us as less than human. So I think it’s just really important to think about how, like, race doesn’t look the same, or isn’t thought of this as the same thing in different parts of the country. Like in Brazil, for instance, there’s so many different categories. Um, I know it changes year by year, but things are constructed for the purpose of power in this world. And I think it’s important to be aware of that.
I remember the time when I was going to South Africa it was a really, really interesting experience. And if you think back what would you say would be one of your most defining moments there?
So I got to work as a teaching assistant at the center of Science and Technology I was at a high school in South Africa. And it was predominantly black for black South African students and just being able to to build relationships with them and get to see how the kids there have universal have similar experience the kids here you know, as far as like wanting to celebrate Valentine’s Day and having a friend and drama and things like that just kind of seeing how like even though there are definitely things that are different, culturally speaking, there are some things that are the same. And I think that that was for me, really, really valuable and being able to I remember that I had to read To Kill a Mockingbird to some of the students and I had a lot of questions about like, what racism was like in the States, but also something that was the most uncomfortable for me being in South Africa was how my Americanism was more salient than my blackness because I thought like, when I will go to South Africa that me being black will speak more loudly than me being American, but my mannerisms or how I dress or just even speaking, and people hearing that I was American, tended to be louder. And that tended to carry with me some expectations and some stereotypes that I wasn’t quite comfortable with at times. But it also led to a lot of a lot of great conversations and our storytelling, which I feel is like so important to kind of get to know each other on both sides.
So if you could share, like when you say storytelling, you know, I’m just kind of curious what one experience that you had because I feel like storytelling really does help to build a bridge you know, situations or helps us to get deeper understanding to see you know, what we really got more in common than you think. If you could think about that storytelling experience for you in the context of where you see things going in the future, if you could just imagine a world where fill in the blank.
I think a lot about healing and joy, because those are two big areas that I’m striving to experience in my life. And I feel like across the board, when it comes to people of African descent, especially like healing, it’s a very interesting word because it can mean like different things to different people within the diaspora, you know, but I feel like it would be really amazing if relationships could be built across backgrounds, so Caribbean, people from Africa, people from who are black from America, people who are living abroad as expats or who are just of African descent in different places across the world, I think it would be really amazing if there could just be this openness to just like sharing about our experiences. And I think that like art is a powerful tool for that. So I really love poetry. I really love creative nonfiction and just like kind of just being open about my experiences reflecting on my faith is a big thing. For me, my mental wellness and mental health, being a young adult, also being black, just all of those things I think they can be just by sharing my story and also just being open to getting to know other people by asking those questions. I imagined my community in a world where we just take the time to get to know each other. And I don’t know like what that what that looks like, necessarily, because for me, a big part of it was me like going to college, going thousands of miles away to Stanford and going to another country to experience a different cultural context.
But I just really hope that there can be a lot of accessible opportunities for us to just share who we are like what lights us up, what makes us feel, like way down, I think that was one of those moments of vulnerability can help overcome, like painful stereotypes or incomplete stereotypes. That’s so powerful and you are showing up in your complete essence of vulnerability and experiences. So you are leading the way for all our listeners right now, Jessica, because this is basically how it starts. And I think that just having you share your journey, and your experiences that allowed you to go a bit deeper, explore deeper within yourself, you had that curiosity within yourself, that’s where it started. And from there, it kind of sprung into all of these different segments. And I think when we have our expectations, and we meet up with situations that really don’t match up with our expectations, it can throw us off a little bit but having that curiosity having that openness having that bridge-building, just like what you said. I imagine that same world where we’re all learning about each other, and we are celebrating each other and we’re connecting with each other as well.
And with that being said, I know that it won’t always be easy. Sometimes tough conversations will come up sometimes, like feelings may be hurt in the process, just because like, people don’t, we don’t always know, like the fullness of somebody else’s story. So we might say something that’s like problematic, but I think if you’re willing to take accountability, and if we’re willing to just continue to like be in that vulnerability and not withdraw, like when it gets hard, I think that it can really, like pave the way for some real life community to happen like it’s never happened before.
Oh, yes. You’ve got to be able to face the difficult stuff. It is tough. It’s not easy. I’m so glad that you said that. Because we definitely don’t want anyone to think that it’s just magical. It’s not tough or it’s easy because it’s not but what you actually experience on the outside of going through that process like a diamond, it comes out shining brighter and stronger and more connected