“I See You”

 The following is the text of an acceptance speech Monique Liston wrote for receiving the YWCA Eliminating Racism Award.

Thank you.

May I have the permission of an elder in the room to speak to my people this evening?

Thank you.

In a few days a local university will hold its December commencement. My degree, a PhD in Social Foundations of Education will be conferred on that day. For many who have embarked not the journey through academia - that day - graduation day - wearing your gown and being hooded by your professors is a crowning moment.

For me it is not.

I decided over a year ago that  THAT ceremony would not be for me. Leading up to it - I did not get excited, I was not thrilled. I was just reminded of how traumatic higher education has been and how the historic denial of African intellectual genealogy and bastardization of European history to meet the goals of white supremacy has made me one of the .06% of Black women that have PhDs or that because I have succeeded within the system of oppression that I am somehow a credit to my race.

Our accolades are misguided. you see that image of me, a Black woman who happened to make it from PreK to PhD being hooded by the institution that oppresses people JUST LIKE ME through lack of institutional access, ridiculously high costs, and unchecked racism and bigotry does not honor my ancestors, does not affirm my humanity, does not confirm my legitimacy to stand in front of you today. If it did, I would be celebrating my survival within an oppressive system with getting a crown from the oppressor. What type of mess is that? It sounds more like the winner of the Hunger Games than any type of celebration of academic achievement.

Within the system however, I have spent the last three years studying dignity for Black men and boys and Black people in spaces mediated by white supremacy — which if you think about it — is everywhere.

Dignity, according to my research is a mutual sense of worthiness an individual has with the communities that they flourish within.

Dignity is mutual - as in reciprocal - “I see you and you see me…”

UBUNTU. A Bantu word that means humanity or the essence of what it means to have a human experience.

Unfortunately, that is not the case most Black people have. Dignity is often identified as poise and grace maintained by Black people as they endure suffering and ignore injustice at the expense of their humanity. You know because the getting to work on the highway without being stopped by protestors, labeling freedom fighters as terrorists called Black Identity Extremists  and watching football without the deep rooted politics that surround the sport is indeed the American dream.

Dignity is really about the communities you and I flourish within. Our homes, our churches, our bowling leagues and women’s groups. Where we go to be fully understood, to be embraced by others. To be without fear or consequence for society’s labels of your DNA — to be free, to love and to support. We flourish in these spaces, invest in these spaces, protect these spaces.

Almost ten years ago, I was at another academic milestone. After completing 20 some odd credits beyond what was required I obtained my bachelor’s degree from The Mecca — HOWARD UNIVERSITY. HU! YOU KNOW! A community that loved and supported me as a poor, Black woman. The space known across the globe and throughout history as the epicenter for Black intellectual development, contributions and achievements. Although I am waiting for Howard to radicalize its campus by raising a red, black and green flag on the yard and renaming the College of Arts and Sciences after Fannie Lou Hamer — I am sharing with you that THAT ceremony was met with excitement. I could not wait to celebrate walking across that stage — FIST IN AIR — in a auditorium full of Black people in a tradition that has also affirmed Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Kwame Ture and Thurgood Marshall. That graduation — an affirmation of my accomplishments with the love and support of a community that I flourished within was a ceremony that dignified me.

Instead of the traditional ceremony this time, I opted to hold a special ceremony with friends and family that have nurtured me over the last six years. I was hooded by my community, my family, the young people I have worked with, educators that I respect, and Black women who have prayed with and for me through the trauma. And yes, I was raised by a Black woman — so I could not do any of these things without Mom saying it was okay first. As much as I do it #fortheculture — you still gotta check with moms first!

We are here tonight for the same reasons. Any affirmation for a job well done must come from the communities which people flourish in. The spaces where “I see you and you see me.” UBUNTU. This honor tonight is unbelievable — but its not— because I see this community as worthy and this community sees me as worthy too. It is a mutual sense of worthiness between myself and Milwaukee and I am so grateful to be a part of that. It is here in one of the most segregated cities in the US that we understand - Racial equity is recognizing that we have a problem with inequity based on race. Racial justice is the work of resistance against the damaging impact of racism. Racial liberation is reconciliation between and among flourishing communities. If we don’t celebrate our collective work towards racial equity, justice, and liberation. we might be consumed by the daunting nature of the task.  Thank you so much for seeing you in me. Our work together has just begun.

I close by asking you to turn to a neighbor and grab their hand. Let us honor our ancestors affirm our humanity and legitimize this work.


It is our duty to fight for our freedom

It is our duty to win

We must love and support each other.

We have nothing to lose but our chains.