Guest Editor’s Letter
BY EDVIGE JEAN-FRANÇOIS ’90
When I traveled to Ghana in February 2020, the deadliness of COVID-19 had not yet fully registered for much of the world. We had no sense of the collective, global grieving we would experience — no inkling of the unfathomable level of death coming our way. “Pandemic” had not yet become part of our universal lexicon.
I did not just want to go to Ghana. I needed to go. I was not setting off on a grand adventure. It was deeper than that. I felt the pull of my ancestors calling me.
You see, the Ghanaian government had declared 2019 the “Year of Return” for the African diaspora. Officials had invited people of African descent to return to Ghana for a spiritual journey to mark the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans to arrive in the United States, in Virginia, in 1619.
The call to ancestral sons and daughters of Africa was to commemorate the resilience of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade “scattered and displaced through the world,” organizers said. Thousands of Black people from across the globe heeded that call in 2019. I was not able to go. 2020 was to be my pilgrimage to pierce the mystery of an amorphous ancestral past, to get to know myself better. At least that was my hope.
My main purpose was to visit Elmina Castle and the nearby Cape Coast Castle, fortresses that began as trading posts in the 15th and 17th centuries, respectively, and later came to symbolize human depravity and greed. The castles were among dozens of slave factories on the West African Coast, where European human traffickers over the centuries warehoused millions of Africans in dark, fetid dungeons, sometimes for months. While this may be difficult to read, it is harder to write, as I recall what I learned on my visit a little over a year ago.
On their final march out of the dungeons, the captives were herded through the Door of No Return, the last portal before permanently leaving African soil. They boarded waiting ships, “floating coffins” that would take them across the Atlantic to the Americas. Those who survived the harrowing Middle Passage were sold into slavery to work on plantations, from sunup to sundown.
It is hard to fathom that this evil operated like a conveyor belt of human chattel across Europe, Africa, and the Americas for several centuries.
Three months after I returned, and still haunted by my trip to Ghana, I watched a Minneapolis police officer, brimming with bravado, his hands in his pockets, kill George Floyd on Memorial Day, as if an unremarkable and routine aspect of his job — all in a day’s work. This was not the first time we had seen institutionalized terror weaponized on a Black man. Since the beating of Rodney King, 30 years ago this past March, and more frequently with the help of eyewitness cell phone videos and the power of social media, Americans have had ample opportunity to witness the failure of law enforcement to police its own.
George Floyd’s death immediately inscribed him into the annals of American horror stories, those unforgettable “Where were you when ...” moments akin to Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK. We can now add the Capitol insurrection to the list. Mr. Floyd’s martyrdom, if you will, for practicing the religion of being Black, brought about a seismic shift almost overnight. White people, in particular, witnessed and overwhelmingly believed what Black people had been saying for decades: racism is real, and it is systemic.
With the resulting pain, rage, and summer of protests came a global reckoning that brought mea culpas from institutions across the globe. One stark example of this massive wave of public pronouncements, or carefully crafted virtue signaling, instantly took my mind back to Ghana.
We continue to live in the shadow of slavery, not because we discuss it too much, but because we acknowledge it too little.
When I was touring the male dungeons at Cape Coast Castle, above which sat the relic of a church — yes, a church — one of the tour guides told us that some companies that exist today still reap benefits from profits gained in the slave trade. Hearing this took my breath for a moment, as I stood in an actual dungeon where human beings had been kept to be bartered and bought. The guide mentioned the British insurance giant Lloyd’s of London as an example. Back then, the company insured merchant ships and consequently those with human cargo. It was the first time I had heard such a connection put in quite that way. In my experience, slavery and its victims and profiteers are usually viewed through the lens of the distant past.
Less than a month after the killing of George Floyd, Lloyd’s of London apologized for its “shameful” role in the slave trade, citing events that spotlighted “systemic and structural racism” and promising to implement programs and review its history of racism. I had an immediate aha moment and remembered what the guide had said about the company’s enrichment from slavery.
Imagine, an apology more than 300 years in the making for the pillaging of Black bodies. Why did it take one more Black body for that apology, that of George Floyd?
It was so very little and so very late. Yet, as more institutions, college presidents, Fortune 500 companies, professional sports leagues, friends, and colleagues came forward to acknowledge the destructive social cost and injury of entrenched systemic racism, and the human damage it causes, it became clear that it mattered. James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” We continue to live in the shadow of slavery, not because we discuss it too much, but because we acknowledge it too little. The quick-fix and agile American mindset that has served us well as the world leader in innovation has also imperiled our ability to look squarely at the ignoble parts of our past. America’s Founding Fathers can be lauded as visionary architects of an American promise forged on ideals of liberty and equality and branded as hypocrites who owned slaves. Yet sometimes we find ourselves debating complicity based on how few or many slaves they owned, how “well” they may have treated them, or whether they only brokered transactions.
So here we are at another torturous inflection point in America, more than a decade after hopes have faded for that post-racial America we thought we had welcomed that Tuesday in November; instead, white supremacy is uncloaked and unleashed at the highest levels of our government. It should not be a surprise that every time we get here, a large majority of Black Americans will link the racism we still face as proof that the vestiges of slavery are still in the marrow of America’s bones. Some white Americans, on their part, may wonder why we are still talking about slavery, whether its champions or abolitionists. Even the most empathetic white allies who work tirelessly for justice in BIPOC communities here at home and abroad can fail to see the linkage.
Our white family members, colleagues, and friends have had the privilege of pinning slavery on their ancestors, relegating it to the dustbin of history. The Black diaspora, on the other hand, has had the burden of carrying the stamp, the “scarlet letter” of slavery. Black people should not carry this history alone. We have done it; still, it is too heavy a load. We cannot forsake truth for a flawed reconciliation that continues to implode generation after generation. Where is that space where Black and white Americans can talk about slavery as co-descendants of an evil system, even while it is the system that contributed to America’s might and, directly or indirectly, our own personal privilege, or lack thereof?
To take a bit of license with the words of Mr. Baldwin and President Lincoln, how will we put out this fire and “the fire next time?” And who are the “better angels” to lift us out of this morass? Is it us, whether at the dinner table, in our communities, or at the highest levels of power and influence? Since last spring, I have come to embrace the unifying “Hamily” slogan. I think we could all use some Hamily, especially in the workplace, whether we are in a cubicle, corner office, C-suite, or, most recently, the virtual office.
I know our alumni community is not a racial, social, or political monolith. Our Hamilton motto is, after all, Know Thyself. I am well aware not everyone believes systemic racism exists nor supports a new or changed perspective on race. I also know that for the first time in a long time many who can effectuate the systematic top-to-bottom changes and take corrective action are listening.
In this issue, a cadre of powerful, diverse, individual Black voices share stories of their American journey, the professional heights they reached and are still reaching, the racial roadblocks they encountered, as poet Langston Hughes put it, life paths too often littered with “tacks … and splinters, and boards torn up,” that did not need to be there, such as being blocked simply for trying to go to school. I believe their personal essays are instructive for the anti-racist and pluralistic world we need. They are building bridges through art, business, social work, entrepreneurship, and scholarship. I am delighted they chose to participate. This issue is by no means a catch-all for our diverse BIPOC communities. Some of our experiences are similar. Some are not. I hope this opens the door for all alumni who want their voices heard.
We are Hamilton. We all have the Hill as a seminal shared experience.
By providence, birthright legacy, the intestinal fortitude of hardworking parents, committed donors, a robust Admission Office, the efforts of a Clara Christine Johnson, a Phyllis Breland, an ancestor “standing in the gap” as one of our contributors puts it — we got to the Hill. The many professors and friends who supported me at Hamilton far outnumber those who sought to diminish me when I was there. I long ago banished the naysayers from my thoughts, saving space instead for memories of the wonderful people I encountered at Hamilton, who not only enriched my experience, but helped shape the beginnings of my worldview. Those who walked beside me, my BLSU family, my lifelong Black and Latina sisterhood, who made sure the wind was always at my back and the sun on my face, as the oft-quoted Celtic blessing goes, they are the ones I remember.
Being guest editor of this special edition caused me to review the archives of my life at Hamilton, at least the pieces I could find. I looked through old photo albums and blue books that made me realize I once knew, and apparently cared, what enjambment is in a poem. Those of you who took 17th-Century English Literature likely knew, too. I discovered you can write an entire paper on just one passage from Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
I also found notes about a visit the force-of-nature Angela Davis made to the Hill in 1987 for Women’s Energy Weekend. It was in the shadow of an incident during which racial slurs were hurled at some students. She spoke out against racism, encouraging us to “get out there and build coalitions that can shake this country and turn things around.” More than 30 years later, some Hamilton students still face racial bias. It was unacceptable then and is unacceptable now. It is clear we have more coalitions to build. Many fellow alumni are doing this important work through the legal system, in government, as foot soldiers for voter and worker rights, in business, at schools and universities, in medicine, and a whole host of arenas.
We are in the middle of what feels like the divided states of America. Whether you believe we are standing on the heap of what once was American democracy or what once was American exceptionalism, I know I would like to be standing on the heap of what once was American racism.
Decades from now future generations will read about this time of upheaval in our country and the world — those who cowered, those who met the challenge, those who raised the bar. My hope is that future Hamilton students can look back at this moment as the time Hamilton and its alumni helped create a new, pluralistic vision that could be a roadmap for our entire nation, perhaps even our world. That would really be something.
We can do it. We are Hamilton.
Award-winning journalist Edvige Jean-François started her career at ABC News in New York. She first contributed to Hamilton magazine when she wrote about her experience as one of the first CNN journalists to cover the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, where she was born. A storyteller at heart, she has traveled extensively to produce news and features, and has covered the White House for Associated Press Television News. As a journalism speaker, she has conducted lectures and seminars for the Inter American Press Association and USIA, formerly a communications and cultural arm of the U.S. State Department. She completed a master’s degree and a postgraduate fellowship at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.