(Re-)Centering Myself

As much as I hate to admit it to myself, I was in a funk during all of winter term. I don’t know what it was—the cold, sun-less weather? My class-load full of heavy and dense readings? All the running around I’ve had to do, and having a concussion on top of it all? It was probably a mixture of all of that and more. Whatever it was, I hated it. It affected everything I did, and I love everything I do. I love being a student, but I was hardly engaged in the classroom. I enjoy being a tour guide and I love playing violin, yet my heart wasn’t entirely in any of that either. And even the thing I adore the most seemed to suffer as well: being president of the diversity club.

Now, I’d like to think it didn’t show. I was doing the best I could in all of these responsibilities. I still ended the term with a highly respectable set of grades, hosted some really wonderful discussions in Mosaic, and built and maintained many new friendships and connections. But I knew that the best I was doing still was not good enough by the standards I usually set for myself, and I have been giving myself the hardest time about it.

The Sankofa trip this year did wonders for me. I was around different people and going to different places. It’s been an impeccably-timed refreshing change of scenery and surroundings, and I’m so thankful for it. Even though exploring the tragedies and injustices associated with the Civil Rights Movement is challenging and difficult, it’s pumped so much life back into me. We were been immersed into history on this trip from head to toe by our surroundings and the people we encountered. Of the many unique and unprecedented people we’d spoken with on this trip, tour guides and museum directors, families sitting at neighboring tables in restaurants and hotel staff, there’s one who’s particularly unforgettable.

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Mr. Watkins and myself outside the bus station where he was arrested for the very first time

We had the extraordinary privilege of spending a day with a living piece of history. Hezekiah Watkins was an activist during the 1960s who was arrested over a hundred times, participated in many sit-ins, even served as security during the last speech Medgar Evers would deliver; he served as a Marine in Korea, and now takes time out of his days to share his life and his insights with tour groups visiting Jackson, Mississippi.

As I listened to Mr. Watkins recount his memories of the 1960s, I found myself in awe. Here was a living, breathing part of history, a primary source on the Civil Rights Movement, right before our eyes. He was only thirteen years old when he was mistaken for a Freedom Rider and sent to Parchman Prison; SCLC’s James Bevel himself was the one to convince young Hezekiah’s mother to let him join the movement. What an incredible reminder that the Civil Rights Movement was not long ago at all—this man was still kickin’, and with a lot of energy to boot!

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Dr. Chod snapped this great photo of us having a conversation with Mr. Watkins in the Smith Robertson Museum

I know I’ve written and spoken to many of my friends about this before, but the place of Asian Americans (and of other Americans who are neither white nor black) in this particular conversation never ceases to call my attention. Sometimes, I’m disengaged from it, though still conscious of it; other times, I’m painfully and acutely aware of the absence of people who look like me, to the point where I’m upset, doubting myself and my place in these conversations. So, at every opportunity, I can’t help but raise the question of where exactly Asian Americans belong in these situations—not in a way to “make it all about us,” not at all, but instead to learn more about what we can do and how we can contribute to a movement that’s already underway. Our voices matter, and I’m so eager to learn how to use them.

I realized that this was an extremely rare opportunity to speak with someone who witnessed, experienced, and participated in the Civil Rights Movement firsthand. So I asked Mr. Watkins if, throughout his work in the ‘60s, he came across any Asian Americans who were also involved. I was so hopeful, but I was also prepared to hear the heartbreaking no, that yet again there wasn’t a single person with a similar background to mine in this ever-important dialogue—but after a long pause, he began to answer my question: “You know, there was one…” and my heart soared. He began to tell me all about his friend Mary Lee (not the author named Mary Paik Lee, who comes up whenever I try to look up information on the Mississippian Mary Lee) who is of some Asian descent, and who participated in many sit-ins in the ‘60s. She was certainly involved enough to the point as to where she attended a reunion of civil rights activists just a couple of years back in Jackson. After this conversation with Mr. Watkins, I couldn’t help it—I went to the bathroom and cried. One person, just one Asian American, that’s all I needed to hear about to reaffirm my place in this conversation and validate my passion for it.

But I won’t stop there. I won’t stop at learning about just one person like Mary Lee. It has dawned on me that this is an opportunity to use my inherited position and my discovered passion and make them one and the same. I’ve already chosen the road of social justice and allyship as something I want to do for the rest of my life, but on this trip, I’ve discovered another layer to this choice, an extra nuance and focus that makes it exponentially more meaningful. I’m so ready to begin pursuing this: I want to learn more about the role of Asian Americans and other non-black or -white Americans as activists during the Civil Rights Movement—not what they did for themselves only, but what they did (or did not do) for the larger movement. Not only do I want to learn about this side of history, but I so desperately want to address what is happening in the present. How do I engage my Asian American classmates and peers in a dialogue about race and today’s social issues? How do I show them where we fit in and what we can do? What can we do?

Additionally, I’m not only reinvigorated to pursue a deeper understanding of my place in this movement—I’m so refreshed and revitalized in terms of the work I’m already doing, as a Christian, as a student of sociology, as an Orientation Leader, as a tour guide, as president and founder of the diversity club… I’ve re-centered myself, and it feels incredible.

We have met so many incredible people on this trip, people like Hezekiah Watkins in Jackson, Mississippi or Dr. Donald Cole at Ole Miss, both of whom were alive and present during the Civil Rights Movement; people like Ms. Pamela Junior, the impassioned director of the Smith Robertson Museum, who could not stress enough that we are all eagles and meant to fly; people like the students at Ole Miss who haven’t let recent hate crimes on campus deter them from putting every effort forward to create a better present and future to repair its stained past; each of these individuals spoke to my heart when addressing the importance of young leadership. “There’s not gonna be another Martin,” Mr. Watkins told us, “but there doesn’t have to be.” It’s on us. He’s looking to us, he said. Not for his life, but for his children’s and grandchildren’s lives. After meeting someone like him, of course I’m willing to take the baton his generation is passing to us, and with my peers, help build the best possible world for him, for us, and for future generations to come. I don’t know how exactly we’re going to do that yet, but I know that, one way or another and in collaboration with those who share this determination and this passion, we will do it. For me, it might start with on-campus dialogue by the diversity club. It can continue with the work I pursue in the field of sociology. It’ll be present in every interaction I have with the people around me. But I know that none of it takes off without first going back to our roots and learning our history in order to know how we can move forward. Sankofa.

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I’m so thankful for this group of individuals and their willingness to be challenged, their passion for education and justice, and for all the laughs, tears, and personal growth we’ve shared this week.
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