Whenever, I see this painting by Jacob Lawerence, which is part of his Great Migration Series and titled In the North the Negro had better educational facilities, I immediately think of Rise Academy and the wonderful education I recieved here. Now, walking into this building and being here brings back so many memories.
Even though I am part of the founding class — I didn’t join this team and family until the seventh grade. And I still had to sit on the carpet, in SLANT, learning all of the new rules and policies, yearning to earn my shirt…. and a chair! From that moment on, I began to understand instrumental values, like character, hard work, and respect, on an entirely new level that would ultimately shape not just what I could achieve, but who I would grow to be.
Today that’s what I’d like to share with you all. My story…which if you listen closely, you’ll realize that it is not a story about the things that I have done. But rather, it’s a story of growth, reflection, and real change.
When I was younger, my goal was simple, to be the best. My motivation to give 100% to my classes and commitments came from being in a hardworking and loving family. There was also a deep desire to be a perfect version of Alliyah, and even more a perfect version of what a black girl in today’s society could be and do. I was discouraged by the way the media portrayed us. And I struggled early on to find role models.
I wanted to break the box of what society marked being a young black girl from Newark meant and expand how the world would see me. On the surface and everything that I could account for on paper, I was the best and becoming the perfect black girl that I wanted so desperately to see thrive in our society. And yet, inside I struggled deeply. I was actively putting myself into an even tighter, smaller box of perfectionism and unrealistic expectations. As much I thought I was winning and proving to the world that I am somebody, I was equally giving away my power because I did little to nothing to see my worth and value in myself.
As time progressed, my environment shifted from being surrounded by so many who looked and sounded like me at Rise, to being one of three black girls in my boarding school class. When I walked into the room, I wasn’t the best anymore. No one cared that I was the girl to do all these amazing things. When I walked into the room, I was a young black girl from Newark, who was one of the lucky few to be here.
For example, in my Teach2Serve class, which consisted of 5 girls, (4 white, 1 black), we focused on studying the Achievement Gap and Urban Education. One time we had a guest speaker come to talk about the issues. During her presentation, she’d ask where we were all from. As I told her about my background, she replied, “Oh, so your parents probably didn’t go to college.” Embarrassed, I replied “they did. But why does that matter?” She continued to explain to me and my class that most students who come from my community are first-generation students and they typically struggle because their parents have never been exposed to academic environments of this rigor. Although what she was saying had some truth to it, I was completely offended and frustrated. Mainly because she misjudged my family, community, and me — and worst put us in another box.
I had never felt so powerless. At that moment, a voice in my head screamed, Alliyah, you do not belong here. That night, I called the only person who I knew who would listen to me and do what I needed, which was to tell off the person who insulted me, take me home, and make me feel better.
I called my father — Mr. Brown. I stood outside my dorm and told him everything that happened. As I thought my dad would come and save the day, we actually ended up arguing.
I thought he’d be on my side and comfort me. Instead, he asked me, “Alliyah, who are you?” Confused, because this is the one person who knows me the best, I had nothing to say. I was speechless — which for me, rarely happens. I said, “Daddy, why are you asking me this?” In his typical Mr. Brown manner, he just repeated the question. Still unable to answer, he proceeded to tell me that nothing — absolutely nothing that I was doing or achieving would matter if I did not know who I am. He told me that people will continue to put you in a box — unless you know who you are and why it is you’re doing all the wonderful things that you are. He said, “baby girl, you need to own your story”.
Honestly, I’m not sure how we ended the conversation. But I do know that that single-handedly was the best advice that I have ever gotten. What is important about this advice, is that this is where our power, especially as black and brown people, comes from. Power comes from owning your story. Power comes from taking control of the narrative, not for others — but for the beauty, growth, and livelihood of yourself.
When we own our stories, we’re able to walk in our power.
Now, committing to this did not happen at that moment. There were several more times throughout high school when I was tested. My peers and even sometimes the teachers would make comments like, “you speak so well for a black girl”, or when I received scholarships for college, “oh was that the black award?”. I would listen each time, to a point where I felt I had no power at all. I knew deep down who I was and that I needed to own my story. Yet, I struggled in actually feeling and knowing how to do that.
This brings me to years later, in my sophomore year of college. Again, the little black girl inside me joined Haverford College wanting to break barriers.
I majored in computer science throughout my first two years and had eyes set on Google. I was motivated to become the first software engineer in my family. I was on track until I took Discrete Math and Principle Programming Languages.
Long story short, I failed both of these classes.
I struggled to the point where I didn’t even know how to ask for help to save my grade. For the first time in my life, I had failed on paper. Those first few weeks of winter break were dreadful as I waited for Haverford to notify my parents that I’d be on academic probation. They were disappointed, but more so wanted to make sure I did everything I needed to do in order to get back on track. I assured them it would never happen again. But honestly, I struggled to find a solution.
Desperately needing to get out of my head and the house, my friend, Amirah who I went to RISE with, suggested we take a trip to the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, in New York. As we looked through each gallery and inspected the incredible works of art, I came across this piece, by Jean Michel Basquiat.
It was so larger than life, it scared me. However, as I looked throughout the painting I took in so much. The colors, the figures, the lines. It was so authentic, fearless.
In many ways, the piece woke me up. Then, to understand that a black man from Brooklyn, who was even homeless for a significant portion of his life, painted this piece, which is now worth nearly 110 million dollars, made me want to become fearless. Looking at this work of art made me realize that underneath the pressure I put on myself to be the best, there was a beautiful, creative, smart girl waiting to come out inside.
My mind transformed and my work ethic as well. Now the classes I was interested in reflected who I was and what I cared about. I worked hard in classes on Black Feminism, Art in the African Diaspora, and the Black Freedom Struggle, because history was part of my story. What I learned and produced was an extension of my power. I began to take photographs and share how I saw my peers and the world in a completely new light.
Professionally, I now want to be a curator and museum director, not because I want to be the best or have something to prove. But I want to work in these spaces because I know I matter. And I know you matter and need to be seen and heard. I want to share our beautiful stories through art, culture, and fashion. I want to write the stories that the mainstream doesn’t care to show because I now know that our value as black and brown people is not only in the things we do.
Our achievements are simply bonuses. They are the glitter that makes us special.
But our true worth comes from knowing who we are and where we come from. It is in being proud of the skin you are in and believing you belong. And that confidence and power, can never be misplaced, no matter what oppressive or discriminatory systems may rule.
So with that said, I leave you with words of advice from one my role models and personal hero, Elaine Welteroth, a journalist, editor, and best selling author of More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say) (which everyone in this room needs to read this — teachers included). She writes, “I realized that if we aren’t vigilant, we can move through our entire lives feeling smaller than we actually are — by playing it safe, by unconsciously giving away our power, by dimming our radiance, by not recognizing there is always so much more waiting for us on the other side of fear.”
I encourage you all to leave here today and ask yourselves that question my dad asked me many years ago — Who are you? When you come to your answer, celebrate it. Be proud of it. Be fearless in owning who you are, and I assure you all you will do moving forward is walk, fiercely, in your power.