A book bag isn’t always an extension of the person carrying it, but it can be — especially if it’s adorned with sewed-on patches, quirky keychains or buttons that convey a message just like bumper stickers on a car.
When squashed behind people on the Broad Street Line or the elevator in Anderson Hall, I enjoy looking at the various embellishments people have attached to their book bags. And based on compliments I’ve received, I know people enjoy seeing mine too.
One of the pins on my brown canvas book bag is a photo of civil rights activist Malcolm X, emphatically pointing at something in the distance as he addresses a crowd of people. Another pin is a photo of the city’s first poet laureate and former English professor Sonia Sanchez, whose poetry is a beacon of the Black arts movement.
As a Black woman and poet, I can certainly say these pins are little extensions of who I am. The passion of Malcolm X, the artistry of Sonia Sanchez and the pair’s unyielding love for Black culture inspire me to remain resilient and to keep writing.
But I do remember having an unfortunate and frustrating conversation about my uplifting buttons with someone I least expected: my dad.
One evening, he came into the dining room where I was doing my homework. He glanced at my book bag slouched next to me — its glossy pins of Malcolm and Sonia perpetually staring ahead.
He asked me how work was that day. I had just started a new job in my hometown, a mostly white suburb in South Jersey. My dad took another look at my book bag and said, “You might want to think about taking your pins off your bag when you take it to work. Your coworkers may think badly or misunderstand you when they see Malcolm or Sonia on there.”
He then shared with me that when he was my age and started working, he felt it was best to conceal certain ideas and interests to avoid offending white colleagues.
I was disappointed. I understood my dad’s comments and where he was coming from, but I was upset that we even had to have the conversation.
The buttons on my book bag and other ways I express my appreciation for Blackness should not be cause for alarm. I shouldn’t have to hide them to make other people feel comfortable — simply because they may mistake my Black pride for white hate.
Black pride is about equality and the happiness I feel when I see Black people working hard to receive the recognition we’ve always deserved. It’s about remembering our talent and our value when so much of the country seems to have forgotten.
Black pride is about dismantling oppressive systems that have perpetuated injustice for centuries — injustices that not only harm Black people but also contradict the liberty and justice America is supposed to provide for all.
We can’t dismantle an oppressive system by policing the way Black people celebrate and advocate for ourselves. I don’t feel liberated when I can’t freely and fully love who I am. I can’t possibly feel liberated when the only place I can express myself is at home, sheltered from others.
If people are curious or have misconceptions about Black pride and Black leaders, seeing the buttons on my book bag could encourage them to seek answers and participate in important conversations about race. But pressuring Black people to put away our pride for the comfort of others is no way to make progress.
Black feminist writer Audre Lorde once wrote in a series of essays, “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. … The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions.”
My Black pride is about respect, justice and love.
It is not my responsibility to hide from others who may feel intimidated by Black people rejoicing in their Blackness. Instead, it is their responsibility to ask themselves why they see Black pride as threatening or un-American.
I choose to keep proudly wearing the buttons on my book bag — without worrying about my Black pride being twisted into something it is not.