A Meditation on Cicely Tyson's Words: "You have to know how great you are."

by Ashley Elizabeth

On Easter Sunday’s airing of BET’s Black Girls Rock event, the incomparable Cicely Tyson graced the stage to receive her Legend award and, with the potent combination of simplicity and wisdom that only comes from walking this earth as long as she has, she dropped this gem: "The moment anyone tries to demean or degrade you in any way, you have to know how great you are. No one is going to bother to put you down if you were not a threat to them."

Watch her entire acceptance speech below.

A couple months ago while contentedly walking down the street after an evening event, a truck rode by with a voice hurling the word “nigger” at me. It wasn’t the first time I got called the epithet and it probably won’t be the last. As the initial shock wore off, heat radiated from my face and I walked toward the car that had either stupidly or audaciously stopped at a red light a few feet away from where I was standing. Why was I walking? Maybe to see who it was. Maybe to curse them out. Maybe to physically hurl something back at them. But as I walked toward them, there was nothing but silence blaring from the car. They were cowards whose measly amount of liquid courage dissolved at the red light. They were a waste of my time and energy. I walked back to my car, irrationally angry at myself for letting it affect me.

We recognize all too well our second class status in this country. But sometimes the stark reality of that status lays latent until one day you’re minding your business, and your ranking is shoved in your face, which was the case for me that night. And while I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been called a nigger—something Dr. King and Brother Malcolm and Dr. Angela probably couldn’t say—the thing is, I’ve still been called one in “post-racial,” my-president-is-black America. And I’m positive many other members of the black millennial generation have had similar experiences of overt racism that have left us both surprised and not surprised. In fact, just this weekend, a black family in a New York neighborhood received a note telling them they did not belong there. This is still occurring in the 21st century, although we’ve been taught to think the black and white days of separate water fountains and violent water hoses are behind us. But the racism of the Jim Crow era has simply transformed.

Past generations’ sacrifices and suffering have gotten us to the point where we have a black leader of the free world. But as Dr. Cornel West said, “There is a difference between substance and symbol.” One black face in the white house with several black bodies lying dead in the street does not equal progress. We are still being demeaned, degraded, and targeted with the same zeal those past generations experienced. Violent scenes similar to the ones from 60s black and white footage still take place all over America. And our cell phones capture in living color our continued suffering and death. Getting choked to death while gasping “I can’t breathe.” Forced to the ground, pleading with officers to recognize student-status over black-status. Shot in the eye for knocking on a door. Shot multiple times in the back while running unarmed, and later handcuffed while dead. Shot because seeing a group of black people threatens white livelihood. Arrested and fatally injured for simply running away after viewing police on patrol. Who wouldn’t want to run away from the pain we’ve seen inflicted upon our people? We can see with our own eyes that the narrative of a post-racial America is mere myth. But, of course, we all have different lenses. And many prescriptions need to be checked.

Ms. Tyson cut through all the madness and got to the root that is rarely discussed in a public forum: the historically American obsession with black people and the consequent degradation. We rest on a foundation of hundreds of years of cultural appropriation. Hundreds of years of dissecting, stealing, and killing the black body and attempting to kill the black spirit.

Our greatness is a threat. And I’m not referring to the countless achievements and accomplishments discussed during Black History Month. I’m talking about our greatness at the most basic level on the hierarchy of needs: survival in a land that vehemently hates its infatuation with us. I’m reminded of the character Edwin Epps in Twelve Years a Slave. His relationship with his slave Patsey—being in love with her while hating both himself and her because of it—is America’s relationship with blacks at its core. This dysfunctional dynamic has been around for ages, an intangible slice of Americana that nobody wants to really address. The “love” and “hate” brass knuckles are deeply imprinted in American soil, right below all the Radio Raheems being placed in a choke-hold, who can no longer breathe. But we cannot be destroyed. We will not be.

Thank you, Ms. Tyson, for taking the time to remind us of who we are. I’m in no way attempting to rationalize or explain the senseless, barbaric treatment of black life—nothing is rational about obsession. I write this as a meditation on why we must remain undaunted by the fight. Because we are extraordinary and sometimes we need a reminder. So, thank you to the truck that came by that night. You reminded me of how great I truly am.

Photo: BET

Ashley Elizabeth is a musician, educator, and writer from Tucson, AZ who attended both Spelman College and The University of Arizona. She enjoys singing opera and writing about issues pertinent to the Black community and can be reached at her neglected twitter @ashe_elizabeth.

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