By Onuoha Odim, ’20

Photo by Onuoha Odin

I was born in Nigeria but grew up in Dallas, Texas. Migrating to the United States as a 6 year old, I could not conceive that this land my parents wanted to bring me to was the same land that violated my ancestors. I could not imagine that prejudice and violence would be a magnet to my body from a society that marked my skin color as lesser.

In AP U.S. History class I was taught that slavery ended when Abraham Lincoln created the emancipation proclamation and racism ended because of Civil Rights era revolutionaries like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Even though I would experience unique forms of anti-black violence growing up, I made sure not to resort to prejudice against skin color to diagnose violence on black people. It took me until I saw Trayvon Martin’s dead body on my T.V. screen to realize that maybe this world was not made for me. Maybe it was made in direct opposition to my identity. I finally acknowledged that the oppression that came with my skin color is not a singular experience but a lived reality that every African American is familiar with.

It is easy for a society to gloss over the violence that pervades a race without doing anything substantial to acknowledge it. It is easy to place the blame of structural inequality on the shortcomings of the race rather than to interrogate the perpetual violence that has been placed on that race. It is hard to do what Bryan Stevenson did. It is hard to force the United States to look at its past and recognize its role in the killing and subjugation of an entire race. It is hard to force a serious conversation on a topic that has gone unacknowledged by many outside the black community.

The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice take slavery, lynching, and segregation away from just stories briefly told in history textbooks to physical representations of the violence that existed for black bodies since the conception of the United States. They highlight the past in a way that has never been done before, exemplifying the bad parts as reasons to convey the miles of progress the United States still has to go in order for racial equality to be reached.

Having the honor of listening to some of the most important voices on climate change, anti-black oppression, and justice at the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace & Justice opening events, I was reminded how important it is to not shy away from tough topics. Being aware of how chattel slavery changed to Jim Crow era apartheid, the lynching of black people for transgressing social norms, and to the overcrowding of black bodies into prisons is the only way for a contemporary America to address the inequality that still pervades black life.

Photo by Onuoha Odin

For me, the Summit started during the first speaker session when Sherrilyn Ifill quoted Desmond Tutu, “The past refused to lay down quietly.” After hearing that quote I realized that the next few days were going to be filled with confronting the ghost of the past, the specter of slavery that still haunts our society.  Ifill went on to explain that just like the lack of an apparatus and white accountability to seriously prosecute lynchings less than a century ago, there is a lack of an apparatus for white accountability today, with black bodies getting killed in the streets by law enforcement. She explained that this all formed the Nadir that we still live in today. Where mechanisms that were intended to sustain slavery and oppression are as ingrained in society as death brought by the people who are supposed to be protecting us.

During Ava Duvernay, Anna Deavere Smith, and Elizabeth Alexander’s session, I learned that love exists in activism. I learned that storytelling is a way for us to confront our past with the hope of overcoming our shortfallings. And through the next few session, I was reminded of the significance of the Central Park Five, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Nine, Bernard Lafayette, Elaine Jones, Ruby Sales, Dr. C.T. Viviane and the rest of the revolutionaries who played a role in the progress that we have made so far.

With Catherine Coleman-Flowers and Al Gore’s discussion, I learned that a true ecological approach to addressing climate change is always a social approach. I learned about the interconnectedness of structural violence, environmental inequity, and global warming. I learned that African Americans are three times more likely to die from air-related pollution than any other race. In this address I was left with the quote by a poet named Wallace Stevens, “After the final no there comes a yes,” and how pushing past adversity brought Catherine Flowers to where she is today, Bryan Stevenson to where he is today, and eventually will bring the oppressed to a better place.

The Legacy Museum took me through time unraveling how slavery for black people has only evolved. Chattel slavery did not just put African Americans two centuries ago in bondage; it took away their bodies and was designed in such a way that took away their children’s bodies and their children’s children’s bodies.

In the Museum there is a video of the rampant stabbing that goes on in St. Clair Prison. It exposes how African Americans are imprisoned at disproportionate rates and usually for minor crimes. These prisons that they are being chattled to were not made to rehabilitate them, they were made to permanently remove them from civil society. Abuse of power by guards, wrongful death row convictions, and stabbing by fellow inmates all function to dehumanize, torture, and ultimately kill the inmates. There is little to no accountability in prisons and this leads to many human rights problems that still need to be addressed. Bryan Stevenson explained that the prison industrial complex is one of the few sectors of the United States that has experienced almost no progress in terms of human rights.

I ended my time in Alabama by visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and felt the full presence of the specter of Jim Crow Laws. In the Memorial site, for every lynched African American there was a pillar that marks there death. These pillars serve to account for their lives in a way that the United States has never done. I did not see anybody with my last name but still was conscious of the fact that any part of my family could have been broken up to toil in the New World.  This reality of oppression is always glossed over by society in an attempt to bring up all the progress that has been made for African Americans. Bryan Stevenson asked why the United States tries to run away from the discussion of past oppression and sought the answer himself. The Legacy Museum and the Memorial for Peace and Justice serve to confront the past in a way that has never been done before. They reveal how the school to prison pipeline, structural inequality, and police brutality are all symptoms of a society that never confronted its history with slavery.

It was an honor to attend the Opening Events Summit, the Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.