By Nadia Johnson, NSU Communications Major/African American Caucus Secretary
As I drive along the highway heading back to college from a long vacation, I glance at billboards along the road. I often use them as checkpoints along my journey to measure how long I have until I reach my destination. As I’m nearing Exit 138 outside of Natchitoches, I do a double take. Something, more specifically someone, has changed. Two Black student leaders stare back at me, in the space where two white students had been previously placed. I can’t help but wonder on the remainder of my drive if this change is a sign of real progress ― or performative action.
In the past, I joked with my friends that my generation has done nothing to leave a mark on the Earth but make the warning labels on Tide pods slightly bigger. Compared to the outspoken and powerful, revolutionary, passionate generations before me, my generation felt lazy in comparison.
The summer of 2020 turned the world upside down. I witnessed thousands upon thousands of young protestors of every race, in every city, in countries all over the world, rain or shine, march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They were relentless making their voices heard after the shocking murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd just to name a few. The outpouring of support from passionate and persistent young people was staggering, but the real surprise was the immediate amount of support from companies and organizations, many of which had previously been silent on such issues. Their willingness to step up left many hopeful for a better future, including me.
Seven months later, on Jan. 18, 2021, I laced up my shoes and took it to the streets for the annual MLK Day March held to honor the life and memory of one of the most influential civil rights leaders in the world, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. But this time, I wasn’t just participating. I was leading.
The night before the Natchitoches March for Justice and Peace, I knew I would be getting all the work-out I’d need for the week since the march started at Northwestern State from Caspari Street and ran all the way to the Dr. King monument near Texas Street and MLK Jr. Drive. At first, all I could think about was whether my new shoes would be comfortable to walk in. Then, the thought of all my duties upon arriving at the march became a little overwhelming. All those concerns instantly evaporated when I pulled into the parking lot. Hundreds of people – students, locals, city officials – were present and ready to march. Only one thought came to my head ― I hope someone brought a megaphone.
Turns out I didn’t need it.
As I marched alongside my fellow African American Caucus members on Martin Luther King Drive, signs high and voices loud, it took a lot of inner strength not to cry. Children of all ages gathered outside their houses, waving and cheering. It was like we were superheroes to them.
I’m pretty sure my family down in New Orleans could hear shouting those chants. Too often, our experiences are minimized, and our voices silenced. Not now. Not today.
I basked in the feeling of euphoria and pride for the rest of the day. I drove home fulfilled, the sun shining bright, not a cloud in the sky, feet aching like I’d just run a marathon. I was on the phone with my parents before I could even take my shoes off and prop my aching feet on the coffee table.
“It was awe-inspiring,” I said to my family. “We’ve done this march for years and I’ve never seen that many people! There were even reporters from the local news stations, so you know I tried my best to get on TV.”
My father jokingly replied, “When you get good like me, the camera will find you, not the other way around. But, seriously, I’m proud of you. I know you were working hard, I’m glad you got a great turn out, and I hope you keep it up. This is an experience you will remember and share for the rest of your life.”
While it was the most fun I’ve had all year, I was disappointed about one thing; we didn’t get more participation from white people, especially those in powerful positions on campus and around Natchitoches. This was their chance to literally walk the walk.
To establish real progressive change, you must continue to walk the walk. Stay consistent, stay persistent, and have open ears and an open mind. Progressive actions that advocate change are developed through constant, conscious efforts to advance your goal and promote diversity and inclusion, concepts that have been a trend for far too long. A trend is a sign of significant development or change, but the defining characteristic of a trend is that it is ultimately finite.
You can replace billboards, you can rename the Iberville stage to honor the first Black students to integrate Northwestern State, and you can put out as many diversity statements as you want, but if the image behind closed doors does not match the image being portrayed to the public, authenticity is absent and trust between the establishment and the people is broken. Diversity and inclusivity are about more than just the token person of color in the room. It’s about creating a space to include different voices and perspectives so that everyone feels seen, heard, represented, and appreciated. Diversity cannot be a trend; it has to be a way of life.
The views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Natchitoches Parish Journal. If you have an article or story of interest for publishing consideration by the NPJ, please send it to NPJNatLa@gmail.com.