Getting into Trouble with John Lewis
Updated: Aug 11, 2020
A few days before my graduation in 2013, I received an email from a staffer in the college president’s office asking me to send him a copy of my commencement speech. The email read as basic “housekeeping”: “We just want to make sure we have it!” But I knew it wasn’t the whole truth, particularly because the president’s office and the commencement committee had all received copies of my speech weeks ago. But I read between the lines.
Earlier that week, a friend of mine hosted a campus screening of her documentary, “Why are all the Black girls sitting together?”, which featured me unflinchingly discussing my experiences with racism and sexism on campus. I was excited that the documentary was highlighting the experiences of Black women attending and working at a PWI. I even remember speaking to a tenured professor about potential backlash we could receive for speaking so honestly in the documentary.
But I remember asking myself, “Would telling the truth cost me my dream?”
It’s a question I wrestle with often. But when I do I think of Bloody Sunday, Pettus Bridge, and John Lewis marching into uncertainty saying, “There will be no turning back.”
I went on to give my speech without any alterations or interruptions (at least on my end). After receiving a standing ovation from my peers, their families, and John Lewis himself, I left the podium and entered John’s embrace. He hugged me tightly and said “I am so inspired by you...I wouldn’t want to get in your way!” We swapped places at the podium and Mr. Lewis went on to tell our graduating class to “get into good trouble -- necessary trouble!”.
Later that day at a private reception, Mr. Lewis gave me his business card and said, “If you’re ever in DC or Atlanta, come see me.” It’s been seven years since that day. I still have his card but I never got the chance to take him up on the offer. I think meeting him was enough. John Lewis fought the good fight until the end and we are all better because of him. I want better because of him.