See Me, Hear Me: The Power of Voice

Recently, a segment on 60 Minutes reminded me of the power of seeing someone tell their story. It profiled a new technology that captured, on camera, Holocaust survivors describing their experiences. With this technology, years from now, decades from now, people can ask questions of these individuals, and they will appear to be answering in real time. Zoom-like with a Star Trek/Jetsons overlay.

Many comparisons are made between the atrocities of the Holocaust and those of slavery. Regardless of where you fall on the continuum of the right and the wrong of those comparisons, there is one undeniable factor: There is power in these firsthand stories shared visually by Holocaust survivors, not their descendants, or researchers, or ancillary observers, but by them. We feel their pain and understand the inhumanity of their captors. Their eyes and their body language reveal so much. We get it, quickly and viscerally, quite different from reading the written word on a sterile page.

For African Americans, we have no living survivors of slavery. The written word is all we have. The closest we come to that first-person level of expression about slavery is in a book and the companion audiotapes called Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation. I have encouraged many, especially my white colleagues working for racial equity, to read this book. One, Margaret O’Bryon, former CEO of the Consumer Health Foundation (recently renamed If, a Foundation for Radical Possibility), did and took an extra step to bring herself closer to their actual voices. Below, she shares her thoughts on the importance of Remembering Slavery.


Remembering Slavery

African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation

Edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller

1996, The New Press

Discussed by Margaret O’Bryon

When Tamara asked me to reflect on Remembering Slavery, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to put my experience with the book into words. For those unfamiliar with the book, it grew out of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a program of the New Deal. At the heart of the project were 2,300 interviews undertaken between 1936 and 1938 aimed at capturing the lived experience of slavery, remembered and recounted by women and men born into slavery. The people interviewed were in their 80s, 90s, and some over 100 years old. Tens of thousands of pages of interviews and hundreds of photographs were produced through the slave narrative project. The full collection, as well as narrative about the interview process, is housed at the Library of Congress.

I began by reading the first-person accounts of former slaves and studying the photographs that accompanied them. I ended my experience spending hours listening to the voices of former slaves interviewed for this project. It was their voices recounting their personal experiences that I have carried with me — Fountain Hughes (who was 101 years old when he was interviewed), Laura Smalley, and Harriett Smith, just to name a few. Through the troves of interviews and photographs, living descendants — many of whom believed they had lost their relatives to history — discovered grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents.

The experiences shared through the stories were gruesome, brutal, coercive, and dehumanizing in unimaginable ways. The physical, mental, and emotional scars were indelible. And yet, in the midst of many recollections came descriptive moments of kinship and community.

Remembering Slavery is a testament to the undeniable power of voice, visual images, and storytelling. What I heard was the raw, harsh reality of the personal experience of slavery. What I experienced at a deep emotional level became the reality that my humanity was all tied up in these stories.

It is a grave injustice to all that the stories gathered during the slave narrative project and the information they impart about the reality of slavery at a deeply personal and human level are not taught and shared as large and critical pieces of American history. Had that been the case in my own life, I wonder how the insights gained from this knowledge would have affected my studies, my work and my relationships.

Slavery profoundly shaped our country, the American experience, and continues to do so. I know this to be true through the stories of those who survived it and of those for whom the brutal legacy of slavery continues to shape their lives, their American experience.


“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

James Baldwin, ‘Black English: A Dishonest Argument’


Margaret has fully committed to understanding the many dimensions of race and racism in America, recognizing that a complete understanding must start with slavery. She doesn’t cringe from ‘the bad and the ugly’ (there’s no ‘good’).

Protests have emerged across the country about teaching history comprehensively, starting with the full story of slavery. Many are voicing their desire to keep history the way it has always been taught and others remain disturbingly silent. To address the racial disparities in our country, we must start with slavery and its continuing ramifications on America. We must use our voices whenever these topics emerge — speak up at public hearings, march for historical accuracy — and  use our positions/our platforms to elevate the need for and value of understanding the unvarnished truth.

It seems fitting to close with this quote from the Talmud:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Do justly, now.

Love mercy, now.

Walk humbly, now.

You are not obligated to complete the work,

But neither are you free to abandon it.


When BIPOC becomes camouflage

Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). When I first learned this term, it made me happy. I had accepted, but not fully embraced POC, but finally, Indigenous Peoples were being specifically included in language and in conversations about racially oppressed/marginalized groups. For me, the term “POC” had expanded to be linguistically inclusive of a group often forgotten. That was good and, yes, that was my only thought. The positive.

That was then. This is now.

The more I hear the term, the more it bothers me. Here’s why.

You’ll remember at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, death numbers were presented in the aggregate. We saw the disproportionate impact on distinct communities, particularly Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Indigenous populations, only after examining race and ethnicity. Once the COVID numbers were disaggregated by race, we knew who was being affected most severely, and specific outreach to those communities began.

Now, I believe aggregated BIPOC data is being used as camouflage. Data must be broken down, by race and ethnicity, to reveal racial reality.

Recently, a vendor (in the investment banking industry) with whom a colleague was doing business was asked about hiring people of color. Proudly, the company shared its BIPOC numbers but, when asked, declined to disaggregate them by race, saying such an action was against company policies. Huh? Why would a vendor refuse such a request?

I checked the stats for that industry. According to the first site in my Google search, 69.6% of investment bankers are white, 11.4% each for the Asian and Hispanic/Latinx communities, 5.3% are Black, 2% unknown, and .3% are American Indian or Alaska Native. I suspect that, for the vendor being considered, the Black community, and the Indigenous community also, would not be well-represented, if at all, in their BIPOC data. I believe the vendor declined knowing the details would show a dearth of Black people in upper-level positions.

Believe me, my intent is not to deny opportunities to any non-white community. I celebrate those inroads and appreciate the solidarity of fostering a BIPOC community. PERIOD. Hard stop. I simply want transparency in who is being hired. And, where disproportionality is revealed, like in investment banking, I want us to acknowledge it, examine why it occurs, and address it. We can’t handle a problem until we know it exists. That is the invisibility, or shielding, of racism.

As was done with COVID, we can gain the same clarity by asking employers to break down the details of their BIPOC (or POC) data. And, then we can do what it takes to grow employment opportunities and hire people not represented, or underrepresented, within those industries.

In the meantime, let’s not be lenient on employers who won’t disaggregate data. Take your business somewhere else.

Time to walk the curve

“Of all the races, there is no better stage for heroism than a marathon.”   George Sheehan, physician, athlete and author


For years, I’ve heard the expression, “It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” That statement is typically voiced, as a reminder, to anyone working for social change. Change takes time.

Over the last five years, as I’ve worked in a concentrated and ongoing way on racial justice, I’ve learned that racial change is not just a marathon. It’s a marathon-length relay.

In my short leg of this race, I’ve learned this work is emotionally exhausting. Right now, I can’t read another racially charged news story about a persecuted, hurt, or killed Black person. I can’t watch another documentary shedding light on a little-known incident of racial terrorism. I still haven’t seen Judas and the Black Messiah. Even with Daniel Kaluuya’s Oscar-winning performance, I can’t watch a reenactment of what happened to Fred Hampton. And, as much as I admire the brilliance of Ibram X. Kendi, I haven’t read his collective assemblage, with Keisha N. Blain, of Four Hundred Souls. I just can’t right now.

Soon after the murder of George Floyd, Dax Devlon Ross, teacher and journalist, wrote A Letter to my White Male Friends of a Certain Age. In it, he said,

“You experience black death as repugnant, but not as a visceral,  perpetual threat to your own existence and violation of humanity.”

That’s it. Ross captured my feelings. Not always, just sometimes.

As I read and watch representations of 400 years of degradation, torture, and the murder of my people, I hurt. My existence and that of my immediate family and friends are constantly threatened. This is not a historical incident or a philosophical conversation. It’s a real… today… every day… life and death possibility.

Sometimes, I can continue my learning (I finished The Sum of Us a couple of weeks ago, right after reading Caste) or discuss history with friends, without pain, as we stand before a graffiti-redefined statue of Robert E. Lee in my hometown. But right now, my soul feels bruised, though nothing specifically happened.

I sometimes wonder if my white friends hurt, too, in a significantly different way. Is it painful to learn what your ancestors did or what people who look like you did? Is that part of what stops some white people from wanting a comprehensive history of America taught in our schools? I’m not only talking about a historical reckoning and reality check about how we got here but a today in real-time acknowledging of how the racial disparities in America are maintained. Do you turn away from the truth because the pain of complicity is too much to bear? That’s part of your privilege. I can’t turn away. We must all face this pain.

Those and other questions sit heavily on me, even without the weight of any answers to them. They’ve become a heavy baton to carry in this relay. I’ve heard that there’s a stage in many track workouts where coaches and trainers admonish you to: “Run the straights and walk the curves.” The straights, they say, stress you, building your wind and sprinting burst… the curves give you a moment to recover. I feel like I’ve been running the straights for a while, and now I must catch my breath—walk the curve—and take a break.

This month, instead of immersing myself in the pain that we—Black people—have experienced and still experience, I’m focusing on a musical celebration. Ever hear of the Harlem Cultural Festival or The Summer of Soul? No. I hadn’t either. Questlove, DJ, producer, and co-founder of the hip hop group The Roots, discovered footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Forty hours of film from six free events featuring performers as diverse as the Fifth Dimension, B.B. King, Nina Simone, and Mahalia Jackson. But even as I anticipate sinking into this happy space of the Black music of my youth, questions of racial justice still emerge.



Music festival. Thousands of attendees.

Any bells ringing? I bet Woodstock came to mind. Everyone over a certain age has heard of Woodstock. Yet, the Harlem Cultural Festival, happening that same year with a similarly esteemed musical lineup, received no widespread attention for 50 plus years. History, even pop culture history, is written from a racially white lens. That’s what we still have to see… the pervasiveness of the white worldview.

So, now I’m off to watch The Summer of Soul, and I’ll try to keep racial justice from consuming me. My part of the marathon relay race is over for now. Just for a bit, I’m passing the baton.

What matters: Jumpstarting racial justice conversations and racially just actions

In 2019, I heard from a group of women I hadn’t communicated with in decades, my class of sisters of Pi Beta Phi Sorority at the College of William and Mary. Briefly, I had been a member. I deactivated after realizing that, while nice, these white girls just weren’t my community. We didn’t listen to the same music or use the same hair care products – important things to a 19-year-old – or have a shared history. There were no African American Greeks on campus then; so, I just decided that sorority life wouldn’t be for me. No further thoughts about the Pi Phis until I received an email saying several of them had read my book, Daughters of the Dream. They were coming to Washington for their annual gathering and wondered if I might join them for dinner and conversation. I was delighted to do so.

From that gathering in 2019 has emerged the beginning of friendships and a series of conversations on racial equity that a subset of us have held, via Zoom, during the pandemic. I asked the women in this small group to share why they are making a commitment to racial equity, both learning and unlearning, along with being a part of the fight for racial justice. I wanted to know what – big or small — was catalytic for these women.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. The capture and sharing of incidents of racial injustice on cell phones mattered;
  2. The growth of books, podcasts, documentaries, and all kinds of knowledge sharing about our untold history mattered;
  3. The cumulative effect of seeing racial injustices on the news mattered;
  4. Having a group to have honest conversations with mattered; and,
  5. The sharing of personal experiences from someone they knew mattered.

We all need a prompt to shift our thinking, open our eyes, and lead us to act differently.


Here are their complete comments.

  • The election of Barack Obama had led me to believe that all was well and minorities were making progress. When I re-met Tamara in DC 2019, after I had read her book, I had begun to realize that things were not going as well as I had thought. The number one catalyst for my change in thinking and acting was listening to her tell her story about her adult son and the police stopping him in front of his house and asking for ID. That, to me, was astounding. Little did I know. The videos of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd made a huge impact and reinforced the feeling I had when she told me about her son. The rhetoric coming out of the Trump White House was frightening, and made me even more aware of just how far the US has NOT progressed.

Adding to that have been the many readings, videos, etc that we have all shared. I am constantly in a state of surprise at how much I have missed….new highways cutting up minority neighborhoods, our (lack of) education when we were growing up, food deserts etc are all new to me. And just last week, learning that slaveholders had insurance on enslaved humans.

And now watching the treatment of Asian Americans and Jewish Americans has made it even more imperative that we continue to learn, and act. The video of the Jewish man being attacked in Times Square. Good heavens.

  • I enjoy conversations that have substance, and I enjoy learning. I am bothered by the great divide that our country has fallen into, and I believe conversations can be informative when differing thoughts are shared. Our Digging Deeper conversations do all the above. I’ve been prompted to read books and articles of which I may not have been aware, and I enjoy the conversations that they have generated. Television programs and our “field trips” have added to my knowledge and caused me to realize the “bubble” in which I grew up.
  • I’ve long known that my subconscious biases influence my perceptions of people and situations and likely inform my behavior and decision-making, but I’ve not known why.  When I read Tamara’s book, “Daughters of the Dream,” I began to understand how much I don’t know about the real history of our country and how so many of our citizens have been unjustly treated for years.  I want to know more about the roots of racism in this country and the roots of my own racism. I want to take part in the conversations necessary to break down barriers and suspicions and promote understanding and acceptance. I want to be able to speak up with confidence in situations that are unjust.  Afterall, I am a grandmother and I want this country to be a better place for my grandchildren, and everyone else’s grandchildren as well!
  • As a white person, I will never fully understand what it’s like to be a Black person. Similarly, my husband will never understand what it’s like to be a wife. Even more, I don’t even know what it’s like to be my best friend!  But since I daily interact with Black people (both friends and strangers), I am hopeful that our conversations will help me know how I can love and serve my neighbor better. That comes from my Biblical duty to love God – as loving God means loving and serving others of all races, genders, ethnicities, and classes.
  • In 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed only 1 hour away from where I live. The neighborhood watchman who killed Trayvon was acquitted. Black Lives Matter formed. In 2018, a college friend recommended a book, Waking Up White…, while another college friend published a book, Daughters of the Dream. In 2020, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were killed. At this point in time, I began to see and hear the terms racial equity, systemic racism, redlining, quite often. I knew the terms, racial discrimination and racial inequality, but was unfamiliar with these new terms. The culmination of these events impacted me to dig deeper.
  • I think it all came to a head for me when George Floyd was murdered and Black Lives Matter became a flash point for white supremacists.  We have never lived in a very diverse area but being in Colorado I realized that this was probably the least diverse area we have ever lived in – and the most politically and religiously conservative.  Trump and his supporters also brought a new “meanness” to the conversations.While we can never really live in someone else’s shoes, I wanted to better understand my own privilege and biases, learn to have more intelligent conversations about issues, and potentially get more involved in supporting solutions.