The following is an excerpt of Keynote speech given by Janice Jerome at Georgia College on January 13, in honor of the 94th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. The full address will be available soon.
As a storyteller, and both a product and a victim of an unjust system, I want to share my experiences that are helping me transform my mind and heart-set to be a better person for myself and my community.
My life journey is guided by the principles of restorative justice . These principles always remind me that transformation starts with me.
I believe there is an additional principle that every practitioner should honor: When there is harm, do not create another harm. When someone is harmed and wants to confront the person that harms them, they should find a way to let them know without creating another harm.
I grew up in Atlanta, less than four miles from King’s birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church and the tombs of MLK and Coretta Scott King. I remember the justices that ran through my community in the 1960s and 1970s.
Growing up in Atlanta in a close-knit black community was one of the happiest times in my life. One of the most memorable times was in 1968 when James Brown wrote, “Say it loud, I am black, and I am proud.” I remember friends and family chanting the song continuously through the night up and down the street.
I want to talk today about an experience I had with one of my dearest friends. I will call her Havana Fernandez. We met in 1993 when we both worked for the US Department of Justice. Havana’s skin color is different from mine - much lighter, much whiter. Havana has been in my life through marriages, divorces, the birth of my offspring, death of family members, career changes and more.
Havana and I had a little secret way of talking about men. She would ask me about my cousin. She would make jokes like, “do you have a new cousin today?” (which meant a new black man).
I did not like the way this term was used, yet I never told her it made me uncomfortable. I allowed her to continue to remark without protest.
This Christmas 2022, she invited me for dinner, and my granddaughter, nine years old, was with me. Her house was full of Santa Clauses. My granddaughter and I decided to count the Santa Clauses in her front room. We counted at least 70. I stood in her living room, with my granddaughter standing beside me, and looked at Havana- I said jokingly, Havana “I do not see any Black Santa Clauses.”
Havana looked at me, and in front of my granddaughter, she said, “Oh no, I have black friends and love black people. However, I would not ever have a Black Santa clause in my house; oh no, that's ugly, a Black Santa Clause! That’s ugly!”
I felt frozen- disbelief that my friend for 30 years said Black is ugly!
My only reply to her was, “Havana-that is racist.”
I felt Havana cared for me, and I felt a close friendship, yet I felt at the same time she did not like what I was made up of. "Pure Blackness.”
We both found ourselves relying on the bond we had created to move through the moment.
I said to Havana, “Thank you for dinner. We will leave now.” Then I saw a transformation on her face, body and entire essence. She looked as if she recognized she had hurt me.
As we walked to the car, I could not say anything to my granddaughter because the words “Black is ugly " rang in my mind like a baseball bat being pounded in my head.
As I drove, I reflected on the evening. I had thought Havana’s mindset was beautiful because I was her friend. But what about her heart-set? Had it not been touched like her mind?
Havana and I are both part of the Beloved Community. She is Cuban American, I am Black American. For 30 years, we both had a mindset change through two races coming together for dinner, or just good ‘ole conversation. When she said, and I heard, “Black is ugly,” I knew I could not hurt her back. I could not create another harm.
Using my values to help myself respond to Havana’s statement created a sacred space for a transformative moment. I must use Dr. King’s spirit of not creating another harm when I feel harm.
It will not be easy. Yet it’s worth my continuing to cultivate a Beloved Community to transform unjust systems.