A crowd of people came running toward us. They yelled from a distance, which distracted the checkpoint guards: “Don’t kill them!”
My mother and I kept shoveling, following orders to dig our own graves.
Two men I had never seen before started pleading with the guards to let us go back to the pickup truck that had brought us this far. It wasn’t until it was pitch black when one negotiator said, “You know this boy and his mom aren’t going to make it five miles away from here. Let someone else kill them.” Somehow, the guards agreed.
I immediately began to see the differences between the place where I learned and the place where I lived.
I didn’t have many preconceived notions about the United States before I got here, but I quickly noticed disparities. We lived in North Nashville, which at the time was rundown—filled with housing projects, and constantly under police surveillance. I didn’t speak English yet, so I needed to attend a high school with an English as a Second Language program. That school ended up being in Green Hills, a wealthy neighborhood where police sightings were rare.
I immediately began to see the differences between the place where I learned and the place where I lived. While I was working as a waiter at a restaurant near the school, a white man, who later revealed that he was a cop, told me I should be careful as a Black teenager in the neighborhood. He said I should especially be cautious at night because I might get shot.
I didn’t fully understand what he meant until 1999, when Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times in New York City because he was reaching for his wallet. I thought those four officers would never be acquitted. Not in America.
But they were, and I understood what the white man in the restaurant was telling me.
I began paying attention—even more so after finding a book on Frederick Douglass. I had a job in the children’s section of the library where I went to college at Western Kentucky University. One day, as I browsed through the African American section, I picked up “Escape from Slavery: the Boyhood of Frederick Douglass in his Own Words,” and I couldn’t put it down.
Here he was, a child sold into slavery, and he taught himself how to read and write—two things that empowered him to shine a light on this crime against humanity.
His story inspired me to share my own. For years, people dismissed my story as fiction because it didn’t align with the popular narrative of the good guy versus the bad guy. The civil war and the subsequent genocides were much more complicated than that, and I knew telling my truth would help people understand what happened to real people during this time, beyond what was seen on the movie screen.
This inspiration prompted me to want to become part of the solution, a desire that led me to cofound the African Great Lakes Action Network with some friends. Our purpose is to raise awareness of the atrocities we went through as children. We believe that there must be justice for there to be peace, and for there to be justice, there must be truth.
The other side to my story is what’s happened in my life since I have lived in the United States. For years, many people have been denying that problems exist, using phrases like “Cops don’t go after good people.” And while I’ve never committed a crime, I’ve encountered these issues myself many times. One evening, for example, after I was pulled over for not having headlights on, three police officers pointed their guns at me. They went from searching the car to searching me to searching for drugs to saying, “This might be a stolen car”—all because I didn’t have my headlights on.
It’s moments like this that have spurred me to use my voice at protests, such as for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and, more recently, George Floyd. It’s also why I cofounded the Black Lives Matter chapter in Nashville. It’s why I want to keep telling my story, so people know what the reality is of being Black in America so they, too, can play their part.
There is often this assumption that working at a place like Deloitte or making a lot of money shields people from experiencing inequities and racism. But being privileged is not just about where you work or how much money is in your bank account; it’s about living your life without worrying that there’s a police officer driving behind you or your family members.
I feel that some of the people I work with at Deloitte don’t often accept that this is just how I feel and don’t understand why I would hesitate before calling the police, even if I was scared. I sometimes hear comments at work like: “I don’t understand why these things are problems” or “I just want these issues to go away quickly.” But I think that’s the wrong mentality; we all need to be a part of the solution, or these issues will never be resolved. We’re now encouraged to have honest conversations about our experiences, and it’s our responsibility to accept the invitation and better understand one another.
In July, I reconnected with the man who saved me and my mom many years ago at the checkpoint. As I continue in my career, I strive to be an inspiring leader, one who also looks out for the best interests of people. Because I know that we can all be this man at the checkpoint who saved us that day. Here at Deloitte, we can all use our voices for good—and now is the time, when we are having tough conversations, to do it. This moment is our checkpoint.
Photos by Joshua Dwain
"I hope to continue to be a leader that stands up for what he believes in and show, through my own story, that the Black experience isn’t the same for everyone, but instead an intricate tapestry of stories waiting to be told."Read his story
"I had seen with my own eyes, as a veteran and a Black man, the struggles people often have to overcome to find their place in the tech world. I wanted to help others, like those who have helped me."Read his story