FiftyForward Executive Director Sallie Hussey recently sat down with long-time friend and FiftyForward board member Vanessa Hickman to discuss how the systemic racism prevalent in American culture has affected her life from the time she was a young girl to today.
Hickman first recalls her childhood, remembering the safety precautions she learned from her parents as ways to avoid racial violence. There were times she didn’t understand that certain situations and comments would arise because of her race. As a Black woman, she is aware of the impression she will make on people when she first meets them. “It’s a lot of pressure,” Hickman says. She also doesn’t want to “push down” the difficult feelings that being othered due to her race brings up.
This othering and racial discrimination continued throughout her life into the workforce. She found out some of the sales she had been so excited to make at her first job working for IBM were only made because her white boss intervened on her behalf. She says she felt both grateful for the support and crushed because she had believed the work she was doing was done on her own merits. She explained there was a time in her life when she was only allowed to enter a white establishment or the home of a white person thru the back door if allowed entry at all. Hickman shared that was not the norm in 1975, in Kingsport, Tennessee, where she held her first real paying job. She recalled, “I never felt unsafe in Kingsport, however, in small towns like Paducah, Kentucky, there was no way, that I, a Black woman aged 22, would be allowed an audience with the owner or CEO of a white-owned company. The clout that IBM held at that time allowed my branch manager to speak to power and bring about change.”
In addition, there were also certain parts of the country she could not visit due to high rates of racial violence. These Sundown Towns—so named because people of color were advised to be gone by sundown lest they be subject to harassment, threats, or bodily harm—still exist in places in America today. “No matter how comfortable you get, somebody comes back to remind you that you’re just a Black person. And it can hurt at times, but then you gather yourself and you go on.” These powerful words only serve to highlight the struggle that people of color face in America every day.
When asked about the possibility of change in the future, Hickman does believe it will happen. She says, “It’s a slow change, but it’s gonna happen … Black voices have always been there … Black voices have always talked about this … I’m encouraged that my daughter has had different experiences than I had. [I’m encouraged that] there’s a real commitment from people who don’t look like me to say this is wrong.”
In an epilogue to the video, Hickman shares a passage from the late John Lewis’s book, “Walking with the Wind,” that continues to resonate with her: “When you pray, move your feet.” Lewis’s words, “In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house – the American house, the American family” shapes her thoughts. Hickman ends the conversation with a message of unity and hope and echoes Lewis’s sentiments. “We’ve just got to have those conversations and understand that our paths are different. Our destinations could be the same. We’re all Americans; we’re all the family. We all want the same things. And when we have those conversations you realize that we’re not all that different. We’re all the same.”
To view the full conversation, please visit https://fiftyforward.org/videos/#exchange
By Elliot Burnette, Marketing and Development Assistant