Prof. Zuleka Henderson to POC Graduates: “How Proud Our Ancestors Are Today”
The following is the text of the keynote speech delivered by CSSW lecturer Zuleka Henderson at the 2nd Annual People of Color (POC) Graduation Ceremony, which took place virtually on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.
Get Well Soon.
In my silent thoughts, I hear the distant wailing of your cries.
In my body, I feel the burden of your tears.
I, too, would never have wanted to be ripped away from home.
Although centuries have gone,
Our spirits still harmonize in hurt.
We nurture our babies with those same wounds.
This trauma reverberates across generations,
And the legacy of that pain persists.
It often feels as though our souls have died.
Sometimes, I wish I could have bottled the antidote for that kind of agony,
Secretly sent the cure back in time over those Atlantic Shores
So that my momma would not have inherited the remnants of that anguish,
And none of us kids would have had to watch this cycle of internalized terror with
our own eyes.
I wish I could have equipped you to tend to your wounds,
So, today, I would know how to deal with mine.
But, You fought hard to protect us.
Persevered under conditions I never could have imagined to endure.
Because of that, WE survived.
And, now, I bear the responsibility.
From the injuries of that horrific past, I must help us ALL heal.
So, I sat down to pen this letter
To summon a retroactive prayer for YOUR spirits to get better
That OUR future might be well.
Your Great Great Great Great Granddaughter
I wrote this poem in 2014 to capture my thoughts on intergenerational healing. I share it now because when I started thinking about what to say today, I felt the nudge to just begin by telling my social work story. As a young girl, I was a people-watcher. Over time, I grew attuned to the feelings of those around me. I could tell when anyone was sad, and I became progressively sensitive to people who seemed like they were emotionally suffering. Later, I would happen upon social work because I saw this suffering tragically play out in the life of a six-year old boy at the after-school program where I worked…but, more personally, I pursued this calling because I had grown up feeling like trauma was haunting my home and holding individual members of my family hostage.
At first, just like most fresh out of college kids, I tried to find solutions and asked myself: what can I do to make a difference in what I was seeing? However, I soon learned that I had to begin by asking a totally different question. Not, what can I do…but what is at stake for me?
You see, when you have something at stake, you tend to put much more skin in the game. For me, beyond finding a job, this question positioned me to think about intentionally fulfilling a personal mission. I knew that our ancestors’ full story was not a narrative of sickness and pain, but there was something about being gifted with the specific sensitivities that I had that connected me to the mission of interrupting intergenerational wounding.
For me, what was at stake was that unhealed wounds would continue to wage war on some of our families and communities…but good thing our ancestors left original instructions on how to be warriors.
Getting clear about what was at stake led me to work with Black teens and families, to conduct research on how Black youth conceptualize healing, to teach so I could help nurture the professionals who would be on the frontlines in our communities, and, most recently, to dig into archival research to explore ways in which our ancestors cultivated and activated healing on their own terms. This latter work reminded me that healing is indeed our birthright, and that more of us just need to know that healing is an option.
Today, instead of thinking about what I will DO as a social worker, I think instead about who I am to this work. What I now affirm is that I am the possibility that all people of African ancestry will know that there are sacred spaces for us to put, process, and transform our pain in service of personal and collective freedom. My mission around healing shall create a balm that will transcend time and space and be able to reach back to salve any of our great, great, great grandmother’s remnant wounds.
And, oh, how proud all of our ancestors are today…witnessing this collective offering of love and brilliance. This is a realization of the fruit of their efforts. Our celebration and accomplishments happen on the roads that they paved for our survival. May we NEVER forget.
I virtually stand here today, beyond proud of all of you…grateful that we all get to have missions, and that we are likely to see ourselves having different things at stake, so our life works will cover vast territories. I am inspired because I know for sure that the possibilities you will/have been establishing for yourselves are more powerful than the havoc of any pandemic, any historical trauma, and any future threat to the wellbeing of our people or the people of this world. May those possibilities govern how you rise each day. May they guide your steps as you take seats in organizations and roles of leadership, as you design and lead new endeavors, and as you carry the torch in the range of capacities you choose. But please, just make sure that your critical self-reflection game is strong; there is nothing worse than a snot-nosed, freshly licensed social worker who is ready to march into communities to “save the world”—but hasn’t first checked under their own shoes to make sure they’re not tracking their personal dirt into someone else’s home. So, do your work! Always!
Keep accountability partners on deck. Design your own professional toolkit and fill it with the things you have learned and committed to carrying with you. Those things that will be non-negotiables for your professional behavior, even in the absence of any ethical code and even if no one else were watching or following suit. Be in integrity with yourself, leave room for growth, and be sure to make space for your humanity.
Today, I don’t just celebrate your resilience, I salute your excellence.
May we use this moment of physical distancing as time for deep gratitude, introspection, and preparation. May we continue to gather as communities of color and offer up beautiful moments like this as a collective celebration of our unique and intersecting journeys, and as a collective offering to all of our ancestors. May we follow in their footsteps and roll up our sleeves to get to work for our successors. May who we are and what we do with the blessings and privileges that we have because of their investments and sacrifices make them sing proud.
I, Dr. Zuleka Ru-Glo Clinton Henderson am the possibility that all people of African ancestry will know that there are sacred spaces for us to put, process, and transform our pain in service of personal and collective freedom.
To the CSSW class of 2020, I challenge you to go within. Get clear about what’s at stake for you. Define your own possibilities…and then…let’s get it!
- Prof. Ruha Benjamin Calls on Class of 2020 to Become “Champions of the Social Contract,” 5/21/20 news article
- Amid Pandemic, Dean Begg Tells Class of 2020: “You are our hope,” 5/21/20 news article