“Lift Every Voice and Sing”

By Barbara Presnell

I continue to learn.

This past week, I was privileged to sit in on the 21st Annual Conference of the African-American Credit Union Coalition (AACUC). Normally a week-long in-person conference—last August it was held in Charlotte—this year, the conference was entirely virtual. Attendees could visit workshops, browse the exhibit hall, join chat rooms, and more. So far, in my almost 6 months of Zooming, this conference was the most professional, most varied, and most informative I have attended.

This year’s theme was “Commitment to Change: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” My brother, Edwin, a long-time credit union guy who knows I’m interested in learning about racism, invited me to attend the conference “with” him. Edwin, who has been a member of the organization since 2007, is in the AACUC Hall of Fame, a recognition and honor which makes me very proud.

As a white person attending a majority Black conference, I hoped to learn a lot about being Black in America. Since inclusion is such an important mission of this organization, not once did I feel that I didn’t belong.

Monday’s afternoon workshop was titled “Handing Emotions & Healing a Community.” Leader Jai-Dei Jackson, a Licensed Professional Counselor, began the session describing what she called “invisible emotional wounds” within the Black community. Imagine someone kicking or punching you over and over in the legs or back, but you have on clothes, she said. So, when another person comes along, they can’t see your bruises, and they say, “Why are you agitated? Why are you angry? Why do you have an attitude?”

“Most white people,” she continued, “are clueless to the lived experience of African-Americans. Talking about racial issues is deemed to be inappropriate, too heavy for white people to deal with.” What they do is turn the conversation onto themselves and their perceived guilt or lack of it. “So, if it’s too heavy for them to deal with, we tend not to talk about it.”

The rest of her session was story after poignant story, told by attendees, of times they’d realized their racial identity, times they’d experienced racism and dehumanization, opportunities—or lack of them—to express the feelings that resulted. The stories I heard were shocking, surprising, and familiar. The smallest word, the slightest action—I’ve said them, done them—was hurtful, was memorable, was responsible for a lifetime of pain.

For a writer like me, the message hit home—those stories need to be told. But more importantly, I realized, we white folks need listen.

The week spun on. I sat in on women’s chat sessions and—not to be exclusive—men’s chat sessions. During Friday’s wrap-up session called “Here, Now, Forever DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion],” I “met” Rodney E. Hood, Chairman of the National Credit Union Association and Charlotte native, who spoke eloquently about the credit union’s continuing role in the fight against systemic racism. Credit unions, after all, were formed to help the underserved populations, and they continue in their mission today.

“Spiritual Saturday” provided for me the closure and confirmation to my learning that I needed. The session began with a 2019 video of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” performed by the AACUC choir. “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,” they sang. “Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.” So many tears formed on so many Zooming eyes. Next came the Hat contest, and members—even my brother Edwin—donned headgear of all shapes, colors, and varieties.

Michelle Outlaw, a member of the conference committee team, delivered the message. “Speak a word,” she told her audience over and over. No matter your circumstances, speak a word. If you are down on your luck, don’t know where money to pay your next bill is coming from, speak a word. If you’re happy, speak a word. If you’re hurting, speak a word. If you’re angry, speak a word.

Whatever your circumstance, whatever your story, speak a word.

Everyone everywhere has a story, but for so many years, it’s the white story we’ve heard.

On this last day of the AACUC conference, I relearned what I understood on the first day: it’s time for me to listen. It’s time for white folks everywhere to shut up for once and listen. It’s time for our county commissioners to listen. Listen to those stories of pain and injustice and joy. Listen to the challenges and successes of people we live and work with every day. It’s time for change, and here’s how it can begin:

Listen. For a change.