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Sugar House Journal

Black lives—and the stories behind those lives—matter

Jun 22, 2020 12h15 ● By Drew Crawford

(Photo by Julian Wan/Unsplash)

By Drew Crawford | [email protected]

An essential and often overlooked action that everyone can take to ensure that Black lives truly matter is to listen to the stories that Black people have to tell and take them seriously. This includes both the everyday experiences of Black people as well as the lessons that history can teach us. 

Many stories are uncomfortable in nature and they force people to grapple with white privilege and racism. However, despite this, they offer the hope to bring the community together and build a future that is both sensitive to the experiences of Blackness, and antiracist in nature. 

The experiences of Black people are all around us and in light of the protests occurring in the world, many are eager to open up about them. 

Stories such as those like of Breasha Acquah. Acquah comes from a mixed racial background. Her father is a Haitian immigrant and her mother is African American. After graduating high school, Acquah moved to Utah from Fort Hood, Texas, in the summer of 2012 to attend Brigham Young University. At first, she enjoyed attending a school environment where most people shared the same faith background as her and had a positive experience for the first couple of months that she was here, until things gradually started to change.

“It just became slowly and surely just very isolating, the lack of ethnic diversity and the lack of people that shared my personal experiences just began to weigh down on me quite a bit, especially with some of the microaggressions and racial instances that happened, I didn’t really have a support system or anywhere to go to, that really hindered and altered my perspective of my experience there,” Acquah said.

In certain senses she faced a similar campus culture that other new students do, with a lot of talk centered around relationships and marriage. For Acquah though, being Black made her an undesirable romantic partner. 

“There was a huge emphasis and a push on dating when I first came to Provo and just interacting with those of the opposite sex. It was really hard because there wasn’t a lot of people of my similar racial group. Of the people that were there, a lot of people weren’t interested in dating a Black woman,” Acquah said. “And so, it was a very isolating and shocking experience to be told to my face that people weren’t interested in me or getting to know me as a human because I was Black.” 

In addition to having to fight an uphill battle in the dating world because of the color of her skin, Acquah was verbally abused from time to time in public places that should have been safe. 

“There was just a time in late 2012 or early 2013 when I got called the N-word four different times in public spaces. It was once on BYU campus, once on a public bus,” Acquah said. “Once in a JCPenney this little boy yelled it at me, and the mom got angry and upset at him for yelling at me, but she didn’t say anything about the fact that he used a really racist word, or the fact that he was cursing. He was literally 5 or 6 years old.”

Even Acquah’s two best friends who are also people of color had a hard time entirely relating to her unique experiences as a Black woman. Combined together, all of these terrifying events began to push Acquah to the breaking point and to make matters worse, she didn’t really feel like there was anywhere to go.

“I had to stay because BYU is just a really affordable education that I just wouldn’t be able to study anywhere or get that quality of education for that low of a price, so I had to stay, but it was just really difficult,” Acquah said. 

Over time these events led Acquah to come to terms more with her blackness, which she had struggled with reconciling as a kid.

In 2015, Acquah, who had previously relaxed and straightened her hair with chemicals, decided to cut it all off and grow out her natural hair. Allowing her intrinsic beauty to show was a catalyst for helping her realize how unique her experiences are.

“When you have a huge ’fro that defies gravity and has tight curls, you have to care for it and spend a lot of time on it. That in itself actually helped solidify my black identity because you can’t hide when you have such noticeable hair,” she said. 

Systemic racism though, still remained an everyday reality that Acquah had to face. 

“At that point in time in my life I just didn’t have the language or the ability to articulate things the way that I can now and to address and accurately identify racism when it happened to me, so at that point in time I was just really shocked and didn’t know what to do.”

“It wasn’t until a few years ago as an adult that I came to really understand what blackness was to me,” Acquah said. “A lot of things happened kind of consequentially. There was a lot of killings of honored Black men by police officers. There was Philando Castile in 2016 and as well as I believe in that same weekend Alton Sterling was killed. There was Eric Garner and [the shooting of Michael Brown in] Ferguson, [Missouri].”

The taking of Black life, as shocking as it was, caused Acquah to begin to wake up to just how bad things could get. Similarly, though, Acquah was inspired by public figures such as Colin Kaepernick of the NFL taking a moral stand by kneeling for the National Anthem. 

“There was just a lot of political and social movements going on at the time that I instantly identified with, but then I noticed that all of my white peers and fellow church members were very, very against for whatever reasons, but I realized that there was something very, very different in my perspective and line of thinking that a lot of my views people thought didn’t align with Mormonism,” Acquah said. 

“But then I started to realize that I’m Black, and I just view the world differently because these are things that I’ve witnessed, you know, and that my father has experienced and that my peers and friends and cousins experienced growing up. It was just very personal in a way that wasn’t for a lot of my peers.”

Over time Acquah met Black friends in Utah who shared her experiences, joined accommodating religious groups within her faith and switched her minor to Africana Studies. Doing this helped to educate her and she came to realize that she wasn’t alone in her experiences. 

Acquah now describes her blackness using newfound language that she has developed over the last five years.

“It’s so intimate to me and it’s so a part of my daily life,” Acquah said. “I would say that it’s just two sides of one coin where it literally is the pain, the oppression, the ways that I have to navigate life always being conscious of how I’m being perceived—specifically in Utah it’s usually white people, but just by the world in general. 

“And so my blackness shapes how I get dressed in the morning, it shapes how I style my hair, it shapes how I speak if I have to code switch during different social situations if I’m going to speak more articulately, or relax a little and speak more with a Southern or colloquial speech pattern,” Acquah said. “And so, it’s something that I’m always cognizant of and thinking of every day.” 

As part of her evolving self-awareness Acquah has also learned how to embrace her blackness by resonating with the experiences of her ancestors.

“It’s also beauty. Historically speaking, I come from really powerful and influential people. My father is from Haiti. Haiti was the first and only island to revolt against their masters and create an independent and sovereign country. And with that there’s just beauty, and rebellion and resistance,” Acquah said. 

“On my mother’s side my grandparents were Black people in the South and participated in the civil rights. I just come from a long heritage of resistance and people who were just able to make the best out of just really, really awful situations over and over and over again.”

For Acquah this has helped her to creatively express herself in a system that has many times stacked against her.

In addition to listening to current stories of Black people’s experiences, historians in Utah show us what it was like to be Black in Utah in the past. Through sharing these stories, historians hope to correct the racial record that has often gone ignored.

W. Paul Reeve, chair of Mormon Studies in the History Department at The University of Utah, is working on a project that attempts to amend the whitewashed narrative that people are taught about while learning Utah history.

“It’s a digital database wherein we are attempting to name and identify every person baptized into the LDS faith between 1830 and 1930. It’s centered around bios, but if you go to the site there’s also a map that also points to the location of baptism,” Reeve said. “One of the things that I didn’t anticipate when I started the project is the number in Utah.”

Reeve created the database with one of his intentions being to show people what we can learn from the margins. He tells the stories of Black Latter-day Saints from the ground level instead of the perspective of their leaders in order to bring humanity and dignity to people lost to the annals of time. 

“What I hope people learn is that there were Black Latter-day Saints from 1830 all the way to the present. They’ve always been there, but they’ve been erased from collective Latter-day Saint memory and also typically not included in Utah history.” 

Some of the biographies talk about the racism that these early Black Utahns encountered at church, the 1852 servant code that legalized slavery in Utah, and racial passage that allowed socially accepted Black people to receive Latter-day Saint religious rituals and be accepted as white.

“Part of the founders of Utah were Black enslaved people. They helped to build the state, they were a part of the pioneer generation; they weren’t allowed their freedom,” Reeve said. 

“Their freedom was not granted to them by people in Utah, but they were reliant upon the United States Congress.”

To Reeve, these stories are illustrative of problematic issues that are at the core of Utah’s past. If they are approached the right way though, Reeve believes that they can actually be a teaching tool that instructs us how to overcome present racism. 

Although, understanding the issues does not change the reality of the past, it helps people come to terms with what happened so that future generations can heal and clearly recognize prejudice according to Reeve. 

“Another lesson is what does racism look like? How do we learn to overcome racism? I think that history can be one way of doing so. We understand what it looked like in the past and it has the potential to help us improve the future. I think that confronting that is actually healthy,” Reeve said.

“Knowing the names and understanding their experiences is diversifying the Utah story. Black history is Utah history. Their stories are our stories. Their stories represent Utah history,” Reeve said.

Overall, even though it has been a long time for Acquah to become fully comfortable with her identity and talk about it, she feels that everyone can benefit from understanding where Black people are coming from when they share their stories and talk about race. 

“When you can come at something from a multitude of different perspectives and background it gives you a clearer understanding of what exactly is happening. I think that a lot of people get uncomfortable when I, as a Black person, talk about decentering whiteness or decentering white people. I think that white people get defensive about it, but when you learn from other people there’s always going to be something that you never thought of before. There’s always going to be some observation that’s important to them that you never really noticed or thought of,” Acquah said.

“I think that when white people listen to stories and hear from Black people everybody is better off, because on white people’s side they get more understanding and more enlightenment and views of certain situations that maybe they wouldn’t have got if they hadn’t heard it.”