Image Credit: God’s Acre at Old Salem, Winston-Salem, NC by Brandy Reeves
I left my job more than three years ago. It was not a particularly good job, but it had been a steady one for the past 13 years. I worked for the State of North Carolina Office of the Governor, under Republican Pat McCrory, Democrat Bev Perdue and briefly for Governor Roy Cooper. also worked for Perdue at the Lieutenant Governor’s Office. I wrote for a living then – letters, proclamations, awards, booklets, manuals, and the like. It is a vital role in any political office, although it never paid well. It is also a creative role, despite its standing in the office as dispensable and unprofessional, a job that anyone can do, which is not true. When the new administration under Governor Roy Cooper began, I decided I had to make a change in my life because I knew if I stayed, I would not make it out of his administration alive. As melodramatic as that sounds, during the year before I resigned, I watched and felt my body and mind become so ravished by the racism that had determined my role in all three administrations, sought to finally crush what remained of a once healthy and agile being. This racism knew no political party, did not recognize talent, nor did it appreciate experience and commitment. This racism had been working against me, since birth, it had infiltrated all aspects of my life, sometimes unbeknownst to me, but often with my knowledge, and with the full understanding that there was very little I could do counter its existence. This racism chipped away at my life and spirit, as well as my mind and body, it fed on my disappointments and dreams denied, it thrived as I failed again and again to grab the brass ring, and laughed as I believed in myself despite its success in thwarting my efforts to live a life on my own terms. It did this with the support of teachers, priests, bosses at all levels, colleagues, as well as friends and foes. It did this with the full knowledge that the very societal mechanisms that sought to suppress me, would seek to support its desire to disenfranchise me and my race. In my America, regardless of the consequences, the best thing I could do for my health was to leave my job, my health care coverage, and source of income in order to save my life.
One of my duties as a political writer was drafting condolence letters, usually for high-ranking citizens that mean something (usually financial) to the current administration, but also for citizens, at the request of their family or friends. During the final months of the McCrory administration, I wrote two significant condolence letters for state employees who had died suddenly, both black women in their late forties, like me. I knew and had worked with one of the deceased, she died in her sleep, her family citing her lifetime battle with asthma as the cause. The other lived alone in a townhome she had apparently (according to the colleague who made the request), just finished paying off after almost thirty years in state government, having fallen down the stairs and with no one available to assist or call 911, she died. Even as I wrote these letters, I could feel the similarities with my own life and the fear that I would end up the same. Our paths were different on paper, but they were really quite similar, inasmuch as we were all Black women striving to live life on our own terms in a system that created the mechanism to suppress our lives and health. I recalled working with the first deceased employee and how she held back for fear of being perceived as belligerent—an accusation that follows Black women who dare to speak up. I also thought about the irony surrounding the second death—the contract she must had made with herself to stay in a position devoid of opportunity, promise and hope, and to succumb to death before reaching such a minimal goal as retirement.
There is no way to truly describe how racism takes a toll on your life, your health, and your mentality. There is no way to describe how it sucks out hope, crushes the spirit and confuses the mind into believing that somehow you are to blame for your circumstances. It is designed to distort the mind, you must believe that you are inferior, you must believe that your inability to function or succeed in a world set against you is owing to that inferiority. So when I left my job three years ago, I was literally running for my life, running from the societal suppression of me as a person in the same way that slaves ran for freedom under slavery, or generations of Blacks fled the South during the Great Migrations to flee Jim Crow and look for opportunity. I was running for survival. I ran with the support of my family, not knowing how this would all end, with no income and no actual plan other than returning to school to complete a master’s degree. I ran with only the hope that there had to be more. By the time I left state government, I was limping, in pain daily, gaining more weight, my hair falling out, my memory waning, my body inflamed from top to bottom. My children began looking at me as though the end was near, their eyes were filled with worry. My daughter told me to leave, my sister said the same, the final blow came in a dream visitation from a deceased friend and colleague who died eight years before. In the dream, she simply yelled, leave. Her word, waking me that morning and spiritually—her death would have been in vain if I stayed at this job any longer.
The last time I saw Donice alive was at her bedside a few days before she died. She was frail, and I am not sure she knew I was there. I remember falling to my knees when I saw her; I kissed her forehead, I rubbed her hand, I told her I loved her. How do you hold back tears and try to be strong when you see your only friend in state government taking her last breathes? Everyone knew and everyone loved Donice. We worked together at the Lt. Governor’s office and briefly before her death in July 2009 at the Governor’s office under Perdue. We were friends, we were colleagues, we were both Black women trying to survive in North Carolina politics. Donice worked day and night for Perdue. A mutual friend, who was also an elected official, described how Donice was in Asheville for an evening event for Perdue, and the next morning at an event for her across the state in Wilmington. He was concerned—it was one thing for politicians to be everywhere, but another for staff, who did not fly with the politicians, to be expected to be present. Donice had been diagnosed with breast cancer, with no history of it in her family, and her grandmother still alive and healthy in her nineties. Donice was expected to cover all things Black related, regardless of time and distance, she was also expected to cover all things church and community related. She was very good at her job, she took her work seriously, yet she worried constantly about her status in the office. Our move to the governor’s office was supposed to bring a career boost for both of us, but I remember the day after the election, when Perdue entered the room, we were all told to stand, and the chief of staff/campaign manager began the applause. As chilling as our chief of staff had been in stating before Perdue’s arrival that not everyone would have a position in the new administration, Perdue’s statement was even more disturbing. She said there would actually be positions for everyone, but that not everyone would get what they wanted. here would be plenty of support positions to fill, however. She ended by saying that she was going to be working on Veterans’ Day, (a paid state holiday) and expected her staff to be working on that day too. No thank you for our hard work, no acknowledgement whatsoever that the people who filled the room, state employees and campaign staff, had worked for years to ensure her election as the first female governor of North Carolina. I remember Donice walking the block from the campaign office to our official state office by herself. She walked alone and far ahead of most of us. She had been back to work for some time, but I could see she was stressed and defeated.
When we transitioned to the Governor’s office the following January, I learned pretty quickly that not only would I not be elevated, despite five years of hard work, on and off the clock and turning her little letter writing position into a professional correspondence department fit for higher office, I was to be demoted to a processing assistant and removed from the professional track, placed on a paraprofessional trajectory and given a meager pay raise to appease me. Needless to say, I was livid. Donice received less, but with the appearance of more, she retained the same community liaison position she had at the Lt. Governor’s office, her pay was raised significantly, but the position she had earned, worked several years towards, asked outright for, had been given to the daughter of a donor from a political family from South Carolina—Director of Governmental Affairs. Donice was crushed, it took a toll on her health and by April of 2009, she received news that her cancer was back and spreading. By July she was gone. The last time I saw Donice at work she was leaving early, she wanted to talk, but I was on phones doing the job of a twenty-year old fresh out of college, because it suited my boss to ensure I felt demeaned and insignificant. She waved instead, she tried to smile, I waved back.
Looking back, I think how selfish I was to not know Donice was in pain at that very moment, thinking only of my job prospects. When you are fighting for your survival, you forget others are fighting for their lives too. I was so wrapped up in my own job fight, I did not notice how bad things were for Donice until the reverend who worked with her told me to go see her. I said I would, he said “go now,” so I did. Seeing her in her bed, mementoes of a life cut short surrounding her, her beautiful face already down to its skeleton—it still brings tears to my eyes. I blamed racism in the Perdue administration then, and I blame the systemic racism that is our nation still. It was more than political favors that killed Donice, it was a callous disregard for Black life that is our nation, the administration only used the tools society had provided, and it killed Donice simply because it could. Her Black body, like mine, could be used as the administration saw fit, until it was no longer needed. At Donice’s funeral, I listened as Perdue spoke about Donice, she spoke about her diligence, what fun they had together, and so on. She neglected to mention those moments she yelled at her, or made her drive across state alone, while she and political interns flew to the same events. All I heard was that she had worked Donice to death, she felt she had a right to and she would do it again.
Remembering Donice’s death was why I ran, why I cut off the majority of people I knew in state government, why I refused to drive by or walk near state government, and why I knew I would never work for a state political office again. I recalled all the promotions I was denied, the abuse allowed to be levied against me by political interns and staff, and the refusal to acknowledge the value and quality of my work to justify my status in the office. This is my America, played out in one the most American of offices, the governor’s office -where race matters and determines who thrives and who literally survives. Yes, there are always a few Blacks who are allowed higher ranking jobs, and this essay should not take away from their accomplishments. For the vast majority of Blacks, however, we struggle daily for little more than crumbs, regardless of how hard and long we work. We watch as young White people are paid more or the same salary you earn while you have more education and experience, and do twice as much, as I did in the McCrory administration, we watch as politicians profess their commitment to equality through their White male surrogates that fill the majority of their top positions, as I did in the Perdue administration, and we watch as a new administration comes in, takes a look at you and decides you are unworthy of the meager position of minimal authority you managed to finally obtain, and so new staff are told to crush you underfoot, move your office, and remove all means of authority from you, all the while dumping the lion’s share of the work load unto you—as happened under my brief time with the Cooper administration. And we watch and wait as we lose hope and the years march on, our health declines and still we sit near to the same position where we began our careers. This was true of the two ladies I wrote condolences for, for me and for Donice at the time of her death. The realization that race had denied us access to our dreams or at least what we were working towards, had killed Donice, destroying her body, but not her heart and mind. It was working its poison on me, it drained me of hope and my youthful spirit. It took a toll on my body in the form of headaches that lasted three months at a time, joints that swelled and ached throughout the day and back spasms that no doctor could diagnose a cause.
My greatest fear in staying in a job that would always keep me down was receiving the dreaded Order of the Long Leaf Pine after thirty years of service to a job I hated. I imagined I would simply blow out my brains upon receipt of an award that was generated and auto-penned by my office, possibly by me. When asked how I was going to live after I left, I said, I’d rather live in the hedgerows than continue like this. Despite advice, I took the measly retirement money I had accumulated during my years in state government, kept my home for as long as I could, and finally, had to move in with my adult son and his partner as I finished my degree. I have no regrets, on the contrary, I am so glad I took the chance, that I stepped out on faith, that I could feel the hope of my youth again. One of the cruelest results of racism is the deprivation of hope. Hope that spurs one forward and makes one believe. Hope in a better way of life.
So much has happened to me since I left my job, including the death of my children’s father, their childhood cat, and my youngest son’s ex-girlfriend. I have also set boundaries with family, eliminated so called friends, given up my home, and finished my master’s degree. Watching the summer protests, I felt a renewal that has been a long time coming. That renewal began for me three years ago. I had always accepted that systemic racism was the cause of my stunted career—I was supposed to be happy to be allowed within reach of power—I was ungrateful. Once, a former political intern turned policy analyst within a year, suggested that maybe I should work harder if I wanted a promotion. I guess my eyes said what I decided was inappropriate to say at the office, because she apologized almost as soon as she had stated her accusation. But it exposed that she believed that she deserved more and had worked harder. No one ever used the “N” word, except when referring to the “N” word, but the word was always acted upon. It showed in the status of me, Donice and most of the Black women in our office, all of whom had college degrees, most had master’s degrees, and yet, most of us were relegated to processing assistants and support positions with no authority, low pay and no education required. The White women in the same roles lacked college degrees but were put ahead of the majority of Black women and made head of sub departments adding to their experience and giving them authority over higher educated and more experienced Black bodies. In my America, the most uneducated White man or woman is always better qualified than a Black woman regardless of education and experience.
At 51, I sat at the desk in my son and his partner’s spare room with my orange tabby and a view of the woods that surround our home nearby. I spent hours watching the protests, sometimes crying, other times praying and marking the eight minutes and forty-six seconds it took to murder George Floyd. Donice’s was a slower, although no less methodical, death. At some point in life, you simply cannot take anymore abuse and you must act, I felt that call to action three years ago and I saw it in the eyes and signs of protesters across our nation. There were moments when I felt a personal vindication, and moments of overwhelming emotion and pride at the courage of protesters, as well as moments of absolute fear coupled with concern for the spread of the virus. However, like the hedgerows that I was willing to live in three years ago, rather than continue being mistreated and overlooked in my job, I imagine the virus is a lot less terrifying than the prospect of continuing the status quo with regards to the systemic racism that permeates all avenues of U.S. society. While my America changed personally for me three years ago, at some point I must re-enter the nation as a worker, as a citizen and as a human being. I am not sure what my America will hold for me as I do, but I know that the hope and defiance that I was known for as a child and young adult is still burning inside of me as I follow my dreams and encourage my children to do the same. I recognize this moment as an opportunity for my America to finally become part of the United States. It is my hope, however naïve, that we might finally examine the racist history of our nation so that we can finally live up to its promise.
Alicia Johnson has worked as a writer and planner of cultural and community outreach events on Black history and heritage for the North Carolina Office of the Governor. She is currently a History PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon University and her research focuses on examining U.S. society through the treatment of the “other.”