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She Persisted and She Rose

by Erika Neal

Essay Honorable Mention, 2020 VSU Black History Month Literary Arts Contest

Black History, Black Mental Health: Trauma. Resilience. Triumph.

I am here by accident…

My name is Erika Monique Neal. I am a native of Richmond, Virginia. I am a Political Science major minoring in Spanish and serve as the Senior Class President for the 2019-2020 school year. Most importantly I am not supposed to be here. My mother was nineteen years old when she brought me into this world. I grew up only knowing half of myself because of my biological father’s absence. I struggled through my school age years dealing with an identity crisis and suffered pain, heartache and humiliation. I was hypersexualized and sexually assaulted in an institution designed for Christian education. I was told by some that I will never be good enough and by others to remember I was made by accident. Statistics were hurled in my face to reiterate that I am “at risk” and socially unacceptable. Life in general proved that being a normal child, student, and functional person is next to nonexistent. Putting all of this into context, I can definitively say that I am not supposed to be sitting here in my final undergraduate semester… but yet I persisted.

My grandmother told me stories of what it was like going to school in her prime. My grandfather constantly reminds me of living in fear during the Civil Rights Movement. Our people’s horror stories wake me up every day in a sweat as I continue to search for “the promise land”. I am not a first-generation student, but I am plagued by the mental chains that have been passed down from generation to generation… by yet I persisted.

November 9th, 2016 changed the trajectory of my life and revealed my purpose…

My freshman year of college I started off as a Graphic Design major hoping to use my art skills to console children with advanced staged diseases. I spent about three months indulged in art courses ready to show the world my skills… and then the day after the Presidential election happened. The word “disappointment” could not describe the emotions that resonated throughout our campus. Professors, administrators, mentors and other individuals at our institution and that we looked to for guidance were rendered speechless. The holistic sentiments of the campus had me make my first visit to Memorial Hall. Up until that day, I had never felt my new tight knit community take politics, something I was afraid to have a passion about, so seriously. I vowed to myself that the education I receive here will be used to ensure that my people feel the exact opposite of those emotions when I come into myself.

November 10th, 2016 at 9:00am I changed my major from Graphic Design to Political Science and I haven’t looked back…

During my courses I had a mission that extended beyond the grade. My purpose was to learn so that I could induce real and sustainable change in the African American community. I breezed through my general education courses and began to conquer my advanced coursework in my major. I enrolled in Seminar and Urban Problems with Dr. Wes Bellamy during my junior year. This class introduced me to the field of work that I wish to impact: policy. He explained how policy is the same mechanism that developed thriving and sustainable minority communities and also tore them apart expeditiously. He encouraged all of us to look at the policies in place within our hometown and challenged how we can improve or erase the ones that hinder our communities. Research and sustainable policy became my first love and I planned to share it with the world… then came a roadblock. In October of 2019 I was sexually assaulted in a space where I was placed to demonstrate my excellence. My power was stripped away from me instantly as I fought off my abuser to get to safety. Every time I speak my story, I make sure to say I fought. I make sure to remind myself of my strength. I make sure to tell my inner black queen that she is more than what the world perceives her. I fell into a depression during my healing process. I felt even worse knowing my insurance only covers therapeutic services for those recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. Before then I was struggling to figure out which area of policy I wanted to go into. I knew without a doubt that public health needed black females who can speak through their pain for others who have no voices… and then she rose

Again, I have to reiterate that I am not supposed to be here…

James Baldwin once said, “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here”. Growing up I viewed life as unkind, and has I matured lessons from my past revealed themselves as a part of my purpose. I beat statistics, odds, nay-sayers, and negativity within four years of education. Writing this essay is a testament within itself of my strength to continue to walk in my purpose. I can’t promise myself that there won’t be any more roadblocks, hurdles, potholes, or speedbumps. I can’t promise myself that my mental stability won’t waiver. But much like my ancestors, my predecessors, my brothers and sisters alike across the globe we will persist. My fight came from instinct but my drive came from the motherland. My passion was revealed through pain but my follow through came from my roots. So, when I speak and shout that I am not supposed to be here, I saw that with pride because I will always be my ancestors wildest dreams.

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