PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice

By Jennifer Sears
July 07, 2020 09:00 PM
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Jennifer Sears is a 38-year-old actress appearing on this season of OWN's Greenleaf, airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET, and in the upcoming film Coming 2 America, in which she shares scenes with comedy greats Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall and Tracy Morgan. Here, Sears opens up about her experiences with racism — and her thoughts on being voted “Queen of the Blacks" in high school.  

Segregation in the 1990s? That’s absurd! But no, my friends, it is indeed true. In rural middle Georgia, I was a sophomore representative on a segregated homecoming court in 1997 — just three years shy of a new millennium!

As the granddaughter of a sharecropper and daughter of an Afrocentric mother, I was already well aware of the ugly truth of racism in this country. With an early upbringing in the “liberal” North, I always thought racial hatred and prejudice resided just below the Mason-Dixon line, as if the stench of prejudice would ominously creep up to the border with “I Wish I Were in Dixie” playing in the background and then suddenly halt at the invisible “border of the progressive North,” prohibited from crossing and poisoning the minds of the freethinking whites and liberated Blacks of the blue states. Of course, my youthful naïveté couldn’t fathom the idea of racism existing in the backyard of Lady Liberty.

Jennifer Sears
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Moving to the South in the latter half of my youthhood (or what I considered “my reverse migration”), I was prepared to be introduced to racism, indirectly, perhaps to witness it as an onlooker as it happens to some other unfortunate Black Southern native as I quietly judge the backwards mentality and ways of life of my new temporary home. Year after year, longing to go back to the melting pot of my diverse community in New Jersey, I was reminded that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Well, judging by my rural surroundings, maybe I was.

It wasn’t until my sophomore year in high school that I was smacked across the face with the rugged backhanded compliment as I was voted most popular in my sophomore class... within the Black student body. Yup, I was “Queen of the Blacks.”

Jennifer Sears
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Not sure how to take this, I quietly accepted the title and represented my class — well, at least the Black half. Standing on the football field alongside other Black representatives for their class and looking across the field at the white representatives, I realized that although many progressive strides and advancements have been made since the Jim Crow era, we still have quite a ways to go.

For the record, I am in no way comparing a segregated homecoming to the nightmares my forefathers and foremothers lived only decades ago. While I can hardly call my experience a “plight” (uncomfortable, yes), it drastically pales in comparison to the brutal daily reminder that the society you helped shape deems you to be inferior as an entire race of people. My small taste of what my grandfather lived almost his entire lifetime and what my mother experienced as a child, prohibited from entering her neighborhood hamburger joint that served Black people only at the window, left me disheartened in contemplation of the future of racial equality in America. Did my grandfather dream of better days for his children, only to see them poorly served at a “Blacks only” window? Did my mother dream of better days for her children, only to sit in the stadium seats looking out at her daughter standing on a racially divided homecoming court? As I dream of better days for my future children, what awaits them? Will they too have to fight to be seen, heard, respected and valued as members of not only the Black race, but also of the human race?

Jennifer Sears with her grandfather
Carrie Sears

In the 1780s, British and American abolitionists adopted the slogan “Am I not a man and a brother?” with a kneeling Black figure posed with pleading hands for mercy and freedom. Fast forward to almost a century later, you see historical images of Black men no longer kneeling but on their feet, marching with signs that boldly state, “I am a man.” Now here we are in 2020, still marching, still protesting, still declaring with unwavering conviction that “Black Lives Matter.” Apart from the nonsensical necessity of this statement, the most ridiculous and downright sad part is that some people treat this declaration of humanity as a question begging to be answered.

I often think of my grandfather, a widowed single father and sharecropper who didn’t know how to read or write but understood the importance of education. He would often pay for my books in college so that he could live to see the first college graduate to come from his family. I think of the sacrifices he made for his family during a time when Black men were lynched for even looking a white man in the eye, and the trauma he must’ve experienced.

I think of my mother, a strong and proud Black woman who raised four culturally aware children in an age when it was difficult to not only be Black, but also a woman. I think of the sacrifices she’s made for her family and the trauma she’s suffered quietly yet boldly.

Jennifer Sears
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Here I stand, a (relatively) young Black woman with stories of her own, some much more scarring than a segregated homecoming court, old tapes that often replay in my mind of educators telling me that I should just be happy with a future in a secretarial profession because that’s a good job for “my kind.” I think of the trauma I’ve not only experienced, but with prayer and self-work on self-worth, I have overcome as I proudly ascend from a long lineage of overcomers.

Even with my internal triumphs, I can’t help but wonder when does the intergenerational trauma end. Unfortunately, my story and that of my family isn’t at all unique. There are countless other Black Americans who can recount memories of past trauma shared from generation to generation. Well, I boldly proclaim, not anymore! The buck stops here, with this generation. We must break this vicious cycle — all of us collectively, regardless of our age, race, cultural upbringing or any other divisive barriers. We must stand in solidarity now, because if not now, when? And if not us, who? We must end the soul-scarring trauma of racism for generations not only present and future, but also in honor of those of the past who braved unconscionable horrors of what could understandably be considered as their “American nightmare.”

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.

ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.

• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.