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On the red carpet for the 2017 Emmys, Issa Rae iconically declared that she was “rooting for everybody Black”. I cannot begin to describe how much I relate to that sentiment.
Some of my clearest memories involve my grandmother, Olivia, refusing to run any errands, schedule any appointments, or otherwise leave the living room of our home, when normally her attention was rarely glued to the television. Her excitement was visceral in 1996 when Dominique Dawes was the only Black member of the Magnificent Seven. I can recall not a single instance prior to that year when anyone in my household - in my life - had ever cared about gymnastics. My grandmother didn’t understand what we were watching; she didn’t know how the judges were scoring or what they were looking for. Grandma only cared about supporting Dominique.
But this was nothing compared to the feverish energy that came upon my grandmother whenever she heard the names Venus and Serena. She watched more than just the Olympics to get glimpses of these two phenoms, consuming the sport of tennis as if it had always been a passion in her life. She cheered with a rowdy tone that one generally hears coming from hockey fans. She cried when they won and cried when they lost. Her eyes would twinkle in anticipation when she realized one or both of them would be on television later that day. “I’ve got to watch Serena play,” Grandma would declare softly, and authoritatively, a reminder to all of us that whatever we were watching would come to a swift and necessary end.
Her enthusiasm wasn’t just limited to women, either. I was shocked by how much Grandma seemed to love golf as soon as she was introduced to Tiger Woods. Out of nowhere she began to follow the PGA Tour, and cereal boxes with his face found themselves in our kitchen cabinets. Not a single one of us had ever before eaten Wheaties.
She fell ill in the fall of 2007, suffering from a stroke that left her mostly paralyzed and unable to speak. But in the months before, she’d known about Barack Obama. She’d heard about him before I did, having started following him almost the exact moment he’d announced that he was running for president. I don’t think my grandmother knew anything about his politics, his platform, or his plans. I kept reminding her that he had to clinch the party’s nomination first. Yet she was so certain that he really could win - or, perhaps, she just wished for it so strongly that every other option fell away from sight.
Olivia passed away in August of 2008, before Obama’s historic victory. I thought of her when I heard the news, saddened by the fact that I wouldn’t get to see her dance or shed tears of joy for a man who had achieved what she, and many others, believed to be the greatest demonstration of Black excellence of all time. I cut clips from newspapers, just as she would have done, and tucked them into the photo album that she’d gifted me as part of my freshman starter package.
As a woman born in 1924, seeing Black people succeed in areas where very few people of color had been allowed access was everything to Olivia. She’d been raised in North Carolina, where her father’s hold on our family land was never secure, the system bent on taking the meager prosperity that belonged to him the moment that justification became available. She married my grandfather, and together they moved up north to Queens, NYC, hoping to create a better life for their family. Their children had a lighter complexion than Olivia, and she was harassed by strangers who accused her of kidnapping the children from white families. My mother remembers hands grabbing her chin, closely examining her features to confirm that she really was a colored child. They would demand Olivia prove that her babies belonged to her, that she had the right to have them in her care.
After growing accustomed to the treatment, my grandmother buried her dissatisfaction when my grandfather’s job forced them to leave the neighborhood and relocate to New Jersey, where they’d yet again be outsiders, to be scrutinized by a new set of unfamiliar people.
I knew enough about my grandmother’s challenges to know why it was so important to her to root for everybody Black. My grandmother, and many in her generation, believed that the success of any of us was a triumph for all of us. Anything positive that I accomplished, anything positive that any Black person accomplished, moved the needle towards equality and understanding, made us more human in the eyes of others, helped society to realize that we deserved rights and respect. My success, and my excellence, was never just for me - it was for the culture.
I carried this pressure well into my adult life, and have come to recognize how it showed up in my career. Some of you have heard me share the story that publishing as an industry had been almost invisible to me, as a young Black woman in college. No one I knew worked in publishing, and only one person ever suggested that I consider it as an option. I was the only Black person in my internship group at a small not-for-profit publisher, and the only Black person in my office at my first full-time job publishing scientific journals. When I left there almost sixteen years ago, I started working at Macmillan Learning, and became one of few Black people in the 41 Madison office in New York City. We were all in different departments, and rarely interacted for work purposes, which meant I was often the only Black person in meetings and on conference calls. Back then I never explicitly acknowledged the weight that I assumed in response. But deep down I wanted - needed - to work hard, to succeed, to prove that I belonged, not just for myself and my love for the work that we do, but for the culture. For all Black people everywhere.
In recent years we have come closer to accepting that it is not the responsibility of Black people to prove their humanity to others. Those who do not see us as equals, as people, will not be convinced due to our athleticism, or scientific achievements, or artistic talents. Black Americans have managed to rise to astounding levels of success in diverse fields of interest, achieving firsts and setting records throughout, striving to make the dream come true. We also continue to endure traumas and indignities due to racial prejudices and harmful stereotypes. As I finish editing this essay, my heart is broken over the murder of Tyre Nichols, an act of police brutality that reminds us of the history of slave patrols and the horrific treatment of enslaved Africans in this country. No number of gold medals will stop racism in its tracks.
Our first employee resource group, BLACC (Black Leaders Actively Changing Culture), has given me a space to support Black colleagues and find community among them in a way that I was lacking, and desperately needed. BLACC came together to sponsor an externship program for young BIPOC students, offering three weeks of engagement where they would be exposed to various departments and positions throughout the organization, and would complete a project that highlighted their chosen interest. Being a member of the committee that brought this to life felt like a dream come true and is one of the most incredible things that I’ve ever been a part of. The BLACC Voices series is yet another way that we get to impact how colleagues think about the world, by bringing in guest lecturers to discuss topics of social importance, which in turn impacts the contributions that we make through our work. We must continue to have these conversations, as difficult as it might sometimes be, to ensure that Macmillan Learning is truly inclusive and equitable, to be both appreciative of the value of our team members as they bring unique perspectives and identities to their work, and intentionally acknowledge the vast diversity reflected in the students and instructors who interact with our products.
Today, I can’t help but to think of Olivia, cheering as loudly for me as she once did for Serena, and I’m motivated by the possibility that she would see my contributions as beneficial for the culture. I choose to keep doing that work, keeping the bigger picture in mind, doing what I can to move the needle forward in any way possible. I’m also relieved to know that my personal development and our social evolution allow me to be a fallible, honest, dedicated human being. That I can put down that pressure and just be myself. That even when I make mistakes, I am still succeeding, and somebody, somewhere, is rooting for me.