Achievements Shared, Even When the Work Feels Lonely

Out of the huts of history's shame I rise Up from a past that's rooted in pain I rise I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise.

-- Excerpt from "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou

I am an anomaly. Not because I have special abilities or because I’ve led a particularly charmed existence. Not because my life is that much more exceptional than anyone else’s or because all of the proverbial puzzle pieces have fallen neatly into place for me. I am an anomaly because at some imprecise point during college I realized I wanted to be a graphic designer.

While this might not sound particularly unprecedented—my decision certainly didn’t seem so at the time—only later would I discover how few African-Americans were out there in the world practicing and teaching graphic design.

With my Auntie Jennie

Artists and designers are frequently talked about in the context of “natural talent” and the philosophical view that you either have it on the creative front or you don’t. In fact, I once worked for a design firm that constantly reinforced the notion that I would not succeed, and lumped me in with the aforementioned group of folks who were clearly lacking the gift of artistic aptitude. Not surprisingly, I continually found myself ready to resign myself to defeat. (I was relatively fresh out of college with very little experience—what did I know?) The only question was what other career path I would choose instead.

Graduate school changed my trajectory but not the lessons I learned in the aftermath.

The complicated, unsexy truth is that creative work, though energizing and fulfilling, is still that: work. Creativity may be more inherent—or rather, more obvious--in certain individuals than others; however, it’s been both my experience and observation that those who are most successful at finding their creative calling are dedicated individuals who, simply put, work extraordinarily hard.

So, the fact that there simply aren’t many other black women who are both working as graphic designers and teaching in higher education, which can, quite honestly, be a mentally/psychologically lonely place to exist, isn’t a reflection of my uniqueness. Again, I am not an anomaly because I exhibited unusually brilliant creative abilities at an early age. What I had was access to an education.

There are times when the privilege of whatever position I hold morphs into isolation due to some of the challenges that come with being one of a few. And yet, I have been presented with the precious opportunity to provide young people of color with access to the same kind of creative superpowers I’ve acquired. My contributions might be small in the grand scheme of things but I certainly dream of a day when design professors and professionals reflect the true diversity inherent in American culture.

I received an e-mail from one of my aunties the other day, letting me know that she’s thinking about me, and congratulating me on my teaching gig. Her words of encouragement were also a humble reminder that my achievements are not mine alone; they are the shared/collective accomplishments in the community of people whose support I’ve benefited from after years and years of hard effort.

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave; I rise; I rise; I rise.