Amber Hikes, 35, Executive Director Philly Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs
I am a firm believer that there are really extraordinary individuals among us.
My mother, Dr. Zenobia Lawrence Hikes, was a third-generation educator. She started at Louisiana State University, University of Delaware, Spelman and then Virginia Tech. This was during the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007. Before all of that, she was a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, breast cancer, poverty. She was a single mother and then survived this kind of mass murder.
Through everything, she raised children who have their own college and advanced degrees. She had a mother with advanced Alzheimer’s, earned a doctorate herself and just really through all of it, fought for underrepresented people in every aspect of the work that she did.
But she passed in 2008 due to complications from trauma-induced stress after the shooting.
It’s just indicative of so many issues that we deal with in terms of health care and the long-term stress on our bodies. Today, there’s just not a single part of my identity and my reality that’s not shaped by her life and the way that she lived. I’m trying to find a way to be able to serve the people that matter most to me as deeply and fully as possible, without sacrificing my own well-being.
We are always carrying the burden of the world on our backs without any kind of real acknowledgement or real appreciation. If we can find out how to save the world and still be able to save ourselves, well, honey it’s over!
We talk often in my work about the intersections of racism, sexism and homophobia. I think specifically when we are talking about Black women, we have countless women whose stories aren’t told because of the result of the intersections of racism, sexism, misogyny, patriarchy and white supremacy.
We’ve really taken it upon ourselves in the Mayor’s Office to be doing this work from an intersectional approach, so it’s not just about LGBTQ people, especially in this city. A lot of it is about LGBTQ people of color, but it’s also about the LGBTQ people of color who are experiencing poverty, who are immigrants, who are living with disabilities. We’ve all tried to do this work kind of in our own silos and if there’s anything that the world has taught us in this country, it’s that we are all we’ve got and if we’re not doing this work in an intersectional way, then we are not doing it at all. I really think that while that work is exhausting, it is also the most fulfilling. Looking out for yourself is not going to cut it and it’s also just going to leave your cup empty.
We need to be doing a better job of addressing mental health within our own communities of Black women. I’m also a big advocate of Black women going to Black women who are therapists and having that particular lens on their experiences. I think there’s also, of course, traditional self-care. Your massages, turning the phone off during the bath and all of that, but it also just comes down to like day-to-day things. Say “No” and be comfortable saying no. “No” is a full sentence.
We as Black women struggle with saying “no” sometimes. We are so competent and we are so capable. There’s not another option because who else is going to do it?
When I look back to elementary school, middle school and high school, I can give you specific incidents where because of my mother, I was able to see that there were stories that were intentionally not being told about my own history and the history of my people.
I was an English major in college and my mother was as well. So there was this final project. It was hundreds of titles on this document and we could choose from it. We were supposed to write a 20-page report. Some kind of analysis of the classics. We already know what that “canon” looks like. So we have these hundreds of classics and I’m poring over it. I’m going through with the many years of formal education where my mother has helped me interrogate these systems. There were few Black authors.
All the subjects that had Black authors were slavery-related. I chose the autobiography of Nat Turner. This man who just murdered white folks up and down the South in the quest for freedom for Black people. Which was really my brilliant way of giving the finger to my English professor at the time, but what that highlighted was that this is the case for so many of us. The stories, it’s hidden, it’s whitewashed and we have to seek it out for ourselves. We have to retell those stories, we have to pass them down, we have to do it outside the history books. And there’s a quote by Chinua Achebe and he said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
That is insane. If the hunter is continuously telling the stories, of course they’re going to glorify themselves. We have to write our own stories, we have to tell our own histories or else it’s always going to be the wrong narrative. Thankfully, I had my mom kind of over my shoulder the whole time.
The stories I also wanted to see on that list are the stories about incredible Black educators or Black social workers or more about Black people that were in politics. Not necessarily politicians, but folks who were kind of pulling the strings behind the scenes. The stories that we’re seeing now. The stories that Ava DuVernay is telling, the stories that Oprah is telling, the stories that Shonda Rhimes is telling. It would’ve been wonderful to know there was someone like Olivia Pope ages ago. Just the idea that there’s this powerful Black woman behind the scenes pulling strings for better or for worse. We get told stories in so many ways, but the faces never look like ours. I want to see us in stories that aren’t only slave narratives. Stories that aren’t only Civil Rights narratives. I want to see us in all of the stories, because we are everywhere. We just have never gotten the credit. I just want to see us everywhere, because that’s what we are anyway, and we deserve that.
Amber’s Revolutionary Picks:
“My mother, Dr. Zenobia Lawrence Hikes, was a third-generation educator. She started at Louisiana State University, University of Delaware, Spelman and then Virginia Tech. This was during the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007. Before all of that, she was a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, breast cancer, poverty. She was a single mother and then survived this kind of mass murder.
Through everything, she raised children who have their own college and advanced degrees. She had a mother with advanced Alzheimer’s, earned a doctorate herself and just really through all of it, fought for underrepresented people in every aspect of the work that she did.”