Kai Williams carries the weight of her great-grandmother and civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama's legacy in the midst of the Black Lives Matter student protests.
When Malcolm X was shot, grown men ran towards the door, but my great-grandmother ran to the stage. That’s the fact that my father and his mother, and anyone who ever shook my great-grandmother’s frail hand and looked her into her unrelenting eyes passed down to me. That’s what one of Malcolm X’s daughters told us, at my great-grandmother’s memorial. While Malcolm X lay dying, my great-grandmother Yuri Kochiyama ran to the stage, automatically, and unafraid of having her life torn from her the way his had just been torn. She cradled his head until they confirmed he was gone. The moment is immortalized in a photo taken for Life Magazine.
I grew up bearing this history with the kind of quiet pride that one harbors even when they’ve done nothing to deserve it, other than be fortunate enough to be related to a person. I wore it on my sleeve, like a family crest. It was tattooed on my sternum. I was raised to believe that when the moment arose that I would be called to some sort of action, it was both my birthright and responsibility to respond. The spirit of Malcolm X was in the rooms where we gathered.
On a chilly April afternoon in 2015, when one of Cornell West’s Stop Mass Incarceration tour organizers asked for a member of the delegation from my prestigious Upper East Side prep school to speak before the crowd of protesters. Half of the students behind me screamed my name and lightning rocketed through my body. I tasted metal in my mouth. My great-grandmother’s frail hand, beckoning from beyond the grave. I ran to the stage, out of fear that the organizer might call on someone else, though I would not admit that to myself at the time. Climbing up the stairs, a microphone was pressed into my shaking hand. The first words out of my mouth were “we will not be moved.”
Thinking back, it’s a bit cringe-worthy. How that phrase appeared to me, programmed into my brain. Without thinking, with nothing prepared, my mind defaulted to the movement phrases I’d heard about and filed away for future use, all my life. But after I told the crowd “we will not be moved,” words short-circuited and died on my tongue. I had nothing more to say.
When I was 15, I decided to become a radical, feminist, pro-black bitch.
I’d already been radical, feminist and pro-black. It was the bitchiness that was new. It was surprisingly easy to decide to make this metamorphosis. I would simply slip into a cold, calculating exterior, like bath water, like a second skin. I would no longer be nice about my opinions, nor clutch my copies of Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions and Feminist Theory From Margin to Center against my chest. I pulled out my computer and wrote, I am a little bit of a bitch. If I wrote it down, and thought it, I could will it to be true. The same way I’d willed myself to start believing I was sexy after I spent all of my eight grade year casting aspersions at my flat-chested little self in the mirror. Yet, this transition would be a tough trick to pull off. I’d been the weak, non-confrontational type for many years. The nerd. The bookworm. Setting my sights on bitchdom was an unexpected move. None of my friends would believe it. At the time I thought it was the my growth spurt, the arrival of my period (I was a late bloomer), and my approaching sixteenth birthday that made me decide to change my persona. But looking back, nothing was a bigger provocation than the white, rich kids at my new prep school, and the money culture I turned my nose so far up at.