Dignity: Shaping The Vision


Photography: Studio One
Words: decoteau j. irby, phd


Black Americans have long fought for both recognition and dignified treatment. 


"No form of white supremacy, racism, or hatred will extinguish the lights that shine - however dim or bright - within each and every Black body that graces this earth." 

- decoteau j. irby 

Decoteau's research explores how equity-focused school leadership can be used as a lever to improve Black children and youth's academic achievement and socio-emotional well-being across a range of K-12 educational settings. Specifically, he's interested in how adults make sense of and use their personal and collective influence and resources to transform educational spaces (including the self) to benefit students of color. His substantive areas of expertise include: school safety and approaches to violence reduction; improving school discipline policies and practices; culturally responsive leadership; and positive school culture and climate. 

Dignity is a complex idea. There are two ways to think about dignity. the first is in absolute terms. folks have called this kind of dignity god-given value, a kernel of worth, and somebodyness- as in you are somebody. it is assumed to exist within every human on this planet regardless of her or his status of life circumstance. It cannot be taken away, violated, or stripped away. it does not need to be upheld because it can never be diminished. Black folks have long RECOGNIZED this type of dignity, honoring the fact that all people are infinitely valued just for being human.  


Yet, the horror of the trans- Atlantic slave trade, U.S. based chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, containment in inner-city ghettos, and lack of access to equal opportunities to reach our full potential, have played a role in making us feel less than - as in you ain't nobody. This second way of understanding dignity, which focuses on mistreatment, degradation, and humiliation that chips away at our individual and collective sense of dignity can be best understood in non-absolute terms. 

Non-absolute dignity sheds light on a simple truth: although hall humans possess within them a kernel of worth, not all people are treated as such. 

Black Americans know this ugly truth too well. Mistreatment plays out in the forms of policy brutality and over-incarceration. It shows up on social media in all the all too familiar form of white authorities harming and killing our loved ones. 

But despite the social, emotional, and spiritual toll of our experiences in the U.S., we have never accepted the lie that we are nobody. Black Americans have long fought for both recognition and dignified treatment. We have been outnumbered, out-gunned and out-financed. Still, those before us knew our worth. In fact the historical record demonstrates Black's primary fight in the U.S. has been to compel White Americans ( not ourselves ) to recognize our dignity as humans and to demonstrate that recognition by treating us with dignity. 

In recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement reinvigorated the demand that Black Lives be treated was though they Matter. On one hand, it offers a reaffirmation of what Black folks and many allies already know. On another hand, it is what folks who are hell-bent on denying Blacks their rights to be treated with dignity need to hear and understand. No form of white supremacy, racism, or hatred will extinguish the lights that shine - however dim or bright - within each and every Black body that graces this earth. 

Indeed, in the darkest of times, we shine. It is within the spirit of humility and with genuine admiration for the freedom fighters of years past that we pulled together this special 2016 Black History Month issue of FELLAS Magazine. We called together some of Milwaukee's shining lights and asked each to share their perspectives on how their absolute dignity inform their lives, health, art, work, ad overall outlook and approach to life. The contributors address the ways in which they demand recognition of, work to cultivate, and ultimately preserve their dignity of self, family, and community. 

My goal is to invite you to be fully human. Hit the sheets. Protest the unjustified murders of our sisters, brothers, and children. Unseat that elected official. Write like your life depends on it. Create that work of art that is within you. Start that business. Sing that song aloud. Take off your cool. Study for self-knowledge. Work it our with your enemy. Change some of your ways. Apologize. Forgive. Get pissed. Cry. Laugh. Love. Live. Demand....with dignity.