BHS alumna takes stage to speak on growing up Black in Burlington

Before Zanevia Wilcox got up on stage at Battery Park in Burlington, she had to remind herself to slow down.

This wasn’t her first time speaking in front of a crowd, but it was a rare moment to speak to a crowd about her experiences growing up Black in Vermont.

Wilcox was one of a dozen or so people who spoke on June 20 following a march against police brutality and racial injustice in Burlington. The demonstration follows local and national protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer.

“You grow up not realizing that activism is fighting for yourself. You don’t really realize it’s an ongoing battle,” said Wilcox, 18, who grew up in Burlington and has been engaged in social justice work for a while.

“I have a passion for writing, but I never saw it connect with activism because I never had the confidence in my work.”

Prior to graduating from Burlington High School in 2019, she was a member of the school’s Social Justice Union, where alongside her friends and peers, she petitioned the school board to raise a Black Lives Matter flag. Burlington High School became the second public school in the nation to do so.

Since then, she’s dived more into how she can use her writing and voice to speak to the Black Vermonters like herself in the crowd. Many times, Wilcox said, it’s felt like she had to lower her tone or limit her emotions to speak in front of predominantly white audiences.

“I’ve always been taught that I can’t be angry, that I can’t have that emotion growing up in a white neighborhood,” said Wilcox, who found a lot of the people she knew around her were “fed the stereotypes of what it’s like to be Black.”

Over the years, however, Wilcox has leaned on the support she’s had from the women in her family. Even more than a thousand miles away from some of her relatives back in Miami where she was born, she’s also found a lot of self-esteem through the Black women she’s looked up to via social media.

Looking ahead, Wilcox plans to enroll at a college in southern Connecticut in the fall. Currently she’s working as a theater camp counselor, hoping to be a role model for the children she works with.

Wilcox hopes to see more opportunities and spaces for young Black people in Burlington, as well as generational dialogues between the older Black Vermonters who have lived in the state for a longer time and can speak on their own experiences.

“I’m really just trying to create a safe haven for Black women like me,” Wilcox said. 

Contact Ethan Bakuli at (802) 556-1804 or ebakuli@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @BakuliEthan.

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