“I am” and “Who am I not to be?”

Toni-Ann Williams ’23 receives her award during the 2019 Hortense Parker Celebration

Toni-Ann Williams ’23 submitted one of the winning essays of the College’s 2019 Hortense Parker Celebration. The celebration honors the legacy of Hortense Parker — class of 1883 and the College’s first known student of color — and all students of color, past and present. Williams’ essay is presented here with her permission.

Q: When you leave the gates of Mount Holyoke College, what do you hope to leave behind? What will your legacy be?

“Actually, who are you not to be? … As we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others,” stated Marianne Williamson. 

Upon entering the gates of Mount Holyoke College on August 25, 2019, a plethora of questions flooded my mind. Chief among them, “Am I really ready for this?” I quickly acknowledged my “I am” after scanning my surroundings. That is, I am an African-American 18-year-old female who was raised in Jamaica. I am, for the first time in my life, the minority. At a predominantly white liberal arts institution that is unlike anything I have ever experienced before.

But I remember staring in the mirror at Blanchard Hall on my first trip to the bathroom thinking, “Who am I not to be?” As a student of Jamaican and African-American descent, I hope that through my life at Mount Holyoke, in and out of the classroom, the question, “Who am I not to be?” will resonate in the minds of all students, regardless of class, color or creed. Some may wonder how I plan to achieve this.

I believe in building strong interpersonal relationships with everyone I encounter.

Sometimes individuals have the most inspiring stories but allow pride or fear to deter them from sharing those stories with others. I am breaking that cycle.

It is time for us to start sharing those truths with others. It is time for us to start sharing our “I ams.”

Only then will people understand that they are not alone, no matter how bad they think their circumstances are. I’ll start: I am Toni-Ann Annastacia Williams, daughter of a former notorious (now incarcerated) drug lord and a freshman at Mount Holyoke College. I have a passion for social justice, youth advocacy and leadership and hope to earn a bachelor’s degree with a major in sociology and minor in Spanish. 

Wow, the irony. According to the National Institute of Justice, children of incarcerated parents are more susceptible to child criminal involvement, psychological and antisocial behavior and low educational attainment. By disclosing my “I am,” I am already breaking down barriers within the minds of others; I am dispelling the ideology that one’s background must determine the outcome of his/hers/their life.

Because dare I ask again, “Who am I not to be?” This is the spirit I want to leave for all Mount Holyoke students to adopt.

In addition to this, writing down my name in our history book at the Abbey Memorial Chapel was a captivating and humbling moment that I will never forget. But that is not enough for me. I want to leave behind a trail of academic excellence. The graduation criteria here is really going to push me out of my comfort zone. Am I nervous? Yes, definitely. But I am determined to do my best and succeed at any challenge thrown my way. After all, I’m not here to be comfortable; I’m here to become the best version of myself. 

The academic excellence I strive to achieve will go way beyond a good GPA. I want to be a well-rounded student, able to have meaningful engagement about any topic (even the ones that don’t particularly spark my interest). Because without that kind of knowledge you are an educated fool, limited to the constructs of what you study. I will leave a legacy of no limitations of the mind.

Moreover, behind me I will leave a taste of my rich Jamaican heritage, not only amid the Association of Pan African Unity or the Mount Holyoke Caribbean and African Student Association, but with each person I meet. Because Marcus Mosiah Garvey once said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history and origin is like a tree without roots.” And a part of staying true to my roots is incorporating my culture into every sphere of my life.

In essence, when I leave Mount Holyoke College, I will leave my “I am” legacy.

I am Toni-Ann Annastacia Williams, a Jamaican-African-American woman who will never be defined by the social constructs of class, color or creed. Who will never be intellectually limited and will always remain true to my diverse and wholesome heritage. And actually, who am I not to be?

Scenes from Hortense Parker Day 2019

Reference List

  • Juma, Norbert. “20 Marcus Garvey Quotes Celebrating Knowledge of Self.” Everyday Power, 17 May 2019, everydaypower.com/marcus-garvey-quotes/.
  • “Marianne Williamson Quotes (Author of A Return to Love).” Goodreads, goodreads.com/author/quotes/17297.Marianne_Williamson.
  • Martin, Eric. “Hidden Consequences: The Impact of Incarceration on Dependent Children.” National Institute of Justice, nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/hidden-consequences-impact-incarceration-dependent-children.

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