Tall Ferns basketballer Tessa Boagni gets emotional when she thinks about the pain her African-American grandfather suffered from white men in his lifetime.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has dominated news headlines in 2020 and is a subject close to the 24-year-old’s heart.
Born to a black father, former National Basketball League American standout Kerry Boagni, and Pākehā mother, Christchurch judge and former New Zealand women’s basketball captain Jane McMeeken, Boagni is passionate about her heritage and racial equality.
Her grandfather Eddie Boagni, who is in his 80s, was at Martin Luther King Jr’s historic “I have a dream” speech in Washington DC in 1963.
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Eddie’s early years were spent just out of New Orleans in the southern state of Louisiana. Experiencing racism from white males was the norm. Now based in California, he had the scars to show for it on his back – from an unprovoked physical attack by a group of white men on the street in his youth.
“My grandad grew up in Louisiana and it was still when he was young very, very racist. He went through a lot and still has scars to prove it,” Tessa said.
“Seeing those scars was probably the most eye-opening moment to me.”
Tessa experienced how frightening racism can be for African-Americans while studying at California State Northridge in Los Angeles. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in cinema and television in 2018.
Driving to the mall with two black male friends, they were pulled over by a white police officer.
“They’re two big athletes and I had never seen them so scared and emotional in my whole life. At the time, I was oblivious.
“Police in New Zealand, if you get pulled over, you’re not really scared for your life. They both shut up and straight away put their hands on the dashboard.
“It wasn’t until we drove away I was like, ‘Why did you guys automatically put your hands on the dashboard?’. They said when they were 12, their fathers and mothers sat them down and said whenever this happens, this is what you have to do.”
Tessa is grateful McMeeken educated her about the American civil rights movement and the struggles black Americans had endured from a young age.
McMeeken regularly bought literature on the subject and the pair would read together – learning and reflecting.
Tessa’s favourite authors are Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.
“Mum read all of them and once I got older I started reading them. We’d have discussions about them. When I got a bit older I would Google the authors or the people that were in the stories and learn about and cry and get emotional and you put yourself in their shoes.”
Tessa and partner, Crusaders and North Harbour loose forward Ethan Roots, became first-time parents to son Noah seven weeks ago. Noah’s middle name is James – the same middle name as Eddie – paying homage to the Boagni side of the family.
Just like her mother did, Tessa will share her book collection with Noah and educate him on his forefathers and lineage.
“We have a chance to raise a generation that doesn’t see colour. I hope I can help with that with my son and make him aware as possible.
“I’m really excited to teach him about his ancestors and not just his African-American ancestors, but his dad is part-Māori. To be able to teach him that and all his history here in New Zealand is really exciting.”
Despite Eddie’s negative encounters with white males, Tessa was humbled he had never let it cloud his judgement. He knew it was only the minority, who behaved like that.
“My grandfather experienced so much racism and so much at the hands of a white person, yet welcomed my [white] mum with open arms.
“Every single one of my team-mates that I had in America that was white they’d open their arms for them to come to Thanksgiving or Christmas.”
Tessa’s father Kerry, an NBL star with the Wellington Saints, Hawke’s Bay, and North Harbour from 1988-98, moved back to the US when she was about two.
Every year, Tessa and McMeeken would visit him in Los Angeles and experience the US. She travelled to Louisiana on one trip and visited a plantation, where slavery was rife in the 18th century.
It was a sobering experience for Tessa, who thought about what her ancestors would have gone through.
“It’s so eery. It’s eerie because you think about all of the atrocious things that happened on the ground that you’re walking in. It’s beautiful grounds, the houses are beautiful. You’re standing in this serene, beautiful place and all you can think about is the horrible things that happened.”
The George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings in the US by white police officers had been confronting for Tessa.
It had opened up conversations with her white friends in New Zealand, who wouldn’t have previously been able to talk about racism.
“I cried a lot watching the videos and reading lots about it. It’s heart-breaking. I wanted to be over in LA [with my father and his family] at the protests and do something.
“I wanted to be with my family. I was messaging them all the time and seeing how they were. My friends were at the protests. I FaceTimed one of them when they were at the protest, so I felt like I was there. It was hard to be so far away.”
The BLM scenes in the US had prompted several of Tessa’s childhood friends to reach out to her and apologise for unintentionally using racist terms or phrases in the past.
As a youngster she was horrified whenever she heard the ‘n’ word mentioned around school. She appreciated most people who said it had not truly grasped the meaning behind it.
“Lots of my friends would just say the ‘n’ word because they didn’t understand the gravity of it. I was always so outspoken. I’d yell and get angry at anyone who said it.
“People used to think I was crazy and I’m only now getting messages from friends at primary and intermediate and high school, saying, ‘Oh, I now get why you got so mad’.
“It took me having to tell them stories that my grandad told me or my father told me or that I had witnessed when I was in America for them to understand.”
Being a basketball nut, Tessa, who wants to return for the Canterbury Wildcats next year, had closely followed the NBA’s fight for social justice in the Orlando bubble. Her ultimate goal is to help the Tall Ferns qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 2008 and for Noah to see her play on that lofty stage.
NBA players had worn social justice and racial equality messages on the back of their singlets, doing all they could to raise awareness. Teams even boycotted playoff games following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a black man who was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Sports stars were naturally role models and Tessa was full of praise for NBA and NFL players, who had used their platform to create positive change.
“For them to use their voice, there’s so many young kids look up to them – black and white kids. For them to use their voices so strongly it’s really cool.”
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