43 pages 1 hour read

Austin Channing Brown

I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


I’m Still Here is a nonfiction memoir published in 2018 by the American author Austin Channing Brown. Subtitled Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, the book chronicles Brown’s lifelong efforts to navigate White spaces as a Black Christian woman. Amid a surge of interest in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests, actress Reese Witherspoon selected I’m Still Here for her popular Hello Sunshine book club.

This study guide refers to the 2018 edition published by Convergent Books.

Plot Summary

From an early age, Brown is aware that “Austin” is not a traditional name for a girl. During a tense encounter at the age of seven with a librarian who suspects Brown’s library card is stolen, Brown realizes “Austin” is especially untraditional for a Black girl. After this incident, her mother reveals that she named her “Austin” in part after her grandmother’s maiden name, and in part because she predicts Brown will land more job interviews if hiring managers think she is a White man. Her mother’s prediction works, leading to many uncomfortable job interviews for Brown as an adult.

Brown spends most of her childhood in a predominantly White suburb in Toledo, Ohio. Only at the age of 10, when her parents divorce and her mother moves to Cleveland, does Brown realize how different she is from other Black girls her age. As she suffers the taunts of neighborhood girls who refer to her as an “Oreo”—meaning, Black on the outside and White on the inside—Brown befriends Tiffani. Although the two girls are opposites, Tiffani forges a strong connection with Brown. For Brown, their friendship is a reflection that Blackness is not monolithic; it contains multitudes. Around this time, Brown starts to attend a Black church every Sunday, another outlet where she can nurture and express her Black identity.

Although she spends summers in Cleveland, Brown still attends school in suburban Toledo. On the surface, her majority-White Catholic high school is a place of racial harmony. Yet a handful of subtle yet disturbing moments underscores for Brown how the illusion of harmony often obscures deeper racial fissures. Brown’s awareness of these fissures heightens in college when she participates in Sankofa, a three-day bus tour of the American South’s racist history. After visits to a plantation and a lynching museum, most of Brown’s White classmates grow defensive, rejecting their complicity in systemic racism and invoking atrocities inflicted against White Europeans like the Holocaust. Nevertheless, Brown finds a vibrant Black academic community in college led by Dr. Simms.

Compared to college, Brown’s experiences in the workplace are even more fraught with racist microaggressions and expressions of White fragility. She outlines a routine day at the office, during which she suffers invasions of her privacy, her body, and her dignity, all of which stem from her White coworkers’ awkwardness, entitlement, or outright grievance with respect to the color of her skin. Even worse are some of her interactions with the attendees of various seminars and youth groups she organizes as Program Director for a Christian ministry. During a seminar on race and faith, a White man explodes in anger at her—less, she believes, because of the content of her message and more because of the race and gender of the messenger.

Aside from racism in her personal life, Brown addresses the systemic racism evident in American police departments that results in a startling number of extrajudicial killings of Black men and women. As she watches a fully militarized police force attack Black protesters in Ferguson in the wake of the 2014 Michael Brown killing, Brown rethinks her long-held theory that racism never went away; it merely evolved. To her, racism today looks a lot like it did in 1965, when Alabama state troopers cracked civil rights protesters’ heads open on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Brown feels the same way in 2015 when a White supremacist kills nine Black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina. This reminds her of the 1963 bombing of a Black church in Birmingham that killed four African American girls.

Given the extent to which White supremacy still infects American attitudes and institutions, there is no logical reason for Brown to hope that things will improve. Yet rather than fear the death of hope, she embraces it. This is because the just and restorative future Brown and other activists fight to achieve cannot be hoped for; it is unseen and unimaginable.