What does it mean to be black at U.Va? This the kind of question that immediately raises concern, that provokes thoughts, and that spawns long necessary-yet-draining discussions about race. The problem with this question, or at least one of the problems, is that it assumes that there is one black identity, one black experience. This is not at all black-specific; the same issues rise when we question what it means to be a woman here, to be gay here, to be African here, to be a graduate student here, to be an athlete here… the list expands exponentially into space, ending, I assume, with what it means to have hidden superpowers here (and I’m on the lookout for you). So this piece will not really talk about what it “means” to be black here. Instead I want to share conflicted feelings that I’ve had throughout my time in America, that were again highlighted when I attended the “Honoring Julian Bond” event on January 30th.
What does it mean to be black here? Maybe it could mean feeling part of a bigger community at an event like this, an event honoring a true living legend. But I felt alone. I’m interested in why I felt alone; the first reason, of course, is that I was literally by myself. Two friends who had planned to come with me pulled out because of the rain, and none of my other friends had shown much interest. But let me re-analyze the end of my last sentence; they did not show a lot of interest because I barely promoted that I was going to the event, that I did not harass them with emails like I do about most other events. But why is that? I’m not absolving myself of responsibility, I’m instead wondering if the lack of real interest a lot of the people I know here have shown in regards to community issues (Sullivan-gate excepted) has made me a little more hesitant to ask masses of people to come with me.
Do other students not care (the audience was vastly made up of adults)? Do other English graduate students not care (not even for the free food!)? Well, what does it mean to care? In my never ending arguments with myself I have questioned whether attending this kind of lecture and celebration is especially meaningful; it is not actively combating racism, is it? But looking back to admire, analyze, and engage with what has come before is a huge part of what we do in the humanities, and even in academia. Looking back shows us why we are who we are, how we got here, and how to move forward.
Julian Bond brought up “double consciousness,” a concept coined by Du Bois to explain the feelings of alienation African-Americans felt from society (a simplistic explanation, I readily admit ). He said that people felt less separate than before, felt like more of a part of society than they had 20 or 30 years ago. I cannot speak to 20 or 30 years ago, but I will say that though I have spent the majority of my life in situations where I am the only, or one of very few black people, I have only recently started to feel separate. Not all of the time, or even close to a majority of the time, but sometimes. Let me mention just one example from my time here at U.Va. (there are about six solid examples, but I’ll stick with the most recent one). I am sitting in a graduate English classroom; someone reading from an excerpt says the “n-word” without pause and keeps going. The class continues, unmoved. I tense up. I make a fist and my mind races. I find it almost impossible to focus for the rest of class. After class I confide in two friends of mine, both of whom agree with my concerns, and support my emotions. But how could this have happened? In most classes professors will make a statement about using “the n-word” instead of saying the word; in this class the word did come out of nowhere, but for a student to just… say it, was baffling and hurtful to me. Was it personal? Of course not, but that does not matter. Of the friends to whom I spoke, both white, one of them is in the class and she felt uncomfortable as well. I think what I may be long-winded in getting to the fact that it is my fear; academia is separating us from a more human and emotional reality. It is especially absurd for this to happen in English because our field is driven by works of human, emotional reality.
I do not want to sound hypocritical, judgmental, etc. in writing this. I will not pretend that these issues remain at the forefront of my brain, that they will not recede to the background as I continue my job hunt, or even that I will bring them up when a huge crowd of my friends, who would not make the time for the MLK event, meet up together at the bar. I cannot say that I am speaking for anyone but myself; I cannot even say that I am speaking entirely for myself, because this is not my usual experience here at U.Va. All I can really attest to is an increasing feeling of disconcertedness, of separateness, and of a growing fear that unless I join “the real world” I will continue to go to these talks by myself, because other students may just be too busy.
By Lingerr Senghor. Image source: cmcwashingtonprogram.blogspot.com