Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Embarrassing moment #1

Afro-American Literature (as it was called at the time) has, quite frankly, a killer reading list. In one semester we’ll be covering the major works of Amiri Baraka, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin … and those are just the writers I’ve heard of. I’m a junior in college, I’ve just declared my English major, and I’m ready to sink my teeth into a world of great literature and heady discussions. Really!

It hasn’t occurred to me that I might be the only white person in the class. And when I walk in that first day, I am. Until two white girls walk in a couple minutes later. I’ve never been the racial minority before, and the experience makes the class and everything we read and discuss and learn all the more profound for me.

The professor is brilliant. He peppers his lectures with names and dates and fascinating contextual histories without ever using notes. He gets his students to participate with enthusiasm—even the ones who think they’re too cool and fight him every step of the way. His influence literally transforms the way I think and write, and I hear his voice in my writing to this day.

And the things he and his reading list teach me about the black experience in America! I find myself spellbound in incredulity as I begin to understand the ubiquity of black suffering in the name of white American “freedom” and “liberty.” I weep openly as I read the stories and absorb the sociopolitical implications of the literature in our curriculum. I vow then and there that I will always be color-blind in the way I treat people.

The class is truly a transforming milestone in the way I define myself and the way I relate to my surroundings. It blows open the doors of my relatively sheltered world and it energizes me as global citizen.

But it isn’t until a year later, when I run into the professor at a staging of Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” and he offers to drive me home, that for some reason I suddenly realize—to my absolute, gut-wrenching horror—that those two white girls and I had slowly, gradually drifted toward each other and had eventually spent the semester sitting—rudely, arrogantly, cluelessly—front and center in his classroom … while our black classmates had sat behind us. In the back of the learning bus.

The professor died within a year after that ride in his car. I have never kept in touch with anyone—black or white—from that class. Fifteen years later, I still feel sick to my stomach when I think about it.

And I have nobody to apologize to.

12 comments:

David said...

Oh come on, it's not like you asked the other students to do your laundry or anything...,

BigDubb said...

How is this embarassing. Sounds more of an epiphany than a moment of embarassment. I think we all have times when our actions may have subconsiencely spoken words that we had no intent of saying.

As for the migration of the three of you towards each other is only natural. Imagine if th roles had been reversed, I am sure the result would have been the same.

Being a light skinned hispanic man, I remember the first time I was with my black buddies and openly being the subject of racism. it really opened my eyes and made me think. Being the one light skinned guy in a room can be quite a humbling thing.

Workaholic said...

What was embarassing, that you sat in front? And....? People can sit where they want. I know plenty of white people who sit in the back of the room.

And as for the same races sticking together, ever see a horde of Asian? Chinese are so intolerant of other races. Japanese are distrustful, but at least tolerant. I know people who say hello to Chinese, but the Chinese refuses to acknowledge the saluatation.

Don't feel guilty or embarssed about where you sat. Geez.

Erik said...

That’s so true. Asians are all racists.


Wait, we’re being ironic, right?

Erick said...

I think you just did apologize----for everyone reading today who has been in the same place. Thank you.

iPhil said...

I think the way you moved together to the front is merely a testament to your enthusiasm for the class and the lecturer.

It's entirely possible that all the black people [we don't have your ethnic labelling system in Britain - is it "African-American"?] in the class were taking it out of some weird niggling thing to try and learn something about themselves and their culture, in the assumption that they would ace it.

The reason they sat at the back is the same reason anyone sits at the back - they're too "cool". God! Imagine being seen to be interested in learning and education! Shock Horror!

I think you're being the typical English student and reading far too much into everything.

I think #s 3 and 4 are much worse.

iPhil

portuguesa nova said...

I inadvertantly ended up with an African American Studies minor in college because I fell in love with my first African American Lit class. I went to a small university and there were basically the same ten or fifteen people in each of the classes. Four or five of us were white, and we always stuck together. It is strange indeed.

Snooze said...

I think it's great that you thought back and realized that subconciously you had sat with the white girls and felt uncomfortable about that fact.

I remember going to a talk on violence against women and the one guy in the room dominated the whole session with comments on how progressive he was. And I have been guilty of cultural arrogance while travelling - it does us all good to reflect.

trey said...

I've been right there with you. As one who would like to think he doesn't have a racist bone in his body, I have been horrified to realize I had made a remark that was incredibly prejudiced even though there was absolutely no "malice aforethought." Those remarks were based on pre-judgments, or assumptions, stemming from unintentional stereotyping I was not even close to being in touch with. Racism is insidious, an ugly monster that can raise it's head when we least expect it to. Apologizing, though, can often make matters worse ringing hollow or seeming to patronize at best. Thanks for the reminder that there are still too many times that some of us "just don't get it" until we look back in embarrassment.

Alina said...

This sometimes happens to all of us. Romanians are not that racist when it comes to black people, but are defenetly horrible when it comes to gipsies. No matter how open minded I try to be, sometimes i just realize the racism tends to take over...The only thing you can do is try to fight it everytime you notice it.

Kevdogg said...

I agree with Trey. Racism is inherent. No matter how badly you want to subdue it within yourself, you will always be a racist. Just as blacks will always be racist and Hispanics will always be racist. Until there is cataclysmic societal change on the subconscious level,(and on the media level) we will always have stereotypes and prejudices that linger just beneath the surface.

I didn't think about any of this until my last semester senior year at college when I took the most eye opening course of my life. It was called the American Landscape and was taught by an African-American prof. I thought for sure I wasn't racist. I had a black best friend growing up. My violin teacher was black. Two of my elementary teachers were black. We had black neighbors. But slowly and surely, as we trudged through many of the same issues you did in your literature course, my entire idea of American history was turned upside down.

So it's not embarrassing at all... just eye-opening. And you deserve a big pat on the back for that. You noticed and realized something that less than .1% of the population will ever have a waking thought about.

Derek said...

I agree with the others, this isn't embarrassing.

Did you shove these other kids out of their seats? Did they get out of them when they saw you coming? Could they have sat there before you got there if they wanted to?

The fact that you all drifted towards each other rather than scattered around the room . . . Eh it's to be expected. Maybe less so now than back then but still.

I consider a belch loud enough to silence a large room of people and explaining that you're pregnant to them is far more embarrassing. :-)