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.