Black History Month: Thoughts and feelings I should not have, but do

“As long as one dreams in his heart, he cannot loose the significance of living.”

-Howard Thurman, Minister 1899-1961

I was asked to write an article on the topic of “How does it feel to be a Black man on the Williams College campus?” From this question I was immediately “inspired” or moved to begin to write down a series of questions that have been on or crossed my mind based on experiences I have had. Some of these experiences I have had here at Williams, and many before I arrived, but I feel they show a side of my feelings that I do not often have the chance to address. What stuck out to me most were two things.

The first was the amount I was able to write on a great deal of the negative things that happen to me, many of the subtle things that you would usually ignore or allow to pass. The second was how easily I was able to come up with this experience-based, catalog of questions. After talking to other black males I found that some of these issues or questions, and others, could be related to immediately. What I hope can happen through this article is that one, we learn that the subtle things that happen are not always subtle. And two, that although these experiences are not blatant, subtle things are still felt and can have just as much impact as physical harm or action.

Do you know how it feels to be watched all the time? Have you ever felt like you did not belong? Do you know how it feels to have to watch your every move so that you do not come off as “aggressive” or “dangerous?” Have you ever felt happiness from someone of the opposite sex but soon have that ineffable feeling turn into sadness when you realize the cold and harsh realities that the one you have feelings for is the “wrong” race, not in your eyes, but in everyone else’s? And that to be together would incur one of the hardest burdens ever to bear, that being the burden of social outcasts? Have you ever heard the sound of doors locking when you walk past a car in traffic? Do you know how it feels to have a kind store worker follow you around, watching you just a bit closer than other customers just doing their job?

When was the last time you were asked, “Do you play basketball?” and when the answer is no, are asked a follow up question along the lines of, “Why not, I’d bet you would be good?” Have you ever received that “Please don’t hurt me” smile from people passing you by? Have you ever had a female clutch her purse at the exact time you walk by? Have you ever worried about the DWB (Driving while Black) syndrome? When was the last time someone you know killed by being dragged? Shot 41 times? Were you congratulated when you made it to your eighteenth birthday for “making it this far?” Are you tired of always having to second-guess your actions, whether you are a sellout or a militant or an Uncle Tom or an aggressive Negro?

I do not want to come off as angry. The only anger, if any, that I feel is that I have no problem in listing these and many other experiences I have had that can be linked to my race. And why is this? Why can I do this without hesitation? It kind of reminds me of how easily it is for us to think up stereotypes of all kinds relating to all people. The issue with the subtle actions I spoke of earlier are that the people who commit them, which can be all of us at some point, usually do them unconsciously. When they are committed how do react? Do you let it go? Do you speak up? Is it about race?

I think the first thing we must realize is that, whether we want to admit it or not, we all possess views or judgments of people based on our surroundings, lack of exposure or direct exposure to others, some positive and some negative. Many of the ways in which we react and respond to each other are based on these judgments and views we possess. It is important that we first realize that we have both positive and negative views of people. Once we do this, we must not be afraid to challenge our negative views. Why do we have them? This is the only way that we can deal with them and stop much of our own ignorance (ignorance used here is just not knowing) from growing.

I can only speak of myself, but I have had people react to me in positive and negative ways. Most of the negative ways have been very subtle, sometimes so subtle that it can be missed (hence the name). And that is the danger about subtle actions and reactions. It is very easy to misinterpret them or let them pass. My point is that there is a reason for those subtle reactions so I feel that when something subtle happens you should call it. Maybe the person that reacted to you just did not “know” or realize they did something you felt was wrong. By asking them or calling them on it, you find out the cause of the reaction and hopefully some understanding will take place. And I do realize that there is a very fine line to walk here. That line is of over-reaction, which can happen in situations like these, but also the line of letting things go. For too long I think we have let things go with the goal of not offending anyone. Maybe it is time that we get real with one another, that we offend one another.

Please do not misinterpret that statement. What I mean is that we get real with one another and offend one another, not intentionally, but with the goal of trying to understand each other so that subtle reactions will have no place. It is my dream we can do this so that there will come a time when I or anyone will not be able to come up with a catalog of questions of this nature that describe negative reactions based on people just not knowing. I hope that we can all “dream in our hearts” that we get to know and understand each other to dispel and erase a great deal of the ignorance, or not knowing, that exists today. Ignorance that causes people react to others in ways described above for reasons, which could be skin color or just not knowing. By doing so, by dreaming, then I cannot, we cannot, and will not, “lose the significance of living.”