I was introduced to Jesse B. Semple my sophomore year in college in my African-American literature class. He made quite the impression on the first day of class with his philosophical musings delivered with colloquial flair. But I didn’t meet him in the traditional sense, for he was a product of author Langston Hughes’s imagination. I met him in the first pages of our first assigned book of short stories.
As I read about Semple and his life as a black man in Harlem during the 1940s, he began to feel like one of my uncles. His provocative quips about his interactions with whites and blacks alike struck me with their insight. Hughes’s stories brought to life this Semple, who waxed most poetic about too-tight shoes and cotton picking and made me laugh and ponder the human condition. Yet, the most remarkable thing about Semple was that he wasn’t simple at all. Make no mistake: Jesse. B. Semple is no simpleton. He thinks and feels deeply, preferring casual remarks to fancily worded axioms.
I remember reading about Semple as he talked about a black person’s actions being evaluated as contributions to the national image of African Americans. Semple, who enjoyed a stiff drink as much as the next guy, wondered aloud about what his behavior ultimately means. “Why can’t I just be a drunk without dragging my race into it?” he asked.
Wow. As a black woman in college during the 1980s, I knew exactly how Semple felt. I didn’t want the freedom to be a drunk without it being considered a statement of black America, but I did want to be free from having to worry about how my classroom participation might inform my professor’s opinion of African Americans. I could relate to Semple’s lamentation because I too wanted my successes and my failures to be judged as mine rather than the entire black community. In Semple, Hughes pointed to a crucial question: Is it alright for our personal actions to be seen exclusively as a credit or discredit to the communities of our heritage?
Four children and 20 years later, I still don’t know the answer to this question. The reality is other people can choose to identify us based on one characteristic. Sometimes it can be based on our descriptive attributes like gender or race or sexual orientation or class; other times, this judgment picks out something we do, like speak with a stutter or play sports or wear a certain type of clothing. We can claim and negotiate and differentiate our own membership in the communities of our identities, but for others, we can come to represent the entirety of different groups that we identify with. People will and do make assumptions about our identifying group based on our personal singular selves. That frustrates me as much now as it did when I was a college student.
Now that my daughter is a college student, I worry that she and her classmates may encounter others who want to reduce them. Maybe as a Williams student you just want to be seen as an adult pursuing an undergraduate degree without the weight of what your college represents to other people. Maybe you want to be judged by what you do at Williams rather than the fact that you go to Williams. On some level, you cannot let people’s conception of what a Williams student should be dictate your every move. That would be exhausting and frankly, unfair to you as a person. Nevertheless, you cannot get away from the fact that being an Eph brings with it a privilege and opportunity that most young adults do not have. Rather than running away from that reality or at times being burdened by that reality, I would suggest embracing it. You have the intellect and the networks to make a difference in the lives of people whom you do not even know. And even if you are not directly accountable for being a credit to the College, why not be?
Phyllis Lee is the parent of Kirsten Lee ’16, news assistant. She lives in Detroit, Mich.