In recognition of Black History Month, the Record is inviting community members to write pieces of advocacy, celebration, grief, discussion, history, or personal experience. This is the third opinion piece in that series. Those interested in submitting an op-ed for our Black History Month column can contact Iman Shumburo ’24.
Black. Gay. Jamaican. First-Generation. Product of a single mother. Catholic. Gifted. All of those descriptors, and several others, are at the core of who I am as a person. As I have grown and learned more about myself and the world, the order in which I choose to list those identity markers has changed but now and forevermore, my Blackness is first.
Growing up, my family looked like the United Colors of Benetton. My Uncle Roy’s dark, shiny, midnight skin stood in stark contrast to that of my great-grandmother and grandmother who both could pass for white women. As a result, someone’s complexion was never something that I thought was capable of “othering them.” I loved my own skin’s ability to change from my frequent trips to Jamaica to visit my grandfather. The sun made me feel whole and I yearned to run around all day to be embraced by its warmth. Saturday mornings in Brooklyn with Jamaican food cooking on the stove and the Jamaican patois of my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother spoken above the reggae music in the background made me happy.
This happiness was not always there. From as far back as I can remember, I have been gay. I vividly remember walking around the backyard of our house with my aunt’s high heels and her pocketbook. In a Catholic Jamaican family, being gay was not something that was celebrated. My male cousins mocked me and some of my friends on my block did not know how to understand who I was. It was one of the first times that I felt singled out for being different. I yearned to find a way to be accepted or to give people something else to speak about. In Pre-K, that answer came; I received admission to our local gifted program.
I recently looked back at a picture from Pre-K. I was the only Black student in the class. But, as I mentioned, I had little understanding of race as we discuss it now due to the varied shades of Blackness that my family embodied. I did not think anything of the fact that my best friends were all white. But what I was acutely aware of was that by being a good student, my family and others would celebrate that and it would deflect from their thoughts about my sexuality. It became more about me being the person who would go off to college or gain opportunities that others in my family did not have, than about what color pumps I walked around the house in. I leaned into school; it became my safe place. Even as I became more aware of the differences between my peers and me, the school was the place that I could truly be myself. I could be the popular Urkel-looking kinda queer friend. Complicated yes, but comforting in so many ways. But, in 5th grade, I was almost suspended because of a lie that a white female classmate told.
I served as a lunch monitor paired with one other student for 1st grade classes. One day, a teacher asked me to substitute in a classroom with this girl who was not my designated partner. I told the teacher that I would. I wish I could recall the exact lie that she told, but I vividly remember later being surrounded by some of my Black classmates as I bawled at the top of the stairs repeatedly saying, “She’s a liar!” While my life was almost flipped upside down, her mother was a teacher in our school so she, I assume, felt invincible. As my peers consoled me, they reminded me of how she had also caused issues with them. All of us had our own stories and were our own people but that did not matter; the one thing that we all shared was being Black in a mostly white gifted program.
From that moment on, I realized that while my giftedness was a saving grace for me when it came to my home life, my Blackness was going to be weaponized. No matter how queer and friendly I was, I would always have to be aware of how my Black male body would be seen as threatening. I also think that my intellect and sharp tongue (my propensity for swearing can itself be the topic of a whole op-ed ) added yet another reason to be feared. I was always going to speak up for myself and those who I saw being treated unfairly because of their particular lived experiences and phenotypic presentations in spaces that once were not available to people who looked like me.
I was fortunate to test into a specialized high school that was 75% people of color (about 33% of the student population was Black) and had an overwhelming population of students whose families were from the Caribbean. When I think back on high school, I just remember how affirmed I felt in that space. I was no longer one of a few but rather part of a majority. In some ways, I almost went back to my early elementary school days where I could focus on my intellectual pursuits without fear of my Blackness as an intimidation factor. I reveled in my Blackness in every way that I could and had no doubt that I could do anything.
In some ways that all changed at Williams. Despite having gone to school with white people my whole life, the Purple Valley introduced a level of imposter syndrome that I never knew was possible. Alongside that, I had spent so much time celebrating my Blackness in high school, and not needing to find specific spaces for it, I struggled to find a home in the Black Student Union. For so long it didn’t matter that I was gay but for some reason, during my time here, it became an issue when I first ran for the board of the Black Student Union. The things that I found as grounding — my Blackness, my queerness, and my intellect — were all on shaky ground. I could have easily withdrawn and let these feelings take over but, with the help of some good friends, I persisted.
I began to push on the idea that Blackness isn’t monolithic. If we were all to thrive in an environment that is built to question our belonging, our Blackness, and our intellectual prowess, it would become critical for us to work together towards these interests. It became my mission to help every Black person see that they belonged at Williams, no matter what their experiences were growing up. If I wanted to find ways for all of my identities to be celebrated and thrive, I found that centering and celebrating both my Blackness and every shade of Blackness that exists as paramount to the ability to live and for our larger community to have a voice.
While I may not carry a pocketbook or rock stilettos in the backyard these days (don’t dare me though because I might show some of y’all up), I am thankful for the experiences that made me love my Blackness and the beauty that exists within our community. I will continue to fight for us and for the future Christophers who yearn for a place within our community and a seat at the larger table.
Christopher Sewell ’05 is Associate Dean of the College and Dean of First-Year Students.