What I learned from agitating my college around race
My deep secret shame is that despite having a degree in English, I’ve always hated what you might call “The Classics.” I have very little interest in reading Milton, Dickens, or any other dead white guy you typically find on a college syllabus.
Much to my horror, English majors at my college were required to take courses in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature to graduate. I suffered through these classes because I knew once they were over, I could get to the stuff I really came to college to study. After a long slog through the required classes, my first elective English course was a survey of contemporary American writers.
“Finally!” I thought. “I’ll read and talk about books by people like me.”
“Dr. S” was the kind of professor all the English students loved. His Rate My Professor page was full of comments like “Great teacher! A lot of reading and the papers are hard, but it’s an interesting class!!!!!” I liked him right away. He wore silver jewelry and had a laid back vibe even though he was an incredibly accomplished academic. My excitement lasted until Dr. S handed out the syllabus.
Our survey of contemporary American writers was 100% white people and one white woman. My heart sank.
The thing that really bothered me about the syllabus is that it felt fundamentally unjust. In my mind, the English requirements set up a kind of unstated agreement: After proving I could deal with Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope, I’d be rewarded with Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Zadie Smith. But here I was being force fed more white men. This was unacceptable. Dr. S was simply not upholding his end of this bargain .
When you’re black at a mostly white school, you spend a lot of your time being reminded of what an outsider you are. You feel like you’re meant to be “window dressing” for the “diverse college experience” advertised in glossy brochures and websites. You aren’t supposed to make much of a fuss because — and this is key — the implication is that as a black student you’re supposed to feel lucky to be in college at all.
We are told every day that our history is not American history. We are told that our writers are not American writers. We are told that our culture is not American culture.
In my moment of frustrated disappointment, it was tempting to just check out of my own education all together. It would have been so easy to just accept the syllabus, keep my head down, and coast through the rest of the semester.
I went to college in the heart of the Dixieland south. The only reason black students had a voice at my college in the first place was because they refused to accept the status quo. They got frustrated. They agitated. They were impolite. They made demands:
Frustrated by lingering prejudice on campus, the students rose from a meeting and strode across Fifth Street to ask why, nearly seven years after the first black student enrolled at East Carolina, they still endured the playing of Dixie at football games. Why the Confederate battle flag appeared at sponsored events. Why there still were no black professors.
I owed it these students who came before me not to accept that which I found unacceptable. I had to at least try. I had to use my voice.
By the time I was ready to make my pitch to Dr. S, I’d practiced it in front of the mirror so many times I didn’t need notecards. Finding a sweet spot between respectful and firm wouldn’t be easy, but it was the tone I was going for. I planned to logically and carefully explain to Dr. S why only assigning white men was a mistake. I’d convince him that a more diverse syllabus would ultimately be better for everyone’s educational experience, not just my own.
“Dr. S?” I started, knocking on his half-open office door. He welcomed me in.
“I have some serious concerns about the syllabus,” I said nervously. “This is supposed to be a survey of contemporary American writers. There aren’t any black writers and there’s only one woman.”
My voice cracked. There was a dampness in the palms of my hands. All of a sudden, I was hyperaware of how genuinely terrified I was to tell this important white man how I felt.
This was the point in my speech where I was supposed to present research that being exposed to diversity on campus benefits both white students and black students. In the version I practiced in the mirror, I was supposed to end by reminding Dr. S that most people would be exposed to writers like Kurt Vonnegut at some point in their lifetime, but far less would ever even hear about writers like Octavia Butler. But I didn’t say any of this. I got so flustered that I couldn’t even recall the notes I’d spent days memorizing.
“It’s…it just isn’t fair,” I managed to spit out, sounding a lot more whiny than I’d meant to.
After what felt like a full hour of awkward silence, Dr. S nodded. “Thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention,” he added.
I biked to my dorm with hot tears stinging my cheeks in the wind.
Why had I lost my nerve? Why did I sound so firm in my dorm room mirror only to sound so sniveling in front of Dr. S? Why didn’t I give my entire speech? I grew up in a family of passionate arguers. This wasn’t the way my pitch was supposed to go. I thought about my brother finishing a degree a state away at Hampton, a historically black university. I wondered if it wasn’t time for me to join him.
The next day in class, I couldn’t even face Dr. S. I pulled out my phone even though I had no one to text. “I should just keep my head down,” I thought to myself as the other students filed into the classroom.
Dr. S started handing out a stack of papers. It was a photocopy of “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker.
“Someone brought to my attention that our syllabus is pretty white,” Dr. S told the class. “We’re going to mix it up a little bit. We’ll start with this short story.”
After class was dismissed, I stayed behind.
“Thanks again for your feedback about the syllabus,” Dr. S said cheerily while erasing the board.
“But…I thought you weren’t going to do it,” I stammered, still baffled.
“What do you mean?” he said with a laugh. “It was a good suggestion. I’m glad you said something!”
In addition to Alice Walker, we’d go on to read Gwendolyn Brooks, Sherman Alexie, and Margaret Atwood and I never forgot Dr. S.
This is how I learned how much power there is in saying something. I’d spent weeks prepping for a big showdown with Dr. S, but in the end all I needed to do was ask.
People of color are trained to stay quiet so often that we forget how loud our voices can be when we use them. We forget that we don’t have tolerate that which we find intolerable or accept that which we find unacceptable. We can say no. We can make demands. We can agitate. And we can win.