In Fall of 1990, exactly thirty years ago, I headed to Rutgers University as a college freshman. Prior to arriving on campus, most of what I knew about college I learned from watching A Different World.
Weeks before the fall semester started, I received my housing and roommate assignment. The welcome letter shared information about orientation weekend and an encouragement for new students to call their roommates and to get to know each another prior to arriving on campus. Yes, before email, Facebook, and Instagram, we called each other…from a house phone…with a cord…that attached to the wall. I remember my first conversation with my roommate. She sensed that I was different. She said she could hear it in my voice – the way I talked. “Are you Black?” she asked. “You’re the first Black person I know.
I was one of two Black people on my residence hall floor that year. That was nothing new to me. I grew up in a predominantly White neighborhood. What was new to me was residing, day and night, in a predominantly White space. What was new to me was the near-daily experience of having to explain my hair routine. What was new to me was the gaze of onlookers as I placed a satin scarf on my head each night. The questions were draining, not because curiosity is inherently invasive, but because the inquisitiveness often carried racial judgment.
I was ten when I learned that race matters. I was in the fifth grade. We were preparing to read a passage about the Underground Railroad. My teacher asked if I could stand up and tell the class about the Underground Railroad because, in his words, “After all, those are your kind of people.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew from the tone of his voice and his chiding smile there was little affection for my kind of people. I stood silently with a mix of shame and embarrassment until he permissioned me to sit down. It was the first of many classroom experiences that left me feeling naked under the racial gaze.
In some ways, college was different. I had choices. The course catalog was as thick as the Yellow Pages (staying on my phone theme). As an English major, I could choose from a menu of literature courses. Goodbye Herman Melville, Arthur Miller, and Charles Dickens. Hello Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes. College was the first time I was introduced to and read a book written by a Black author. When I read the Harlem Renaissance writers, words came alive on the pages. I had no relationship to these authors, but they tapped a common, ancestral memory and gave me a language for things I knew in my bones. College, or at least my classes with Professor Cheryl Wall, were different. I saw my full humanity in the pages I read.
College was also the time that I started to understand that something was wrong with our criminal justice system. It was my junior year. As I was sitting in my dorm room one afternoon, I was startled by a commanding knock. I opened the door to two men who identified themselves as federal agents. They showed me their badges and explained they were investigating a case of scholarship fraud and they thought I might have some information related to the case. They placed a police sketch in front of me and asked if I knew who was pictured. I didn’t, but their line of questioning moved quickly from “Do you know who this is?” to “Isn’t this you?” They were insistent and continued to point out the resemblance. Nothing made sense in that moment. I don’t know that I’ve ever described the experience as racialized. I don’t know that it was. The sketch was racially ambiguous at best. What I know is that by this time in my life most things took on racial meaning.
It was that same year that a young African American man was shot in the back by a police officer a few miles from my college campus. That week, we marched in protest, stopping traffic on New Brunswick’s Route 18. I didn’t really know why I was marching or if it mattered. What I know now is that I was looking for an outlet and a community to help make sense of something that just didn’t seem right. I didn’t find answers then, but I certainly had questions.
Those same questions resurfaced several years after I graduated from college. I was living and working just outside of New York City. The news reported the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant living in the Bronx. He was the victim of mistaken identity, unarmed, and fired at forty-one times by four officers while trying to enter his apartment. More than twenty years later, that number is still incalculable to me.
As I reflect on the past several months and sit in this current moment, I am flooded by so many memories. I hold those memories in my body. Sometimes they make me strong. Sometimes they make me angry. Sometimes they make me cower under the fear of the racial gaze. Often they make me hyper attuned to my environment. But always and in all ways, my memories motivate me to address how racism is manifested in our lives and our relationships with institutions and one another.
Thirty years later, my memories don’t seem very distant from the experiences of our students of color. Our students want a curriculum that positions them as more than objects of history. So did I. They want a campus environment free of racial bias and harm. So did I. They want residence hall experiences that foster mutual exchange and understanding, not racial voyeurism. So did I. They want faculty, staff, and administrators who are willing to interrogate and change systems that continue to cast them as “different” and to challenge the very norm against which their difference is calculated. So did I.
I don’t want to speak for our students. They do a fine job on their own. In June, we heard them speak. Now, it’s September, and I’m asked, “What are we going to do? We have to do something.” I agree with that sentiment now just as I did thirty years ago. This is not new to me.
I am hopeful this year, but not because I have any evidence to suggest that change – deep, sustained, scalable change – is possible. I am hopeful because we serve a God who does the impossible. I am hopeful because we have an opportunity in our brokenness and limitations to step into the redemptive places where Christ’s grace and mercy abound. I am hopeful because we have all that we need at our disposal to do the messy, difficult, and crucial work of reconciliation and repair. And now, we have to do the work.
To help facilitate our work together this year, our quarterly newsletter will follow a simple pattern that includes an opening message, followed by an invitation to read, reflect, and respond. Our work cannot remain in the domain of the intellectual or sympathetic, it must also express itself in practice. Therefore, each issue will provide resources for us to grow our knowledge (head), explore our personal and faith connections to this work (heart), and deepen our efforts (hands).
I love you and urge you to engage head, heart, and hand as we dive in. I also urge you to let me know (in kind, gentle ways) when I’m not listening well or when I’m falling short. I am still learning, too. We can and must continue to do this work in service to our students and to one another. As we journey together, I pray that we will joyfully embrace the promise of reconciliation and hope of repair, and that we will do so with an expectancy that God can and will do more than we ever imagined.
Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence