Brothers and sisters

Amanda Bennett

I would like to address the contents of my senior column to the black community of The University of Alabama. All too often, we find ourselves trapped within the margins, relegated to functioning as social and academic afterthoughts. This piece is for you.

“Teach me how to talk to white people.”

I was meeting with a black student who had recently been inducted into several elite organizations at UA. He was brilliant—in addition to his perfect academic record, he was eloquent, insightful and ambitious. He had already been identified as a member of the selectively chosen black intelligentsia, as he was obsessively being groomed to replace us as a representative of black achievement at the University.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Just talk to them.”

“No, no, no,” he said. “There’s something about the way that you talk to them that makes them listen to you, respect you. I don’t know how to address my white friends and classmates when they say or do racist things. I don’t know how to make them hear or see me.”

What could I tell him? I could lie and say that I had always had all the answers, that I had naturally been gifted with the ability to make people confront the uncomfortable brutality within themselves. Or I could tell the truth and say that really, white people didn’t listen to me. They ground the uncomfortable sharpness of reality against the dull surface of their unwavering convictions, straining my words through a sieve over and over again until they had fashioned an acceptable black panacea for white guilt.

But by then I knew that some truths must be unearthed with time, so instead I told him about myself.

As black people, we are taught to view ourselves as refracted light in a half-empty glass—a distorted and inverted version of whiteness, never becoming privy to our true reflections in a mirror of our choosing. There is something unsettling and strange about this unspoken dissonance (generally referred to as “double consciousness”). It is an impossible and intangible burden that we silently bear in addition to universal concerns about academics, love, our careers and self-determination. How can you expect someone to thrive when they are in a constant state of upheaval and surveillance? And perhaps that is the point.

We enter college hoping for unprecedented freedom—freedom to express ourselves, make mistakes, broaden our perspectives and to be ushered into adulthood and all of the promises of clarity and prosperity that we believe it will bring. Instead, we are peppered with questions from our white peers—not quite bigoted enough to make national news and blackball them from any reasonable place of employment, but certainly callous enough to make it very clear that you are an outsider and always will be. If you are poor, you will feel out of place because you lack the neatly tailored clothes and expensive international excursions of your peers. If you are rich, all eyes will be on you, waiting for the implosion of the bright black star in the expensive car.

“Are you on welfare?”

“Do all black people eat collard greens?”

“Why do black people talk so ghetto?”

“Why didn’t the slaves just free themselves?”

And it wears on you, settling into the grooves of your shoulders and the muscles in your jaw. You are tense, ready, alone, donning your invisible armor each day as you venture out into unpredictable territory that should feel like home. You shut down, stripping away essential parts of yourself that are uncomfortable with inequality and segregation in the hope that squeaky wheels are the only ones that get greased (this is not true). You survive. You do not live, slowly forgetting about the joyous parts of the human experience that make life worthwhile, packing them away in a heavy valise that awaits your return in a corner of your closet. “I’ll go back to who I am when I leave this place,” you think, ignoring the fact that a bowed head is incapable of looking toward the future.

So you get involved, if only to pass the time. You rise higher and higher and everyone is pleased. You are the lone dark face in the framed group photograph, the one representation that we are not n——s and are just human enough to fraternize with the privileged, if only for a few hours. It is strange, being the only black person in a room of white wealth and power. You are a dark rock in a briskly moving stream, its current breaking to move around you as you yearn to be eroded instead. You wish to join the stream in order to dam it up, to prevent the drain of resources that has plagued you and your people for so long. You wish to assuage the survivor’s guilt that rises up inside of you each time someone calls you “well-spoken” or intelligent because you know that life plays people like a lottery, giving so much to so few as others like us languish in jail or in poverty or are simply dead. You want to do something.

But one rock alone is always lost in the current, swallowed up by its own singular ambition. Icarus drowned because he flew too far, too fast, alone. There is no honor in tokenism. There should be no pride or happiness taken in being the only black person in the room. Do not deceive yourself, coercing yourself to believe that refracted light of your own fears can ever compare to the unparalleled peace of seeing who you truly are in the mirror and loving yourself deeply.

Power inevitably corrupts, especially for people like us. We become so absorbed in cutting each other’s throats for the crumbs of prosperity that we forget that there is a feast happening in the ballroom next door. Do not eat while your brothers and sisters are starving. Your time at the table is fleeting, so use it wisely and with integrity. Mentor the young ones. Be a resource and a confidant who compels them to dream even bigger than you ever thought possible. The importance is never with the individual, but rather with the work they are able to accomplish. Disagreement among you about what is the best “way” to achieve equality is natural. Blackness is not a monolith, and our individual experiences have shaped how we perceive the world. You’ll be tempted to fight amongst each other, to tear each other down as you jockey for room within the bell jar that you now consider home. Do not take the bait.

Recently, I attended a dinner society meeting with another black member of the society and a young black student whom we were mentoring. We had begun bringing young black students to these meetings in order to expose them to opportunities that we had never had access to as underclassmen. We were the only black people in attendance, and the topic of discussion was the tentative future of the South.

“Tear it all down,” I said, referring to the South. “Tear it all down and build it anew so that everyone has a fair chance at success.” The white guests bristled. Shortly after my speech, a formerly prominent (white) member of the Machine stood up to rebut my argument. He was gleeful, hardly managing to contain himself. This was his chance, he must have thought, to put the uppity Negress in her place in a way that the secrecy of the Machine had prevented him from doing for years.

“I don’t think we should tear it down. The South is an incredible place, and I think we should all work together to make it a better place instead of complaining.” (The irony of a Machinist expressing a desire to improve the South was not lost on me).

I could have said something. I should have said something. I could have erupted and yelled as I had been doing all year, using facts and historical narratives to prove that white supremacy was as deeply embedded in our culture as a troubling splinter in one’s heel. But I didn’t because I wanted to set a good example for the young black student whom we had brought to the dinner. I did not want her to be denied opportunities because of my own ideological woes. I was ashamed of myself. Was this what I had fought for? To sit adjacent to the table of fortune, surrounded by portraits of old white people who had earned their degrees at a time when my ancestors were still sharecropping in rural Alabama? Had I really fought for this, the indoctrination of young black students into a system that had brought me little joy and treated white supremacy as fodder for polite dinner conversation? Was this the woman I had truly become?

We decompressed during the car ride home.

“I can’t believe it!” I said. “All of those white people in the room, and not one of them put him in his place.”

The other two passengers shook their heads. There was nothing to say that had not already been written, marched for or cried over.

The young student’s voice emerged from the back seat, unsure. “Well…what if we just started our own dinner society, where we can talk about things that matter to us on our own terms?”

It was so simple, so clear. What if this was the solution that had evaded us always, spinning just out of our peripheral vision as we struggled to accept the terrifying freedom of our own fully realized potential?

We are brothers and sisters, all of us, forming patchwork communities in desolate spaces. We are far more resilient, powerful, and brilliant than we know. You are more than a dark-skinned male in a hoodie or simply “pretty for a black girl.” We are human, beautifully and tragically so, and deserving of far more than slivers of refracted light and the crumbs of dying dreams. There are endless possibilities peeking from behind the mountaintop, peering directly at us as they grasp the mirrors of our own self-actualization. I am not sure what is next for us because the answer to that exists only in the collective experiences and actions of younger students. But know that I am ten toes down. Always.

Amanda Bennett is a senior double majoring in English and African American Studies. She has served as president of the National Council of Negro Women, the Huffington Post Campus Editor-at-Large for the University of Alabama, and co-founded the We are Done movement. After graduation, she will be pursuing a M.A. in women’s studies at The University of Alabama.