My generation is angry.
We have a lot on our plates, and the true size of the mountain we must climb is heartbreaking. Perhaps what makes this obligation so exhausting is the perception of those around us that our conflict, our burden is but an amalgamation of non-issues. Coming from the outside and the inside, there is this notion which claims that our concerns aren’t significant and that we are fighting for nothing. In being told we have so little to worry about, what persists only grows in its immensity.
I had the opportunity of attending a demonstration to show Swarthmore’s solidarity with Black students at the University of Missouri. The past two weeks have made their Columbia, Missouri home into a hellhole as the secret racism which so many Americans bear surreptitiously and unknowingly exposed itself in social media, in terror-inducing comments and in gut-wrenching “expressions” of hatred. How poignant that this comes in the wake of tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, France and Beirut, Lebanon. White Americans are the first ones to decry the very brand of explicit fearmongering which has sustained this country for centuries when exercised by a different, browner people. I will not talk about Paris and Beirut, for those discussions deserve a far more intimate and detailed description of my feelings, the likes of which are evolving as the issue is further discussed. I will however talk about Mizzou, Yale and the incident which happened last week at Dartmouth.
The terrorism of Black students at the University of Missouri is a testament to the uncomfortable relationship that Black students have with academic spaces. Only sixty years ago, many of the institutions which we herald as American bastions of education were reluctant or openly against the idea of admitting Black students. Issues relating to the Black identity were deemed “un-academic” and Black professors found it incredibly difficult to find and land tenure-track jobs at white institutions. The notion that “we have surpassed this” is far from true. Many of those old-time citadels of learning – Swarthmore, Amherst, Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia, Williams – are still referred to as PWIs (predominately white institutions) for these schools still cater to the interests of a white aristocratic ruling class which fills their coffers with money in order to continue its agendas. The wealthy philanthropists to whom we pray like false gods are not from my generation and seem to have very little interest in my generation. Many of these philanthropists, in fact, remember their times at college without Black faces other than the staff in charge of cleaning their rooms.
American culture creates an unhealthy dream of the relationship between college and Black students – the belief that by going to college, one will transcend one’s condition, will escape the day-to-day issues of race which plague the common man. It posits that academic spaces are based on reason and congenial discourse among peers, but refuses to accept the reality of its own biases, of its own unwillingness to analyze its own ironic ignorance. We are continuously fed the idea that a Black person with a college degree is somehow more respectable, more dignified, more human than one who is bereft, and that that degree will shield that Black person from racism, for a zealot’s bullet. It does not say that collegiate spaces have very little interest in Black issues, have relegated the works and gripings and triumphs of forty million into programs without the ability to hire or offer tenure to its faculty. The dream of academic spaces as possessing the ability to scrub clean from the wretched masses their narcissure is a fallacy we continue to feed our children, and a fallacy my generation grows tired of hearing.
The protest at Swarthmore in solidarity with University of Missouri students was organized by members of the Intercultural Center and the Swarthmore African-American Student Society. Demonstrators linked arms and lined the length of Parrish Hall. Clad in black clothes, participants were given printouts of various political ephemera – the 1968 demands from the Black student body for better representation and increased Black faculty, pictures from the SASS “Letters To” social media campaign – and asked to remain silent for the duration of the passing time between classes. Black-identifying students were given duct tape to gag themselves in order to symbolize the silencing of Black collegiate voices throughout American history.
When the first students began to trickle in, it became apparent to me that our demonstration had a hidden agenda other than projecting the visibility of Black struggle and marginalization onto Swarthmore’s pristine, SJW-latent campus. In watching students squirm at the unease of walking through a surveilled corridor of brown bodies, I noticed that they experienced a certain discomfort, if even for a moment, at their own condition, at their distances from the issue, at their ability to push the supposed strife of 39 million people out of their minds. In walking those seemingly interminable fifteen seconds from one end of Parrish to the other, they experienced what it meant to be watched, to live in a state of panic.
Disquiet. Disquiet is central to the notion of protest, for disquiet stems from disillusionment. In watching protesters get sprayed by hoses on national television or children scream as dogs are sicked upon them, the spectator sees in this transaction the diminishment of the human condition in its rawest and most tangible form. The visual culture of the demonstration awakens in the mind a sense of psychic unease, the source of which is the questioning of the dream-like world we so desperately wish to inhabit. The world of racelessness and classlessness, a world devoid of color.
Disquiet was the tactic used by Malcolm X in his famous speeches which sought to rip African-Americans from their forced sleep so that they could see the world for what it really was, see how Americans really functioned. Disquiet was the tactic used by Swarthmore students in 1969 who stormed the Admissions Office and permanently disturbed the liberal purity of their institution. Disquiet was the tactic of the Black Panthers, clad in glistening leather, bearing machine guns in their hands, striking terror into the hearts of California whites who had grown accustomed, had grown dependent on the image of the subservient, quiet and submissive Negro of yesteryear.
The very notion of protest, of demonstration, of subversion, strikes at the neutral lull which the dominant society yearns to maintain.
At Dartmouth, students took disquiet to another level. Storming the library at peek studying time, Dartmouth Black Lives Matters protesters apparently assaulted white students with verbal cries like “Fuck you white bitch” and “I don’t care about you.” The Dartmouth Review posted an editorial slamming the demonstration for its violence towards Dartmouth students, who apparently “only wanted to study.”
While I personally believe that this form of demonstration lacks the sort of sophistication to which we are accustomed to seeing, the act nonetheless embodies this notion of disquiet better than any other. The permanent and constant sense of unease which Black students must endure, are trained to endure, was projected – violently – onto these well-to-do Dartmouth students if only for a few seconds. White students became aware of the sort of historical violence which Black students have been subjected to for years, and while we may continue to believe that academic spaces offer an escape from the day-to-day struggles of race and class in America, this notion is anything but true, particularly in the wake of racial conflict in academic spaces across the United States.
Black people are expected to behave in a way which is unfair to us. We are expected to conduct ourselves via the same respectability politics of the Civil Rights Movement and are the subject to bitter scrutiny in the case that our fury bubbles up into violence, despite understanding that violence has pushed us to where we are. Our politics are injected with Christian values of “turning the other cheek” and “loving thy neighbor” while our neighbors continue to beat us senseless and call us hysterical for crying at our being abused.
Violence is disturbing in all its manifestations. It threatens calm and is an enemy to peace, but very rarely is violence warranted. Yet, in dealing with issues of “warranted violence” it is imperative that we reject the biases which so often muddy our perspectives and seek to rob Black people of their agency.
I do not believe that what happened at Dartmouth was right. I do not believe that schools across the nation should rise up and terrorize their white communities for the pain that our ancestors have suffered and that we consider to suffer. But I do believe that the way we conduct ourselves in our pursuit of freedom as Black people requires us to completely reject the notions which White America has both created and tailored for our liking. The curse of respectability is only geared towards fooling White society that Black people are good enough, which ultimately stems from an understanding that this concept is false, both from White and Black America. To move forward as a nation, we must shirk off the opinions of White society and turn our revolutionary gaze entirely inward.
Disquiet is powerful. Disquiet is revolutionary.