The Last Black Man on Campus

October 3, 2006 at 12:06 pm Leave a comment

by Brian Lewis

Last Monday morning, on the way to class, I ran into one of my favorite radical professors buying coffee and a bagel at a stand on West 4th. He asked me how my classes were going. I’ve learned that such a question is a usually a polite rhetorical one, so I responded accordingly with “they’re fine…” or something along those lines “Yeah but I tell ya man, Lang’s getting whiter everyday.” I cracked a smile at this, initially because it was rare to hear a white male, even one as politically astute as him vocalize the racial disparities here.

Many students of color, voice these concerns all the time. Everyday we congregate in the lunchroom and relate these stories. The narratives remind us we are not alone here. But despite this camaraderie, I still feel alone, because amongst the few black students at the school, almost all are women. I am virtually the last black man who is a student at Lang. I am who I am today because of a community of strong Black women who raised me and my level of consciousness. I’m glad the college environment allows me to at least have that. But I am missing part of myself because I am no longer able to learn and build with my brothers. I am able to talk it up with the security guards and Chartwell workers after class, but this is a different experience from sharing the classroom with them. However, I was thrilled to realize a couple days into school, that I had three black male professors this semester. One of which, stated on the second day of class that he stopped being black in 1999, he hated for people to see him as black and he frequently went out his way to bash black radical and feminist politics. I dropped his class on Thursday. He was infatuated with Nietzsche, and he wanted all of our texts and readings to be viewed and critiqued through “The uses and abuses of history”.

On Wednesday, I found myself in Sekou Sundiata’s class contemplating Nietzsche, that “black” teacher, and what it means to be American. I cannot relate to Nietzsche because of his insistent focus on radical individualism. In class, we discussed frequently, what changing the phrase in the constitution, “Life liberty and the pursuit of property” to “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” meant. Nietzsche says happiness only exists in the moment of euphoria. A moment where one’s history, place in the world is the last thing on their mind. This was evident for me in the Black teacher’s total refutatation of blackness and in the responses from other students in The America Project Class. The most important thing was for people to talk about America as a safe haven for those individuals escaping religious or ethnic persecution, people who came to these shores seeking happiness. Discussion of collective African enslavement and indigenous peoples genocide was an afterthought to the construction of European people’s personal happiness. In class Sekou asked, if it were possible to talk about experience outside of history? America would respond yes, and of course we need to, or how else will we reach the plateau of happiness. But for me, happiness is not sheer bliss but instead is the most profound knowledge. I believe happiness is an imagined and real state, not where people forget their past, history and selves, but understand it fully enough to make all of these things work toward a better society. Sekou mentioned that a constant theme in American society is reinvention of the self. I’ve thought hard about what “reinvention” means to me. Yes I “reinvent” myself all the time, in the American sense of the word. Any given day I might switch up from wearing my hair up in braids and shaving off my facial hair, wearing brand name designer clothes and timberlands, to picking my hair out letting my beard grow and bumping t-shirts adorning Che, Zapitistas or Tommy Smith and John Carlos with black power fists held high. Yes America, “allows” me and us all the this kind of freedom. Even if I changed my speech, forced myself to think differently, in the words of the roots crew “it wouldn’t feel right.” Maybe unlike America, I have a soul, an essence that grounds me and acts as my foundation. I can never run to far myself.

America, especially white rich America, surely has found a way to occupy itself so much with the culture, the affairs and ways of everything not itself that it has managed to elude itself for some time. I’m interested to read the pieces by authors who wish to face America’s foundation and its roots. I wonder if their representation will be brutally honest. I think anything too honest, will make America as we know it cease to exist, and too many people have become too comfortable and complacent in the modern day America to take a deep look under the surface. So in school, in society, those of us who wish to continue to peel away the skin of America are seen as those with failed imaginations, as if we are the ones who cannot reinvent the wheel or ourselves. But Its not that we want to always place the race or class card, its that nothing has radically changed about the way most of white America sees or talks about itself.

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Entry filed under: Culture, Race.

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