“All Longwood girls are loose and stupid!” my professor exclaimed on our first day of class. Did he know I was a Longwood girl? Surely not. And although my personal sex life was none of his business, I did make it my business to prove to him that I was, in fact, pretty smart. I didn’t have to wait too long to get my chance.
That was the summer I took a class at the community college in Hampton closest to my parent’s home. It was Western Civilization, a notoriously challenging, weed-out class at Longwood. I had my heart set on graduating early, and knocking this out over a summer was key.
A multiple choice question on a quiz provided my first opportunity to debate this crusty, old, set in his 1950’s ways, washed up man. There was simply nothing endearing about him. But I made him throw out the question: Which came first when establishing civilization? Among the multiple choice answers: language. I can’t remember what the others were. I think cities was another choice. I chose language, which he marked as wrong. I debated:
“We can’t have civilization without some form of language! I don’t care if it’s hand gestures or grunting, there has to be some way of communicating with others in order to get organized,” I told him. “I meant written language!” he replied. “Well, you didn’t specify. You just said language,” I retorted. The rest of the class applauded my success in this debate. Our professor was less than pleased.
Here was my second opportunity:
“America is the only Western nation that isn’t imperialistic,” he began during one lecture. Up my hand went.
“Um… excuse me. How exactly did America acquire these 50 states? And what about Puerto Rico and the Philippines? How can you say that we aren’t imperialistic? We colonized and stole all of this land” And thus, I proved my point. He huffed about that argument, too.
I guess I should have warned him that my dad was a history major, and I was well versed in real world and American history.
About Colonization and Slavery
Colonization. That’s a point to reconcile for me, as my family can be traced back to my ancestors who settled in Richmond in 1610. Yes, I am a descendent of original colonizers. And with that comes the knowledge that they stole land from Native Americans, and, eventually, owned slaves. Ugh. That’s an ugly past.
I can go with, “Well, that’s just the way things were,” much like whites who lived in the South deal with their feelings of guilt about living in the time of Jim Crow laws. The 1950’s. But that certainly doesn’t make me feel any better about it.
The more real knowledge of history I gain, the more I realize how awful our past truly is. A part that I didn’t think about was how trafficking humans not only robs them of their dignity, but of their identities as well.
I recently wrote an article for my local run club’s magazine about inclusion in the Richmond running community. As a part of my research for the article, I had a conversation with Max Plank, the marketing director for the Djimon Hounsou Foundation, who recently held their inaugural Run Richmond 16.19 race here in Richmond. The course was a historically significant one, as it closely followed slave trails established at the height of the slave trade, as Richmond was a major hub. One of the purposes of this race was to help Americans of African descent to reestablish their identities. Max explained that stripping people of their identities is a major construct in exerting power over them. I had never considered that aspect before.
We made Africans assimilate to our culture. We make all immigrants assimilate to our culture in America. Our language. Our value of material things. Our rugged individualism. Our work ethic. Our capitalistic society. Our version of religions. So, of course, a common issue is feeling detached from origins. Thus, you never feel you belong, living in the in between of your native culture and the American one that seems to exclude you, both in subtle and overt ways.
Michelle Obama made a poignant statement in her book Becoming about fitting in during her years at Princeton:
“It’s hard to put into words what sometimes you pick up in the ether, the quiet, cruel nuances of not belonging—the subtle cues that tell you to not risk anything, to find your people and just stay put.”
Beautifully stated. A feeling I can appreciate, but can never fully understand.
What do we do now?
I’m left with the feeling that I need to help make things better. After all, our society is only as great as our most marginalized members. And the more we fight to make systemic changes in favor of equality and fairness, the more pushback we are getting from those who think they are losing their pieces of pie. They don’t understand the concept of fairness at all.
It’s both sad and hilarious to witness the online temper tantrums. To watch grown white men get upset because a talented Black woman had the opportunity to play a glass flute of one of our Founding Fathers, who happened to be a slave owner? Sigh. I thought it was historically significant and amazing. To get their panties in a wad over a Black Little Mermaid? Wow. They miss the importance of representation. They miss the fact that the actor who plays her is super talented.
I know this is bigger than one movie or one amazing musical performance. But it also transcends to other marginalized members of our society. Sometimes I think there are two parallel universes in existence: all the normal, sensible people with really decent morals who stand up for others, carrying on as usual, and the minority who are fiercely holding on to the 1950’s with all of its misogyny, bigotry, and hate. It wasn’t a simpler time. It was simply a time where all of this discrimination was accepted. Well, I don’t want to go back. You shouldn’t, either. I’m ready to move forward, creating an America that really fights for liberty and justice for all.
One of the best ways to fight back is to vote, and we have a very important election coming up in November in America.
As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.