This guest post is written by a good friend in the blogosphere after I invited him to share his wealth of experiences with us. I enjoyed reading this article and even more so, his blog. His words, the willingness to admit his flaws in this post, touched a raw nerve in me. How many of us can admit to their mistakes? Particularly, one as sensitive as racism?
If you love his writings and want more, check out his website right now!
When I received confirmation that I was to be hired as an Instructor of English at Alcorn A&M, a small Historically Black College (HBCU) in south central Mississippi, I was ecstatic. My mother and I danced in the living room. She was happy because she wouldn’t have to pay my next car note. I was happy for a number of other reasons: getting out of the house was close to the top, but snagging a teaching post at the college level had been my dream. For me, a young, white, southern boy fresh out of graduate school, that dream had now come true. It was late September 1972.
It is important to note that we boomers got our first jobs in a world without Windows. I had never heard of Alcorn A&M College. I had never been to Mississippi. I had access to zero information. There was no Google, no Facebook, no Wikipedia. What I knew about Alcorn A&M was the printed information on a 3 x 5 card provided by the placement agency. I knew that I would teach Composition and Literature. I knew the student population was around 2400. I knew it was a predominantly black institution. In those days, you learned the particulars of your new job when you showed up!
I left Nashville and drove due west on Interstate 40 to Memphis and then turned south onto Highway 61, a.k.a. the blues highway, and followed the river into deep south Mississippi. I drove through the Delta, past Clarksdale, Yazoo City, Vicksburg and finally, I turned onto a curvy two-lane road that pushed through woods and past a few homes. This road, I would come to learn, was the “seven-mile stretch.” It connected Alcorn with Highway 61—the road that led to the outside world. The closest town, Fayette, (home of martyred Civil Rights activist, Medgar Evers) was fifteen miles to the south. The next closest town was Port Gibson, seventeen miles to the north. The college campus was literally in the woods and home for ninety-five percent of its faculty. Just off campus, there was a small convenience store with a gas pump and across the street—a laundromat.
But I was young and from a rural area, so, no problem. What I wasn’t ready for was the fact that I had been “assigned” a room on campus. The chairwoman who hired me, Mrs. T. a quiet, intelligent, hardworking lady informed me that I could move into a single-room efficiency apartment in an on-campus two-story brick building known as The Faculty Dorm. The blood drained from my face. I lied and stated that I had already procured living arrangements in Port Gibson. I literally could not bring myself to live in a pre-dominantly black community. It was impossible. After receiving my teaching assignment, I fled to Port Gibson, where I managed to rent a trailer.
I could not articulate the truth of my feelings. I loved teaching. I was happy to have a job, but I could not live in the midst of so many black folks. It was too much to ask. No. Hell no. Mrs. T. informed me that the “efficiency” would remain empty for one month, in case I changed my mind.
I discussed this with a co-worker in a small work room. His name was D. He and I, both white, were the new hires for English. He was from Louisiana, a large, hulking guy who loved movies. The Godfather was his favorite. We talked and joked in low voices about students and other faculty members—black faculty. In fact, he lived in the Faculty Dorm. He knew things, first hand. He whispered horror stories about the place, which supported my decision not to live there. He also told racist jokes, at which I laughed heartily. I stayed in Port Gibson.
A few months into the job, I met a few other young, white guys, one of which taught speech and theater. His name was R. I liked him. He was intelligent, witty, and well read. To my great concern, I noticed after a few “get-togethers” whenever I showed up, he would excuse himself and leave. I finally asked a third party. “Why does R. leave after I show up.” My colleague replied, “You won’t like the answer.”
But I had to know. “What?” I asked. “What?” I let out a small laugh. The response came in a flat tone: “You use the N word…a lot.” Even now, years later, I remember the absolute shock of that remark. I denied it. I flat denied it. “No way. I don’t…” My colleague shrugged. “You do. You don’t hear yourself.” He frowned at me. “And it’s well known that you and D. tell racist jokes in the workroom.”
The truth hit home with the force of a hammer-blow.
I drove to Port Gibson in a daze. That evening I faced myself in the mirror. “You are a racist.” I repeated the accusation loudly. “You are a racist.” I didn’t burst into tears. I didn’t collapse emotionally. I stared and stared at the reflection as if I were seeing my “self” for the first time.
From that moment on, I consciously resisted those attitudes and beliefs that had been ingrained in my mind from the day I was born. I likened it to alcoholism. Once you are alcoholic, you are never cured, but you can admit it, and you can stop drinking.
Within a year of that realization and admission of my culturally inherited racist nature, I moved my trailer within walking distance of the campus. My neighbors were all African American. I visited with them. I listened to them. I stayed after hours at the office and talked with my colleagues. I spent hours after class talking and listening to students. I sponsored an English club. I got involved in university drama. After seven years, I sold my trailer and moved into that Faculty Dorm. My old friend, D. had long moved out.
It was not as easy to change my ways as one might think. The enculturated notion “white privilege” does not dissolve, but it can be diminished. For instance, I remember being one of only a few white person in the audience of over five hundred black students and faculty when Stokely Carmichael, a black activist out the sixties, gave a powerful speech, the theme –“White people are sick, and we need to cure them.” It was uncomfortable, but I sat there and listened to every word. It was one of many, many experiences that would reveal to me, to a small degree, what it meant to be a minority. More importantly, it also opened my mind to consider how “dominance” as in dominant society operates in every domain as a blocking agent toward the “other.”
So, to what extent was I able to reduce my racist nature, to contain it, like some virulent virus locked up in cold storage, never to escape? Over time, as in years, I think I achieved my personal goal. One incident stands out. It was totally non-dramatic. It was a mundane, ordinary, simple occasion, and yet for me it had the effect of an earthquake.
I had been working at Alcorn for five years. One evening on campus, I was walking back to my car. It was late, almost dark. I saw two black male students a short distance ahead. They were walking in the same direction, talking, laughing in normal voices. I listened and suddenly I realized the student on the left was one of my students from the previous semester. I knew exactly who he was by the sound of his voice, by the cut of his hair, by the very way he walked. It sounds silly, but for me, a white man born and raised in the south, it was a life affirming experience, a milestone. I called his name, and he responded, “Hey, Dr. Broome.” That moment wrote itself onto my heart. I knew I had come a long way.
I realized at that very moment I had beaten racism.
Five years ago, because RACISM ENGENDERS FEAR, I would have absolutely believed that walking across a black campus at night would be life-threatening. Also, because RACISM ERASES IDENTITY, I would have believed those two young black men were whispering about me. They were thinking to pull a gun and rob me. If I raised my hand in defense, they might even kill me.
But indeed, at that moment those thoughts did not exist. The young black man was Edward, a student who had written several intriguing essays in my freshman composition class. He lived in Fayette, Mississippi. He had a great sense of humor. He joked about his grandmother who called him every now and to remind him not to buy beer at the convenience store. We walked on together.
After thirty-seven years of serving in the classroom and administration, I came to a realization. The educational workplace isn’t just an environment where one earns money and/or professional status. Nor is it just a community of wage-earners who “show-up” to achieve a stated goal bulleted in a dusty mission statement. Ultimately the “school” is an institution that strives to improve students’ lives through acquisition of knowledge. The success of this endeavor rests on one fundamental premise for all teachers and all students: Know thyself.
The effort to comprehend your own humanness is the ultimate life-long learning course.
I spent a happy childhood and teenage years in Nashville, Tennessee. After fumbling through college and a disastrous first teaching job in Georgia, I finally–at least to some extent–figured out how to think critically while earning my Master’s in Literature. My writing life started when I was teen and matured in Mississippi where I spent thirty-seven years teaching at Alcorn State University. Now, in Alabama I’m happily married and writing every day.
Please visit my blog any time at: www.windblownwords.wordpress.com where I talk, laugh, and cry about the writing life. Oh, and be sure to checkout my photos from my trips to Japan–a country after my own heart.