Friday, November 1, 2013

The vulnerability of collegiate black men & a note on a Jack Johnson poem

Late Saturday night, October 26, on SIUE's campus, a group of three, first-year college students were near one of the residence halls on their long boards (a kind of skateboard). At one point, a car pulled up to a stop sign near where the guys were. The passengers--all white--rolled down their window and shouted something to the effect of "get off those skateboards, niggers!" The car waited for a moment and then sped off.

The three guys with the boards were shocked and then angry.

"Rambsy," one of them said when they told me about the incident in class on Tuesday, "we thought we were about to have to fight. Until they drove off."

"Yeah, and they didn't say 'niggas," presumably in a hip hop, playful way, said another one of the guys. "They called us 'niggers,' you know with the 'er.' They were trying to start something with us."

The three guys are students in one of my classes that is comprised of all black men. Those three relayed the incident in a calm way, but they told me that they were really upset when it happened. I was really troubled and agitated, and so was the rest of the class when the narrative was retold.

I suspect women frequently get unwanted catcalls and remarks from men in cars on late nights. In fact, the issue of safety might explain why women are far less likely than men to move around campus alone or in small groups after dark. The three young guys who told me about the incident did not mention the word "safety" or the idea of feeling "vulnerable," but there was something that we all felt as we thought about what it meant to be called "niggers" by white guys on this majority white campus at 2013.

These first-year young men are a lively bunch, so in previous class periods, I've had to push the guys to settle down and laugh a little less during some of our sessions. But it occurs to me that during this discussion, the class was eerily quiet as I asked follow-up questions to the three guys about what happened.

A little later in class, we just happened to be reading and discussing a poem by Adrian Matejka about the boxer Jack Johnson. In Matejka's poem, a speaker is telling the famed heavyweight champion of the world that despite all his accomplishments and money: can't buy equality.
You can change clothes
five times a day while
speaking Italian & playing
the viol in that fancy
classical way, but you
can't change your skin.
Some of the guys wanted to know what "a viol" was. But the lesson from those white guys in the car shouting "nigger" had helped make the rest of Matejka's poem perfectly clear to us. 

Collegiate Students

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