If ever the search for a tranquil belief should end,
The future might stop emerging out of the past,
Out of what is full of us; yet the search
And the future emerging out of us seem to be one.
—Wallace Stevens, “Like Decorations in a Nigger
Though I’ve had a long career as a student, and then a teacher, I’ve always hated “school”—the morning and afternoon bells; teachers and teaching; lessons and assignments; pop quizzes and problem solving; demerits and detention; PTA and parent/teacher nights; student council and prom committee meetings; report cards and grades; standardized exams: SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT; seminar papers and oral exams; dissertation defenses and faculty meetings; tenure cases and administrative bureaucracies.
If one part of my displeasure stems from the inescapable measurements, requirements, and bureaucracy, the other part comes from being made to feel uncomfortable about my own mind, my own skin.
As a student, I’ve had many friends among my classmates, but often I’ve had no place among them—no set, no camp, no clique. Among the white kids, I was a strange mascot: an African spear-chucking, woolly-headed, correct-English-speaking surprise—the black kid you could invite over, the one whose hair you could touch without invitation or a ﬁght. With the black kids, I was a too-dark African, weirdly named, correct-English-speaking oddity, not from their neighborhoods and not welcome there either, an imposition to some of them because whatever my abilities, I was traitorous—to them I was “white.”
One morning in 1981, on the school bus to Fuqua Elementary School for a summer-school class, a black kid, who I didn’t know, spat in my face and called me nigger for sitting in the seat next to him without permission.
One morning in 1985, on the school bus to Woodrow Wilson Junior High School, a student, a white-trash motherfucker if there ever was one, called me nigger for sitting in the seat across the aisle from him without permission.
One spring afternoon in 1990, South High School, senior year, in college algebra and trigonometry class, as the bell rang to begin the session, the teacher stood in the doorway hollering at some kids to get to whatever classroom they belonged in. Turning back to her own class and pulling the door closed, she asked with consternation, but not rhetorically, “I don’t know why they act like that.” We knew the “they” to whom she referred. Spying me (the only black student in the room) in the second seat of the central row, she quickly added, “Well, we don’t think of you as black.”
When I was a high-school basketball player, my right ankle was sprained perpetually, so I taped and wrapped it tightly, learned to play in pain, learned how to be creative and explosive in spite of the post-game aches and inevitable swelling. I learned then that being a student of other people—black and white kids, black and white teachers, coaches, and administrators, black and white neighbors—could shield or protect my soul from hyperextensions, dislocations, or breaks. As a university student, though I was taped and ready to play, I wasn’t prepared for the college-game’s speed, the various performance styles, and higher stakes, and I found myself careening about.
Remember the late 1980s/early 1990s, when being a black, male, conscious, university-educated player meant keeping copies of Native Son, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Beloved on your shelves; meant developing artful, self-aware, political attitudes; meant philosophizing over illmatic beats, working out low-end theories, and penning deft death certiﬁcates? I was ﬁguring out how to be a young black man during the days of Cosby sweaters and hi-top fades, Afrocentrism and Africa medallions, Air Jordans and X hats. But there was (is) a fear of a black planet, so there was also Yusuf Hawkins and the Central Park Five; the LAPD stompin’ and wildin’ on Rodney King; the ensuing riots; the black-hole vacuum cleansing of a whole generation of black boys into long-term incarceration. You learned to live as if endangered; your books and clothes carried like talismans.