They’ve stolen everything,” said the fellow passenger. An elderly Black man. To which I replied, raising myself from the back seat of the medical van, “And they think we’re the criminals.” “They” represented Americans hellbent on destroying even any semblance of democracy. They are organizing. The rest of us are talking. Acknowledging among ourselves that we notice. We’re thinking.
Not long ago, I forgot and attempted to connect to another woman about by lived experience: a white male neighbor’s racist behavior. Another Black woman and a Latina woman warned me about the man’s racist behavior in the recent past. For a few weeks, I heard it! He has a history of finding Black people intolerable.
But I’m wrong. Wrong! The white woman informed me that she needed to hang up. I don’t want to hear this!
In other words, Your experience, Black woman, can’t be heard! Keep your “opinions” to yourself or, if you must share, share your “opinions” among other Blacks who think like you!
That’s why I said what I said. “The gardener was my ancestor.” And I looked out at the predominantly white young faces. I began the course with that image of the gardener created by William Byrd II, Virginia. An early American writer. And owner.
In the 1700s, Byrd’s letters and writings help transform the plantation mansion into a paradise, a patriarchal garden. In one letter to a friend, he creates “gardeners,” as carefree as he is at his desk overlooking the foliage on his windowsill.
“Our negroes are not so numerous or so enterprizeing as to give us any apprehension or uneasiness nor indeed is their Labour any other than Gardening and less by far that what the poor People undergo in any other countrys. Nor are any crueltys exercized upon them, unless by great accident they happen to fall into the hands of a Brute…”
Otherwise, they are “gardeners in the garden.”
Yes, what could be cruel about this linguistically created lie?
This was the first short reading. On the second and third day of the course, the students have read, supposedly, Harriet Jacob’s narrative, particularly the chapters in which writes on the lived experience of Black girlhood on those “gardens” and why she helped to free herself and her two children by living for seven years in a hole (on a patch of that “garden”) in order to free those children, one boy and one girl, and herself from slavery.
I hear the laughter. As I raise my eyes, I catch two or three female students with books opened in front of them, but, unfortunately, not the packet of American literature I painstakingly compiled and which included the Byrd letter I just quoted above. My eyes moved pass this scene to stare in disbelief at two students so enthralled in laughter.
Is there something funny? I asked. No response. Others just stare. At me. I may be tolerated at the front of the classroom until such time as I overstep and fill in as a human, a teacher, a Black woman, with lived experience of what it’s like in a space that has always acknowledged the right of white supremacy.
The next day of class, I gave the “talk,” referring to myself, not signally out the three other people of color, as a descendant of that metaphorical “gardener.” The symbol referenced the presence of my ancestors, kidnapped, enslaved, and exploited in the South. And the response, all in the way they stared: We don’t want to hear this!
And particularly not from me or other Black professors. Professors such as Tim Wise, Sarah Churchwell, Robin DiAngelo, and others might face the wrath of hate from white parents and students determined to erase any all discussions on race from classrooms across the US. But not the white professors! At least, not yet.
I didn’t forget who I was and where I was this time! Some administrator will hear about this, what, insolence? What’s changed? Transformed?
I remember bringing up the question about my identity. To the chair, I verbalized: How do students respond to a Black professor entering the classroom? To myself, I envisioned entering a classroom on this very white campus and introducing a subject that unnerves most Americans!
I was offering to her, a challenge: my lived experience! What is this moment going to be like? Feel like? Hear me! See with me!
The subject of my identity isn’t on her schedule. She’s thinking about the content, the appearance of those “gardeners,” maybe? But the “gardeners” walk in on my shoulders! Maybe she doesn’t want to have that conversation either. Here at an institution for “higher education.”
Half my age and white, she could stand with me for one moment when it could have meant something.
Weeks prior to the start of classes, I passed signs posted on doors and on bulletin boards referring to the necessity of acknowledging Black Lives. Black Lives Matter!
But to whom? To no one in particular? Like Racism… No one in particular is a racist. Therefore…
In a conversation with an administrator, a conversation that was going well, but up to a point, up to a point, she asked (having already received my syllabus and first writing exercises) if I thought the students were ready for the content of my class?
Are the students ready?
Well, why are the students sitting in a college classroom? Why is she here?
What are they afraid of? Will there be yet another generation sitting in classrooms across the US consuming “innocence?” Are American educators to capitulate to appeasing fascists? Adjust to cuddling cruelty in the classroom and just wait?
Stealing was only the beginning. The fascists are now on to erasure!