The Black Experience: Final Thoughts

The thought of attending Suny Geneseo, and even when registering for this course, I had difficulty facing my own self doubt and skepticism. Dr. McCoy has always challenged me, even when I didn’t want the push. I took an English course (Reader & Text: Interdisciplinary) with her my freshman year, in similar, those uncomfortable feelings stirred up on the first day of this class. Pondering what to write for this paper, I looked back at prior work from her class. I came across my final reflective essay (from freshman year) emphasizing that, When I sat down in Professor McCoy’s class back in late August, I wanted to run. I immediately felt intimidated and surrounded by many white faces. The confidence that I built throughout the summer slowly faded as I took that seat. Four years later, I questioned if those feelings lingered. I didn’t want to remain in the same place as freshman year. I knew that I made significant progress as a learner, but was it enough? As a first-semester college student, I noticed that I disassociated from the content I learned in my experience with Dr. McCoy’s Reader &Text class. I excluded myself from peer conversations. I remained silent during class discussions Dr. McCoy facilitated. For months, I just sat there and observed. Truthfully, I wanted someone to see my pain. I was one of the few people of color in my class learning about my own history. In my prior educational experiences before Geneseo, I can only remember learning about basic black history like civil rights. I always knew my teachers weren’t telling me everything. Even though I was frustrated with my classes in my adolescent education and it’s lack of, I still felt uncomfortable because I didn’t feel connected with my own history. Dissociation seemed easier then acceptance. 

Prior to my college career, my classrooms were filled with students who looked like me. I felt uneasy discovering those untaught truths at a predominantly white institution. In angst, I was not comfortable with unpacking the learning material with my peers because I assumed they couldn’t understand. I failed to notice that my presence in class could possibly help my peers become more conscious of material. I failed to notice how much my opinion mattered. Throughout this semester, I began to realize that my fears and doubts were blinding my ability to see clearly: the skill of noticing. For so long, I have normalized the feeling of being uncomfortable, it has failed me to see when I’ve actually grown. I have come to the conclusion that I was self-conscious (my freshman year) about my black identity; my black experience in our society. Had you asked me, “What is the black experience”? I can’t give you an answer because of the assumptions I previously generated. I am grateful though that the reading material in this class has helped me identify with the black experience on a deeper level. 

While glancing at the syllabus on the first day, I didn’t notice the course epigraph. I can be very oblivious at times, instead of focusing on the big picture. I didn’t pay attention, simply because I let my eyes glaze over and didn’t care to figure out what it meant. As usual, I was more focused on the books I needed to purchase, the grading rubric, and the assignment due dates. Little did I know, the course epigraph, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice”, would be my greatest take-away from this semester. While shifting through the material we read in this course, each novel carried its own connotation of the black experience. Whether the novel was fiction or nonfiction, each story embodied a different layer. As I began to familiarize myself with the black experience through the books, what emerged for me was a history of struggle. It was the story of people who had been stripped of their rights and their humanity by a structural system of racism. It was the story of a people who, in spite of oppression, never gave up nor did they lose their sense of self.

When reading Percival’s Everett’s Zulus, Everett explores the black experience through the critical lens of a post-apocalyptic world. The characters in Zulus are mostly women, deal with a devastated post-apocalyptic world doomed to no return. People are undeniably scarred by an environmental catastrophe making all women unable to bear children. All except for one: Alice Achitophel. In her attempt to grapple with reality, she must decipher what’s real from what’s not. Readers, like myself are submerged into the life of Alice, an obese government clerk, rejected by society, and the only fertile woman in her world. Alice is both insider and outsider in a world where state violence transforms life into a dystopia. On this dying planet, Alice must cope with being grotesquely obese, impregnated, alone, and afraid. Similar to Alice, many African-Americans feel isolated, alone, and unable to be understood by society. At the end, readers see how Alice realizes that she is the fate of the planet and her resilience and struggle is clearly noted. African-Americans throughout time did not yield (like Alice) in time of strife, they fought through. Everett’s work becomes apparent in his take on the black experience, urging that his readers notice this. 

In the eyes of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans by Harriet A. Washington, my fourth blog post touches base on the maltreatment of African-American inmates in the medical field. Why were prisoners universally desirable subjects for medical research? African-Americans have always been dramatically over-represented in jails and prisons. During this era, prisoners were powerless, uneducated, poor, feared/hated by their communities, and expendable. According to Washington, “Prisoners had been commonly used as research subjects, and after the Civil War, the United States was the only nation in the world continuing to legally use prisoners in clinical trials. Federal, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic companies’ money catalyzed a thirty-year boom in research with prisoners” (p. 249). Inmates were only seen as steady influx of profit. Unfortunately, this is another take on the black experience. They were treated like property. Alas, reading Medical Apartheid uncovered another layer of what it meant to be black in America.

The most insidious and dangerous experiments included injections, flash burns from heat radiation, drugs that would cause hallucinations, and skin tests that produced painful rashes. Edward Anthony, a black Holmesburg inmate during the mid 1960’s attests to his experience and stated that, “Some drugs caused temporary paralysis or helplessness, or even placed [me] into a catatonic state, from which [I] could neither communicate nor react to [my] surroundings. Others caused prolonged nausea… and provoked long-term violent behavior” (p. 251). Despite the history and evidence of using black bodies as caged subjects, jailed African-American research subjects “remained largely invisible in the medical and popular literature until the 1960s” (Washington, 254). The same exclusion of black history exists in our educational system. I can conclude that this is another layer of the black experience. African-Americans can be so resilient, but still face immense amount of oppression. The black experience is ambiguous, yet complex. There are many layers to the experience that I’m even still learning to grasp. To be black in America is an enigma in and of itself.

Looking back at this course, I have learned so much about my history and the many layers of the black experience. What it means to be African-American is an ever-changing definition that encompasses so much of my life. I’m still learning just like my peers. Dr. McCoy’s classes have taught me valuable lessons about growth, strength, and courage to unpack the layers of the uncomfortable.

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