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.

Fear of the Anomoly

Some of our strongest abilities are weakened with the sight of fear. Being frightened is indeed an experience. We are a society that adores fear. We thrive off of it; creating terror movies, the influence of shows like Fear Factor, and the media’s portrayal of it. Yet others find it horrifying to leave their homes, to walk down the street; to live. Fear is experienced by many, but only defined by few. Fear is a bodily reaction to stressful stimuli and ends with a release of chemicals that triggers a response. Fear is a feeling we’ve all dealt with before, but have trouble processing this emotion when it happens. Similar to Alice Achitophel in Zulus, fear is something we can’t control, however, we try to find solutions to fight this reaction. We try to find different ways to cope, find people to confide in, but ultimately, this feeling can overcome your psyche.

In Percival Everett’s Zulus, all characters are drowning in fear. Fear of life and death. These characters who 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 reality, she must decipher what’s real from what’s not. Whether her reality is real or not. Readers, like myself are taken into the lamentable 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 (considered by her peers), impregnanted, alone, and afraid. And like many of us (and Alice), we too, have our own dealings to cope with, still facing daily pressures: our happiness, health, and the little voice inside our heads.

There have been many instances where Alice felt daunted and uneasy during her journey in Zulus. It is a feeling that often encompasses Alice, facing the dichotomy of her feeling helpless as she was raped by a stranger (and later impregnanted) and how pivotal it is that she’s “giving birth to the first child in twelve years”. (Everett, 102). She was burdened with nightmares because of this fear. In Chapter H, Everett references her screaming in her dreams. She heard a voice yelling at her claiming that she knew ” [Alice] was infected with a child. I will catch you and kill you. You are not two lives, but half of one” (104). Earlier that day, she had an incident with Rima (a camp resident) who scorned her about being pregnant saying those same words, “I will catch you and kill you”. Post-war, it was unheard of to be a woman and fertile. Alice Achitophel faced people who hated her simply because she was an anomaly, a pregnant and obese woman. Their fear of fertility surrounded Alice because she was different. She wasn’t the norm they adapted to.

She realizes that she is the fate of the planet, but when most around her don’t understand her “condition”, she was hopeless. As said by Alice, “she knew she had no home to which to return, no friends to save the ones who had brought her here, and no hope save what these strange and unknown people offered her” (Everett, 90). She knew she was an outsider.

Alice had a choice. She could’ve chosen to kill off of her child to be accepted by her society or have a healthy baby, with the formidable task of being the only fertile woman alive. Alas, Alice chose herself. In Chapter W, we find that Alice finally welcomes the atypical; her having a child that was a product of rape. Throughout the novel, she battled with this, however, she was the hope of her dying world. She realized her offspring was “a living, breathing child that she could not let go. It was [her] child, a life”. (Everett, 243). I can’t relate to Alice’s experiences entirely, but I can personally understand the feeling of being overcome with anguish. It’s an important observation to make that feeling like an outsider, is in fact, a feeling. There is genuine truth behind this, and in truth, it can be a label you accept and let define you. Like Alice, I’ve always felt opposed to my peers for many reasons (color of my skin, my name, my country of origin). It is an easy place to stay. However, you have the power to change your reaction (to your fears) and to choose yourself and your destined path.

Don’t fear breaking the norm, fear the regret of not making your own choices.

Awake or Woke?

Are you awake or woke?

Most likely, you’ve at least heard someone use the word “woke” as an adjective, in a social media post, or in activism.

The Merriam-Webster definition of woke is as follows: A word currently used to describe “consciousness”. “Being aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”. It is truly powerful when someone is aware of the truth behind things “the man” doesn’t want you to know (i.e classism, sexism, and any other social injustices). The modern slang term is in use when you want someone to notice their privilege, complacency, and ignorance (sometimes unintentional). To be woke is to be well-informed of the problems and injustices in our country. Being woke doesn’t just apply to race. A person who is “woke” is mindful of racism and other forms of prejudice, and isn’t just going to turn a blind eye.

What does woke mean to me?

Continue reading “Awake or Woke?”