Written by Funto Omojola
Dr. Tommy J. Curry, professor of philosophy and Africana studies at Texas A&M University, was recently invited to speak at The Hannah Arendt Center’s Tough Talk Lecture Series at which he presented the work: “They Mistook a Backlash for a Movement: Black Men and the Doom of Western Civilization.” The talk was centered around his argument that the attainment of citizenship for white women was necessarily through the criminalization of the black male and further, that the success of the women’s suffrage movement directly rested on white ethnologies that beastified the black male. He went on to explain how these histories racialized black men as naturally brutal and savage according to the white woman and subsequently society at large, arguing that “these old ideas not only dictate our views and interpretations of black men and boys but also the xenophobia we have of racialized (Black, Brown, Muslim, etc.) males even today.”
Based on such notions of historical positionality, what becomes apparent is that beyond perhaps contestable arguments regarding the failures of feminism due to perpetuated ideas of black male exclusion, is the manner in which black males will always be situated within space based on how they have been historicized and marked. While this is not a ground breaking phenomenon and less radical than Curry’s assertions of the histories of modern day feminism, it becomes imperative to call attention to the spaces in which we operate daily, in this case specifically, Predominantly White Institutions (PWI).
In this matter, it is important to highlight the experiences of black males as their positionality in the larger societal frame is reflected on Bard College campus as a PWI. The dehumanization, microaggressions, and further reinforcement of the stereotypical black male experience continues and is often heightened in such academic spaces. It is important to note that there are nuances in gender and sexual identity that this piece does not aim to erase, in addition to a generalization of experience it does not seek to promote. Rather, the focus is on writing and recalling the specific experiences of a few male-identifying black bodies as they move through the highly racialized spaces that they occupy.
Senior Stephen Richardson offered his thoughts in regards to an altering of the black male reality by the histories of pain borne out of violence. “I’m just very conscious that I am a big black male you know? I guess since freshman year it was very imprinted on my mind and since then it’s kind of faded, in a way, but I kind of move with it very subconsciously.” He went on to explain how these experiences manifest themselves in social settings as well, “a lot of the times, even at parties, I’ve just been in hangout groups and I am the only black dude and not only am I the only black dude, I am the only one from my socio-economic class too and so it’s this thing where I just can’t relate at all, and you know relatability has been this big thing.”
“I do feel like I have to be careful. But then other times, like you know especially after seeing ‘Black Panther,’ I feel unapologetically black and beautiful”
Stephen speaks to these moments in which his movement through the spaces that he occupies are marked and subsequently lead to how he is conditioned to react and conform his body and actions.
A former Bard High School Early College (BHSEC) and current sophomore, who seeks to remain anonymous, echoes similar sentiments of ‘uncomfortability.’ “I also feel cautious about what I am portraying at certain times, because at times, something like me flexing quickly would be…I am aware that someone else can perceive that as a threat or jump from it or think that I am aggressive when that’s not quite accurate with who I am,” he said. “I do feel like I have to be careful. But then other times, like you know especially after seeing ‘Black Panther,’ I feel unapologetically black and beautiful so at times I do feel like I don’t have to please you in a way but then other times, I don’t want to have a difficult day, so I am just gonna conform.”
Junior Armando Dunn further explains: “I have to hold a part of me back sometimes in white spaces that are constantly just kind of moving in and I am moving out.” These moments of moving in and out also manifest themselves within the classroom. Dunn continues: “I conduct myself in a certain way, and just making sure that I am as clear as possible. This is interesting because I have always found that at my time here at Bard, everybody never could understand what I was saying or I wasn’t clear to them. At first I thought it was like a cultural thing, but then I also found out that it was an academic thing and that jargon is a big thing at PWIs.” These extensions of marked experience form in a manner in which physical space begins to shape how the black male feels like he can operate, but also in how the white subject acts within such racial symbolism.
Speaking to this, Dunn describes a mentorship relationship with one of his professors, “There are times where I get this weird vibe from her because I feel like I don’t know if I get like white savior complex, or if I get like lady who’s really trying to help me. I feel that about a lot of white teachers that I’ve had in the past.”
As a self described “white-passing” Latino male with indigenous and African ancestry, Antonio Gansley-Ortiz maintains a rather different position in relation to whiteness: “…In a completely different way–I’m non threatening to whiteness. Like my viewing of myself image is tempered by these kind of expectations of what I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to look like. I’ve been in classes where the entire class was white and because of that and because they perceive me as white, they said some wild fucking shit because they thought nobody is gonna be there to say [anything].” The idea of black men being ‘marked’ in social spaces and white subjects changing their behavior around them is reflected here in a different way. While the previous men have spoken of being hyper-aware of the perception of themselves as threatening, Antonio notes the change in behavior of the white people around him in the opposite direction. This emphasizes the perception and relatability point that Stephen previously makes.
“it’s really that lack of balance and that lack of social space and social facilities, you know, it feels like every single space is just for like one purpose, that’s what it almost feels like sometimes at Bard. Who is dominating?”
It is evident the ways in which the totality of these racist manifestation have major impacts in shaping the overall college experiences of Black men. Richardson commented on the fact that the majority of the black men he came into the school with ultimately left. He explained his reasonings for this stating: “I say a lot because it’s already a small number and so percentage wise, you’ve got to think about it…you know that’s the real question that I am just now coming to when it’s almost too late and that’s the real question.” In what he attributes to a lack of proper balance and space, he says; “I just feel like it’s really that lack of balance and that lack of social space and social facilities, you know, it feels like every single space is just for like one purpose, that’s what it almost feels like sometimes at Bard. Who is dominating? That’s the question. Black students do occupy a lot of the spaces on campus, I don’t want to make it seem like we don’t, but even those are very constructed spaces too [in which] there’s no balance.”
Similarly, Dunn expressed his amazement at the fact that when he got here, there was no Black Student Organization or black student union. Now, as one of the heads of BSO on campus, he stressed the importance of carving out spaces for specific groups such as black males. In addition to this creation of space is the acknowledgment of the nuances of being a black male beyond stereotyped and racialized expectations.
“People here feel offended for me,” said former BHSEC student. “I am not able to react to what’s being said and even things that I don’t have a problem with at all, people have a problem with them for me and then sort of pressure me to have a problem with them. With that being said, my experience at Bard, socially, as well as academically is an experience that makes me tread lightly in certain situations because in those situations, I would rather not be the victim, or the victim that needs saving. I don’t really want to be in those situations because I don’t find them productive, especially when they are about me as a black person–as a black male. I don’t need someone to tell me I need to be offended by something.”
The discussions presented above emphasize how the black male experience is often framed within historical significances that manifest when space is inhabited–a sort of double consciousness that colors and symbolizes. This begs the urgency of not only being aware of the under-workings of such racialization in our spaces of academia and broader communities, but also our responsibility to actively counter such burdensome discourses.