From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village
before I came. – James Baldwin, “Stranger in The Village”
When I received my acceptance letter to Reed two Decembers ago, I knew that I just had to make it. I wasn’t worried about making it through my last high school classes or final scholarship applications. I just wanted to make it. Until the summer came, when I would be leaving for this far-off place, I needed to make it for a few more months. For a few more months, I just had to survive.
The Rockaways have a history. Like most quiet, unseen neighborhoods in New York, a legacy of crime and violence predates the still. Bushwick, for example, is where I went to school. It is a space in Brooklyn that has gone unnoticed for decades. Gentrification and the gradual white re-conquest have only recently taken hold of our abandoned factories and corner stores, festering as new complexes and condominiums that shoot up like dandelion weeds every spring. But Bushwick used to be on fire. Most of the empty lots they build upon now used to be warehouses, dens, hideouts, drug spots, and common places where common people who got caught in the crossfire lived. Bushwick has gotten safer since my mother was my age, but the smoke of the seventies and eighties, the haze and embers that still float in the lamplight tonight, still pervade the spaces in which I grew up.
Nicknamed, “Fear City,” New York was an amalgamation of several Bushwicks and Rockaways over the turn of the century. However lost to time the name is, fear like this—like walking home every night not knowing if you’ll make it, fear—sticks with you. It stuck with my mom, it stuck with my brother. It surely stuck with me, as I always felt fear as inherent. It was inherited, passed down to me for safekeeping. It was more of a sense than a feeling. The good sense to keep one eye behind you at all times, the common sense to “keep it moving” and assume the worst of people as you walk briskly by them. Fear like this even teaches you to not be fearful, or, at least, not to show it—Mama once said people are more like dogs than we would like to believe. So when my brother was being chased by a pit down a long, abandoned road I doubt he stopped to ask for the dog’s intent in snarling its teeth, and bucking its jaw against the sky.
I feel lucky to have lived this long. And when I was told in the winter that I’d be about three thousand miles away from home, I felt even luckier. I remember telling myself that “I am almost safe for life.” The deep, pent-up breath I took on that icy Northeastern night released as a sigh of relief that escaped my clenched teeth, entering the Pacific sky as I touched down in Portland all those months later, relieved that I had finally made it.
Initially, the campus had a sort of strangeness to it. Not the normal mix of aloneness in a new place and nervousness or anxiety, but, instead, peculiarity. I walked campus the night I arrived, and almost every night after for a month. Gradually, I found myself looking over my shoulder less, and walking slower in the longer spaces between lamp posts. People I walked by were up to nothing in particular, there were no corners to hunch over or back lots to creep. For once in my life, I felt assured by not only the safety of my fear, but by the space I was in. For such a foreign environment, it felt too close to what a home should feel like.
Now, as I approach my eighth month here at Reed, a new sort of strangeness presents itself to me. There exists an illusion of safety that builds security out of smoke and mirrors—that homey sense of being completely assured. The bubble that encases campus traps the minds of its inhabitants as well, making us believe that this place isn’t strange, that we are not strange—that we are a community bonded by collective purpose, and a shared identity(Academics, fraternity, “Olde Reed”, whatever you see graffitied around). Yet, it is in my strangeness, in my particular life experiences, that I myself am a foreign vessel pulling against the motions of a far greater entity. In this space, in this way, I am allowed to be elusive, and view this place for what it is. With dissimilar eyes, I will attempt to parse through the double nature of the Reed College society, and illuminate the perspective of individuals like me who are as foreign as they are necessary to understanding the spaces in which we learn, grow, love, and fear.
On sunny days, you’ll see tour groups making their frequent rounds throughout campus. Some morning outside of the library you’ll hear a fragment of some bit on alumni donations, and walking across the quad, a piece on Portland weather. It’s a script. Not easily disturbed, an institution’s image is kept rigid, still if not for the constant filtration of new and old pockets each year. Breathing in and out as if almost alive, a college preserves this image under keen eyes and a strict hold on public perception. But, for the past few weeks, I’ve heard murmurs. From the underbelly of the behemoth, there has been a disturbance. One morning, a woman in the front of her group directed the tour guide’s attention towards profanity-ladened marks on the side of Elliot Hall. In blood-red and bold, walls all over campus that day read, F*ck Paul Currie. The woman pointed to the graffiti and asked, “Who’s that?” Much to the tour guide’s chagrin, a response to that simple, justifiable question was not yet on the script. And with the group’s tentative motion onwards, the behemoth began to croak.
Paul Currie made racist and xenophobic comments at someone who he had suggested was undocumented. Paul Currie is a professor of psychology at Reed College. This interaction was caught on video and posted online. It spread fast, but the student body acted faster. Demonstrations were organized soon after the video’s release, and posters with protest times were plastered all over campus. Most of my peers were upset. Most of my peers are white. It was nice to see that they cared about our plight but it was odd noticing that they were mad for us: outraged even. The first day of protests commenced as we all marched across campus, up to Elliot Hall. The Amorphous White Outrage entered, and I would not return to the building till I was once again invisible, a stranger wandering campus late that night, and could properly survey the scene.
The temple of Reed College’s prestige, or the spire of its illusion, Elliot Hall houses the deans’ offices and presidential staff. The student body was mostly upset that Paul Currie had not received any effectual repercussions from the administration, and that much of the admin’s statements had been half-hearted and tone-deaf. So, they made their way into Elliot Hall to confront the administration where it seemingly hid itself following the video’s backlash. They pushed and shoved and the Amorphous White Outrage made its place where it stood, entitled to the tension. What enabled my red-faced white peers to storm angrily up to the president; what deterred me and my peers of color, as we stood outside, amazed at the in-pour? The difference is hidden here, in the bubble. On campus, we are all students. We are a lively, and vigorous body of young people who protest and take action when wrongs have occurred in our community. So, following this line of deception, my peers and I that stood outside Elliot Hall that day were simply not taking enough action, and were actually complaisant with the state of racism and xenophobia that has just now taken root in this century-old PWI. And as for our white counterparts, they were the flag bearers that day. They were the courageous many that fought the power—modern Mandela’s and Chavez’s among them. But the “fight” and the “power” I grew up with wasn’t a walk away, nor was it a day’s pursuit. For Margaret, the fight took decades, and it took her son as well.
In the Rockaways, power lies in the chamber, and fighting is surviving. Whether it’s navy blue or red that varnished the gun first, we understood that power is not so easily fought. We run and duck and remember to lock our doors, but the power remains. Margaret Johnson understood this better than most. She’s our community activist, and she has been calling for an end to gun violence since she was the first in her family to obtain a degree. She’s been working in this community for fifty years, organizing change and changing lives in schools, shelters, and out on the corners. In 2015, her eldest died walking home from school. The assailant mistook him for someone else, and died a week later in a police shootout. That’s all it takes. Margaret understood this better than most, but that understanding doesn’t bring your child back to you, nor does it prevent another boy from dying tonight. So, she went back to work, told her son’s story so that we could be inspired to do better, and is still fighting on behalf of all of us. I truly feel an odd, poetic sense of safety in the Rockaways because it takes meaningful, sustained efforts to make change happen. And I know that while people like Margaret are keeping up the true fight against power, my children and theirs, will live better, more secure lives than the one I have lived. On the first day of protests, it was clear that the Amorphous White Outrage had not a single reason to fight against power before. Its actions during the protest were inconsequential, performative, short-term, and flimsy; scraps of what it’s seen on TV and in its U.S. history textbooks. In its long and traumatizing lineage, it has always been the power fought against, and so, this feeling of having to take action but not having a real, personal reason to, emerges purely as outrage when its shrill clamor shakes and chants to pure white noise. It has never needed to collectivize, for the power was strong enough on its own; so it is amorphous and thus blameless without shape or a body to keep accountable. And it is white, because what else but the white mass would shame students of color for “not doing their part”?
That day, many of us were told this; that, ironically, we weren’t doing enough. A white student asked me on my way back to my dorm, why I wasn’t in front of the president’s office. Another yelled in a Mexican international student’s face, raving about complacency. A group of South East Asian students was told by the Amorphous White Outrage to stop standing around, and its ivory fingers pointed violently towards faculty of color who had not promptly addressed the incident. In the aftermath of the video’s release, the real difference between their response and ours lies in privilege. White students had perceived a different set of consequences than us when they entered Elliot Hall, and demanded that the president come out of her office. This was not a fight worthy of the consequences my peers of color and I perceived. There is a fear of acting out, being the “angry black man” or an outraged person of color that can sometimes inhibit our innermost spirits. This inhibition is at least understood, if not entirely felt, by people with histories of oppression. However, the self-proclaimed social anarchist that went to a private school less diverse than Reed, and the trust fund “commie” that has no financial aid to fear being taken away, will see no issue with pounding and yelling at the president’s door. This is a war of power. Power against power. The Amorphous White Outrage versus the behemoth. And I am but a vessel, drifting through the corridors of Elliot Hall later that night. Its walls, all graffitied and written upon—cursing Paul Currie and the administration. I also saw who had to clean it all up. It wasn’t the president holding the washcloth, nor was Paul Currie pouring the bleach. They were us. Janitors, barely any white, cleaning the mess that the powers had made in their pompous friction.
Their performance had ended, and the Amorphous White Outrage’s hunger for carnage or justice had been satiated. No one speaks much about Paul Currie or the incident anymore. Students of color who were harassed that day remain of color and unsafe. The behemoth lives on.
I still walk at night, wondering what I now have to fear. I no longer look over my shoulder, but into the lamp light. I think to myself, if I can just reach the light, they’ll see that I’m just a student. And as I pass the white woman walking towards me on the pavement, I let out a sigh of relief, for it is the power’s perception—whether of the Outrage or behemoth—that makes us unsafe. We simply exist, and are at risk of harassment, isolation, and hostility. Yet, when I walk Elliot Circle in the mornings, I can see them not seeing what we do. Everyone’s a student, walking to or from class, not knowing that we fear the consequences of our existence; like craning down to the knife in our chest and looking back up to see the assailant round our backs and pull the blade out the other side. The illusion pools in our blood, as we fall to the floor, heart laid bare, in the same shade of red that coats their hands.
I used to think that I truly made it. Now, I understand that this life changes within itself. With new people, and new environments, new fights and new powers to fight against, making it is a light at the end of a never-ending tunnel, that pushes us ever-forward, through conflict and struggle, into better lives for ourselves, and for those who will come after. And for this, I am thankful. Like my brother running to the end of the dog’s chain, or Margaret walking her youngest son home every night under the pale, wavering lamp light, I am thankful to still be making it.
Written Spring 2022, in the aftermath of the Paul Currie incident