Not a year goes by without me hearing “These kids have no idea what a privilege it is to …” Usually because I’ve been the one saying it until the last year or so. The problem with having a privilege when you’re so unaccustomed to it is that you outwardly act like it doesn’t matter because you’re inwardly incapable of understanding how to show gratitude without looking subservient.
Let me expound.
College might have been the first time that I had access to people who I normally
wouldn’t even get a chance to whiff their air wouldn’t have access to in other circumstances. People on campus talked about these figures like distant relatives: Angela Davis, Amiri Baraka, Kevin Powell, Elaine Brown. I mean, as the guests on campus kept coming, I started to grasp what a privilege it was to have these figures come to campus and inspire us towards a higher purpose, whether through humor (Dave Chapelle) or poetry (Staceyann Chin), some of the people I now consider major influences sat only a few feet away from me at a given moment in my life.
But that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, I was a complete idiot.
During my second year of college, I became part of the executive board of the Student African-American Society, the premiere group for people of color on campus. It’s history has roots in the Civil Rights Movement, and they pushed the university towards color consciousness in a way that idealist integration couldn’t. SAS birthed so many offshoots including the Black Artist League and the Black Voice, and worked in conjunction with the Greek-based organizations to protest for and support students and faculty of color.
I got all that, but … I didn’t.
I didn’t understand much of the impact that the Civil Rights Movement had on any palpable level. I understood there was slavery, emancipation, a bus boycott, and a march on Washington. Because of these pieces, we get a day off every year in January and we get to hum “We Shall Overcome.” I watched Eye on the Prize, but at 11 years old, I needed a little more than a film. I needed experiences, and I got none of it. No disrespect to the people who taught me since Pre-K, but I never ever got schooled in the other history of this country.
So first, I’m already late to this dinner with the SAS E-Board and Black Panther Co-Founder Bobby Seale. In retrospect, it’s a big fucking deal </biden>. Not only did this moment not hit me, I think I gave a quiet smile, a nod, and sat down quietly. He looked at me like, “Look at this non-enthusiastic mofo.” Whoops. As he’s telling the stories of what went on through the 60s and 70s for the BPP, I just listened, zoning in on the intent, and wondering why the hell I never heard any of this growing up.
The African-Americans in the table looked like distant cousins, comfortable enough to pursue deeper questions about the man. I, on the other hand, felt like the prodigal son.
Luz and I had this conversation on Saturday, and she said something profound enough to make me wonder why her students couldn’t grasp it. I wasn’t prepared for these moments at 19. I didn’t know what to know, how to know, what to ask, who to sit next to, or anything that would get me past the velvet rope of equal footing with Bobby Seale. Not to excuse many of my students (or the plethora of students my students represent), but, when they get into a situation we deem privileged, they go about their business as they normally would, not because they intend to be disrespectful. Rather, it’s because understanding privilege is a matter of preparation and the moment.
He addressed me like, “Are you hearing anything I’m telling you?” I’m like, “Yes, but I’m not going to get any of this until a couple of years from now, OG.”
Jose, who eventually got Bobby Seale’s autograph to his book Seize The Time … that I read for the rest of the semester.