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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.


Where My Bread Is Buttered

by Jose Vilson on September 25, 2011

in Jose

This weekend, I spent time in Syracuse University, my alma mater and the site of Coming Back Together X, a special reunion where the African-American and Latino alumni of Syracuse U can meet with students and faculty on campus every three years in the spirit of camaraderie, growth, and opportunity. This tradition has happened for the last three decades and change, illuminating an illustrious history of people that includes Dave Bing, Jim Brown, Angela Robinson, and Debra Mercado, just to name a few. When I get there, I’m among the few people representing the Millenials (’00 and up), but through the extensive research I did as an undergrad, I was able to contribute and provide context for histories about the campus that let me fit in with the elder statesman there.

As I reminisced on my days as Education Chair of La LUCHA (the premiere Latino organization on campus), I thought about how some of the things we did for the organization that made it as effective as it was. I had my set of issues, but I believe the positive outweighed the negative. If there’s one thing I missed in this list, it’s that our organization collaborated with almost everyone. Despite my personal feelings at the time about Greek-based organizations or parties as a whole, I knew that I had to find common bonds between everyone who walked through the door.

La LUCHA’s main purpose in my era was service to the people, no matter what the cost. We almost felt bad for trying to raise funds or make people pay at the door, so just breaking even was good enough for us. We collaborated with administrative offices, sororities, fraternities, the LGBT group, groups of all colors, and community members. We brought customers to new Latin restaurants and made our presence felt where otherwise we wouldn’t have been welcome. We secretly asked where our constituency was, but we publicly acted like they were already there. By the time we brought Edward James Olmos to campus with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, we had a full executive board brimming with ideas, hopes, optimism, and leadership in their own right.

We didn’t see the empty seats as a diss, but as an opportunity.

As a young student at Syracuse U, I didn’t see all this because, mentally, I rejected some of the notions promoted by my fellow students about their organizations. Every so often, I betrayed my own ideals by snickering when I heard things I didn’t like. The organization’s mission was much bigger than my ego, though. It had less to do with my own point of view about what Latinos should do, and more about what we can do. As a student, Coming Back Together 7 enlightened me on the power of knowing one’s history and the context in which our greatest student organizations worked. Time and again, they would look at us and ask questions that sparked a shift in how we brought people under our umbrella.

Now, I look at the students leading the organizations I was part of. Where once I might have seen a deficit in our socio-political action, I now see a profit in culture and rhythm. No matter what your inclination, finding common ground with others opens doors unseen with the inexperienced eye.

Mr. Vilson, who has big things poppin’ …

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