I don’t always run from my ghost, the collegiate me with the thin waist and big ideas. Sometimes I try to track her down. Get back in her head. Remember what it’s like to be twenty-one and hear that word.
Does she let it seep into her bones, share the sweet marrow of college memories made with good people?
Does she curse all Whiteness?
Does she buy the line, “It could be worse”? Translation: “At least it’s not a noose.”
I need to know. Because when I heard this month about UVA’s Beta Bridge, that someone had painted “nigger” and drawn a cartoonish figure with a large penis right next to the Happy Birthdays and In Memoriams, when I heard that folded into the bright fuchsias and soft blues of generations of student messages would always be one layer of coon-lip red, I didn’t feel Anything. But. Annoyed.
Here we go again. You take the nigger with the honor here. The Sambo with a side of prestige.
Ask the alumni. They’ll tell you: Before we graduated, we marched. Right down to the offices of The Cavalier Daily, the university’s student newspaper, to silently inform the editors we’d grown tired—mostly of what wasn’t written on their pages.
We wrote letters to the editor and were called witch-hunting racists by a second-year student named Sarah.
We stood at the Rotunda while Someone shouted, “What do you want?” and Everyone answered “equality” or “justice” or something they couldn’t leave with that night. No one expected justice to come South in a Tiffany’s box. Though peace in a locket, the cool links of gold spilling over our fingers, would have felt nice. But too delicate. We’d have given it back.
We earned a separate degree over those years. One that didn’t come with a diploma, a signature, or a seal. One that was free, cost just a tattering of your soul, an edge of your innocence. We served as both co-chairs and students in the Department of Responding to Racial Offense. We wrote the syllabi. We fought over rubrics.
It’s easy to remember facts from college. To trace in your mind the steps you took over cobblestone paths and along serpentine garden walls. I wrote exams in UVA’s legendary “blue books” and signed my name with the honor pledge. I took most of my classes in Cabell Hall, though my favorite seminar—the one where we read Susan Sontag and forgot the rules of thinking—met in Clemons Library. I brought a Qdoba burrito, soft drink, and large cookie to campus ministry meetings, certain Jesus Would Have Done Exactly That.
It’s not so easy to capture sentiment, the kind that provokes action. Maybe I’m overly concerned with feeling. A personality test I took years ago identified empathy as my greatest strength. I agree and would add: empathy, even to the point of pathology. Like when a kid in my high school dropped to the floor in cardiac arrest and I imagined being him—stuck in that moment—no heartbeat—no air—dead too long—until I became him. Ran to the nurse in full-fledged panic, certain I would die while my classmates hovered over Bunsen burners and titration tubes.
At thirty, I could be too far removed to care. It’s like the energy to storm a building left town with my perky breasts. Or maybe because I was in Chicago when the spray-painting punks trolled the bridge, I just couldn’t get my mind to Grounds. Couldn’t hear the bus rumble over the bridge and screech to a stop, couldn’t smell the magnolias laced with regret.
I can’t be sure how students or faculty felt. I only know what some of them said.
The Black Student Alliance’s formal response began like this: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 marks the date of yet another racial incident at the University of Virginia.
Yet. Sometimes yet strangles like a noose.
President Teresa Sullivan’s statement included this line: We condemn this abhorrent act, which is disruptive to civility and community life, is not representative of our values and will not be tolerated.
Help! I can’t feel my legs. If I wasn’t numb before, administrative jargon just epiduraled me.
I’d prefer the president respond with the granny approach. Maybe grab a broom, stand on the porch, and wave the bristles at students as she rants about foolish people and their foolish ways and all this foolishness pilin’ up around her.
I didn’t see any students marching. Would it have helped? Do emails of PDFs accomplish more than footsteps?
Timing plays her role, as well. The graffiti appeared on the first of May. With May comes the end of classes, the beginning of exams, and the university’s final exercises. Perhaps the best response from Black students is to study. To graduate. To make a billion dollars and have a building named after you. Then to hire a full-time security guard to protect your building from entitled epithet painters.
When I catch up with my ghost, she’s not evasive. She’s zealous, using terms she learned in Black studies and sociology, in English and American studies. She’s read Du Bois and Mailer and Foucault, and I’m not sure if she’s blending their ideas together, or asking me to zoom out and see this conversation for the Jackson Pollock painting it is.
How does it feel, what does it take, to create a Presence of No? I ask.
She plays a clip of Thelonious Monk. Listen.
That’s how we tell them it’s not okay?
But as we’re talking, she spots her professors. She stands up on her toes, looks over my shoulder, calls out and waves. She runs to catch up with them, find in their bosoms the next structure or theory she can steal and massage into her own. Before she disappears, she looks back. She’s sorry, I can tell, but she doesn’t need me. She needs them. They’ll give her a way to see, and even if she disagrees with it, they’ve given her a way to see.
As a mother, I can see for my children. I have to see for them. They will find that word one day. They won’t have to scrape paint off a bridge to see it. They will run straight into blackface, watermelon rinds, and a discomfiting shuffle. Hate, I will tell them, has no final exercise.
They will long for a structure, a way to organize what feels like pine needles in their souls, like fire in their eardrums. In that moment, I will be the first filter. I will be their sociology professor, their pastor, their protest leader, their Internet. I will be their mom.
That’s a feeling I can’t remember. It’s one the ghost can’t share, because we’re both waiting for it. You wait for it like you wait for Jesus to come back. You’re sure it’ll happen, and you hope to God it’s not as scary as you’ve let yourself imagine it could be. That a whole world could divide in a flash, and it’s not the outcome that’s frightening. It’s that you may not have the capacity, in this moment, to feel whatever it is you’ll feel on that day.