By Michael Ivory
(This piece is a nominated entry to "Who Am I/Who Are They" Multimedia Essay Contest)
As soon as I set foot on campus, I could feel the ripples in the air. I looked around to see if anyone else sensed it, but it seemed that nobody else could. Smiles marched in and out of the building that would be my dorm. Bright blue shirts emblazoned with the white “2018” scuttled behind proud mothers and fathers, lugging brightly colored translucent bins filled with all the emblems of a minimalist college student life: irons, hangers, laundry detergent. The sky was a starkly vast blue, with the sun’s rays gliding down to the routinely scrubbed pavement with an undeniable optimism.
You’re just nervous about college, I thought. I then proceeded to try and mimic the joy that pervaded the attitudes that swarmed around me. I smiled back at my own parents as we marched down the hall to my new dorm room. Marvel at the big window in my room. Grin because it was all for me. Fuss halfheartedly at my mother for being compulsive about trying to straighten up my room. Stress to her that this did not belong to her. Smile some more.
It wasn’t until a month later, sitting on the floor of my dorm room with a group of friends that I would realize what had really happened that day. And many days after. Even now, as I write down these memories, I feel them.
I grew up backstage to the curtain of sunlight and luxury typically associated with my hometown of Miami, Florida. I probably lived a few streets behind your favorite postcard photo. Growing up in a neighborhood of black skin and deferred dreams, my parents instilled in me the desire to escape. They were two authors, burning the midnight oil to write me as the greatest plot twist the world had ever seen, and I was a very agreeable set of pages. My acceptance letter to Duke meant that I was becoming everything I had taught myself to aspire to.
It was this very sentiment that led me to toss the piece of firewood onto my dorm room floor that would promptly be incinerated by my friends:
“Sometimes I look at my neighbors and I wonder why they can’t just get to where I am. If I can do it, you can, too. Just get your life together.”
One of my closest friends responded with a confused look and words that while softened by the absence of a harsh tone, still struck me at the core.
“No…there are so many factors that went into you being here. Just think of how you shared stories of the many mentors you’ve had, for one thing. Not everybody has that.”
That was when I realized that my acceptance to Duke came at a cost that was incurred not only by myself but by so many others in skin like mine. I realized I paid the cost when I practiced ironing out my Ebonics and my slang to make myself appear valuable to my white peers. I paid it when I frowned upon my black classmates who dared laugh a little too loudly and dress far more expressively. I felt the loss when a white classmate screamed “racism works” as a joke, and I had no way of articulating why that hurt. Because racism really was over right? Sure, there were a few jerks around, but we’ve generally moved past it. Me being at Duke is proof of it all!
And that’s when I realized what the ripples were. They were the disturbance that occurs when two worlds collide. Two realities which could not coexist were being pressed into the closest confines possible. As much as I wanted to leave my black skin, as much as I wanted to leave behind the borderline obnoxious speaker-knockers that blared through my apartment complex on a Saturday afternoon, as much as I wanted to leave behind my grandma’s “Aint's” and my mother’s Heaven-piercing screams in Sunday service, I could not. They were me, and I was them.
To be other at Duke—and most other places—is to realize that you occupy a space that must be stretched, ironed, and prodded to make room for you. Yet the infrastructure is faulty at best. You have bought a room in a condemned apartment building, and the owner has simply tried to apply your face like new wallpaper to make it new again. There was no stencil for your presence, and trial and error means nothing: much like that building, the space promptly collapses upon you when you see a noose hanging over a table that you recognize to have walked past every day. You find yourself once and again stretching to push back when a name given to your ancestors to trivialize and demonize your existence is scrawled upon a poster for all to see. Your presence is in direct contrast with the realities of your university, and the realities of your university are the nightmares you tried to dream away long before your body was physical.
There is no formula for a safe reaction between your other-ness and Duke’s presence. Every time a body of black or brown skin arrives, the air ripples yet again, and whether or not we allow ourselves to feel it, the truth is the air has been rippling since the moment we were born. Perhaps we imagine “proper” English to be a holy language, filled with prayers that can forestall the inevitable apocalypse that arrives with the collision of two worlds. Perfected and ironed out on our tongues, it is the panacea to all our fears about how Duke and the rest of America really see us. The fact is, my presence at Duke, as my friend reminded me, is a Heaven-orchestrated collision of fortunate events that I call blessings. Yet I now know that many more prayers have gone up than have black minds that can call Duke home, both on campus and back home. Maybe we’re praying in the wrong language.