At a recent poetry reading along with two black women, one in her thirties, the other in her fifties, I mentioned the ordeal of getting a doctorate at the University of Washington. A white male in the audience called out, “The UW isn’t like that now; let the other girls talk.” The comment reminded me of a decades-old comment made by another white male, a friend. Said he, “Affirmative action has been around five years; that’s long enough.” I connect the statements because in both instances although neither white male had endured, suffered the discrimination and frustration, both were certain of their conclusions, had no doubt that their conclusions were correct. One thought I should step aside and be quiet and say nothing about the inequities I had experienced because “the U isn’t like that now.” The other was convinced five years of affirmative action was sufficient to eradicate the results of slavery from 1619 to 1865, weak or no compliance with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and the slightly enforced and poorly funded Reconstruction laws.
I wish there were a way to make an individual understand that humans respond to stimuli, but all do not respond the same whether time or degree is the measuring tool. But this wish takes little of my time. Acts resulting from words and actions take a much larger chunk of time. Worse, these responses cannot be controlled. I cannot choose to ignore them and then ignore them. Believe me. I have tried. Why would a well person choose to dwell on something unpleasant, sad, horrible? Scars, some worse than others, are there. A little light, a sudden rub can irritate the scar.
Years after a remark, a person may continue to be pained by the incident. High school Senior A, for example, finally told someone that classmate Senior B told her that it was she, Senior A, who should have died rather than Senior C. More than half a century later, the pain is still there.
In another case, a long-retired woman suffering from Alzheimer’s whispers to visitors, “They’re trying to take my job,” because throughout her tenure as an aide she was harassed with the possibility of being fired. Psychologist Jennifer James would probably label the comments as slugs and go so far as to say with the passage of time one can laugh at the slugs. I don’t doubt this, but everyone does not come to the point where the slug becomes the subject of laughter. For instance, ridicule about physical features over which we have no control have hurt and hurt and hurt more.
It is important to know that I am not talking about scars of the magnitude of those carried by survivors of genocide, indigenous people everywhere, the Holocaust, forced assimilation, conflicts between Palestinian and Israelis, North and South Koreans, Pakistanis and Indians, for example. I never said the scars are equal. I say that the scars hurt, maybe not as sharply but hurt, nevertheless. I’m talking about the scars that family, friends, onlookers may never see—from injuries they sometimes inflict—but scars that are present regardless. No one can ever know how many people failed to accomplish whatever because of the kind of hurt I’m describing. Of course, some folks succeed despite the slug, possibly because of it. But that is some folks. Others are stymied, paralyzed. The PhD students who labor to get the degree, and then kill themselves; the persons who from all accounts are successes, and then surprisingly kill themselves. Every so often I think about African-American students—no one knows the number—who were first or among the first to go to all-white high schools, colleges, and universities. I do not doubt that most lead admirable lives, possibly contribute grandly to society. Yet I can’t help wondering how much more admirably, grandly their contributions to society would have been had they not had a certain encounter. Persons who retort the successes might not have come without the pain, scars cannot know this and fail to convince me.
If I never thought of certain incidents at the UW again, I think I would be fine, but something tells me this will not be the case. And I understand I am not alone. And the person who believed “the UW isn’t like that now,” and that affirmative action has been in effect for too long, won’t change their minds soon, perhaps never.
I was reminded of 1925 Countee Cullen poem.
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember
The online comments listed beneath this poem on PoemHunter.com, go from one extreme to the other: those who see the incident and the poem as trivial and others who empathize or, at least, sympathize.
Will this always be the case?
~Georgia S. McDade
Georgia Stewart McDade, a Louisiana native who has lived in Seattle more than half her life, loves reading and writing. Earning a Bachelor of Arts from Southern University, Master of Arts from Atlanta University, and PhD from University of Washington, the English major spent more than thirty years teaching at Tacoma Community College but also found time to teach on every level at several other institutions of learning.