By Dawn Lundy Martin. Martin is the author of four books of poetry, including Good Stock, which will be published by Coffee House Press in 2016. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.
My mother, who was born more than eighty years ago, deep in the Jim Crow South, insists that she has never experienced a single moment of racism. I have never heard her say a derogatory word about white people as a race or use the word “white” as an insult. When she calls people “black,” she does not do so affectionately, to suggest kinship, community, or belonging. And she gets visibly annoyed when black people organize around blackness, as though claiming the category that is also used to disparage them were a criminal act. Why excite the ghost? Why call its hideous name? Yet when I ask her whether she remembers black people getting lynched, she says, “Yeah, they did sometimes.”
That is what race trauma looks like — although it is not reducible to that.
At Claremont McKenna College, a young woman’s voice cracks as she speaks into a megaphone handed to her by protesters who seek redress for the racial slights that they believe have been encouraged by the culture of the campus. Instead of talking about her own experiences of racism, the woman testifies to the more generalized experiences of others. She weeps; her whole body vibrates. Against my mother’s stoicism, the weeping almost reads as performance. It has the texture of a sleeve pulled up to reveal a sore and disgust the viewer. Put it away.
But the pitch of the reactions on campuses is not a display of “excessive vulnerability” resulting in “self-diminishment,” as some critics of student tactics claim. Something is pressing on these students, making them burst at the seams, and it’s not imaginary. They are like oracles whose bodies bear the collective weight of what others do not — or will not — see: the lynchings my mother cannot incorporate into her worldview, the black boy the police shot down in the street just yesterday. They feel all of it when, for example, a white person mistakes them for another brown person who looks nothing like them.
It is not unreasonable for college students to desire to be carefully held by the universities that courted them. In fact, universities and colleges imply a promise, in their mottoes of “Light and Truth,” in their ivy-encrusted buildings, in the serenity around their lakes and on their manicured greens, and especially in their invitations for students to engage in the leisure of intellectual work. That’s one place where I think students of color hurt: right where leisurely study becomes labor. As a professor who has spent more than half my life on college campuses, I know this labor intimately — the labor of having to name racism when it is already nakedly visible; the labor of being perpetually suspect, never afforded the possibility of neutral innocence; the labor of negotiating others’ racially offensive speech; or the very special labor of pretending (because you are tired) that everything is fine. Instead of being protected by the institution that you see your white counterparts inhabiting so casually, you find the institution protected from you. That it is guarded by historical figures such as Woodrow Wilson, a KKK sympathizer whose name is emblazoned on a campus building, is not lost on you. Still, folks want to know, why are you so enraged, what is causing your pain, why do you act so insane?