Reporting on racial disparity in our educational system, and with the recent events at Mizzou in mind, John S. Blake provides an insider’s view of action being taken at VCU.
Dad hated playing chess without the clock. My first lesson on the board—while absorbing how the pieces moved—consisted of slapping the top of the clock on my side, even though I had no idea what it was for. I just remembered I had to hit it hard and as soon as possible. Dad believed the time spent actually calculating—from observation to decision to action—was minimal, and all the dead seconds were dumped into a mass grave of insecurity. Of doubt. “Ask a motherfucker what they want, and they ain’t hesitate to answer,” he’d say, “but ask that same motherfucker if they goin’ to go and get it, and they stuck on stupid.” I was five years old. He never hesitated and was quick to anger if I stuttered with the piece I touched or the direction I wanted to move. He’d say, “Stop fuckin’ aroun’! What do you want to do?” I’d answer. He’d then say, “Then do that shit. Ain’t nobody got time to be scared.”
If you asked my father about his Social Security Number, you were met with tumultuous laughter. “Tha’s the white man’s business, not mine,” and he cackled at the bewildered faces to his response. While states had their lotteries, my father illegally ran numbers. As pharmaceutical companies were getting everyone in Harlem hooked on Methadone, Dad was illegally dealing heroin. He had a politician’s smile, a corporation’s rhetoric-tainted excuses, and skin so beautifully black, only prison could stop him.
The first time my father went to prison, I was six. My mother wanted to bring me to see him, but my father wouldn’t have it. I received letters, prolific in midnight syntax and street vernacular, “Yo! First, don’t be cryin’ about shit. I did what I wanted, and when this shit is over, me and you playin’ chess again, and you better be better than yo ass was las’ time.” I smiled. I smiled because I knew he was smilin’. “Stay black.”
I was twenty-six when my father died. We had spoken, maybe, eight times since my first chess lesson—every meeting over a chessboard—the clock, measuring our time together. I didn’t go to his bedside. I heard he led hospital staff to believe he had no next of kin. He wanted to die the way he lived; alone, with barely a moment to consider the fallout. And that’s exactly what he did, without hesitation. He was probably frustrated with the virus; how absolutely slothful it was in its taking him.
Today, my heart sags thinking of him. My father had the passion to hunt for his wants like a lion. He graduated high school two years early because he wanted to. With unfathomable presence of mind concerning his mother’s plight—a single mother with eight children—my father understood that money was needed, more money than menial employment offered to young black men—so he went into the dark of night until he found the luminous possibilities of dope peddling and numbers-running. He wanted to love my mother so he did exactly that. He wanted a son with my mother, so they had one. He continued working the dark streets because there were mouths to feed. He endured prison, a justice system with a white lens, and a hostile country that constantly chased him down to commit murder in Vietnam. He didn’t go. He didn’t want to. Finally, he decided his mixed son would be better off without a father in and out of jail, so he vanished. Because he wanted to.
In a perfect world—if the United States of America was, in the 1950s, truly the paragon of utopian existence that white Americans made it out to be—my father would have attained a scholarship to the halls of ivy and gone on to possibly become a great professor, mathematician, historian, or philosopher. With his charisma and street diplomacy, he could have been a veracious politician. Or—if only he were allowed to know his lineage and legacy in ten years of public education, he may have been a sage in African American Studies. Instead, my father, John Stanley Blake, died a failed drug dealer and absentee God in my sky.
Even now, in 2015, had my father been afforded the same opportunities given his privileged white fellow Americans—to be a college student—at the university I attend, he would have seen his tomorrows uncertain at best. He could have realistically attended Virginia Commonwealth University for as long as six years without ever having been instructed by a black professor. He would have come to learn a label like “TWI” (Traditionally White Institution) which, in unspoken terms, means he’s only good enough to place his money in white hands, but most likely, not fetching enough for this same institution to eventually give him a paycheck in return.
Students, mostly young, black women, are demanding a change. Men have been called to join. Greek organizations have been called to join. Students of the athletic department have been asked to consider joining. But mostly it’s been women, women like Sharron, Sheryce, Attalah, Pascaline, Angie, Christina, Kelsye, and Shayla. I wish you could see them; lionesses, each and every one! They remind me of my father. They want Virginia Commonwealth to own up to its braggadocio—the barrage of propaganda concerning its almost unparalleled level of diversity. Unfortunately, the bragging is centered in the student body and not its academic departments.
After a protest to align ourselves in support of black students at Mizzou, after a sit-in at the President’s office, a forum to discuss diversity was held. Before the eyes of media, faculty, and an impressive turnout of student body, President Rao said, “Black lives do matter.” There was applause. His words were soothing to some. Some. But what I was focused on was the young woman next to him. Angelique Scott wore a black headwrap, red, black, and green earrings—sometimes dangling, sometimes swinging—a pair of African continents, and a sweatshirt that read, “Everybody wants to be BLACK, until it’s time to BE black.” I took a deep breath, remembered my father—his struggle to live a life without white oversight—and held back tears. He would have cackled. He would have stood to light an ovation. Angelique held high a sign,
Black student/black faculty 45.7:1
White student/white faculty 9.74:1
Overall students/black faculty 300:1
The President finished his assurances that VCU will eventually reflect in its faculty what it has achieved in its student body—that he has great confidence heads of departments unintentionally overlooked the void of diverse counterparts, and were somehow wayward—all these years—when opportunities appeared to employ black people.
Angelique was invited to the podium. She had words prepared by Black VCU Speaks. She spoke of dwindling patience, frustration as a result of culturally incompetent instructors, and resistance to any shiny statements lacking deadlines or solidified plans of action. But my favorite statement was, “We need VCU to end its search for cosmetic diversity.” If I had the gall, I would have aggressively ran up to the podium, snatched the microphone, and thrust it to the ground. There was a chorale burst in the room. The applause was massive.
After Ms. Scott finished, there were both statements as well as questions taken from the crowd. No one denied the problem—the unspoken ethos black students experience, sitting in class after class having rarely, if ever, seeing a face of color responsible for their syllabi—the five-century-old message erect and fixed—black bodies are only good enough to take from. And for their peaceful protests, for their carefully prepared words and calm demeanors, for offering their throats to the insatiable monetary appetite that is higher learning, Black VCU Speaks were given kudos and no deadlines. Words, forbidden to be navigated by black minds for over four-hundred years, fell on the fractional ears of the Board of Visitors.
It is 2015, and black Americans are still asking nicely. With books in tow, the words of white America are being reread back to them, promises dredged from past assurances. What VCU should hope to escape is the bright, piercing category of “Traditionally White.” It is a label that any academic institution—in the first colonized state—should long to avoid. The same sectioned land where Thomas Jefferson wrote warnings like, “… convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” This is what a black, educated mind knows to be traditionally white. It is nothing less than a damning nomenclature. A name that reeks of exclusion is something to be ashamed of. How dare any institution of higher learning have a Humanities Department without being a paragon of humanity?
I write this essay from the comfortable chair inside the new $50,000,000 addition to the Cabell Library. I am a stone’s throw from the beautiful $25,000,000 practice stadium. I am beside myself with anticipation as to why Virginia Commonwealth University can’t seem to procure necessary funds to offer the most competitive compensation to attract diverse faculty. Instead, students are forced to witness a three-card-monty with budgets—a game played on many corners in the ghetto I survived. White professors support the move. White students have joined the protests and sit-ins. No one, beneath the budget creators, wants to see the student body doing anything but learn. But the student body is standing outside with signs. The students are sitting on floors in bureaucratic offices. Student bodies, nationwide, are asking that those holding all the keys unlock the cell doors to respect. Student bodies (mostly black, mostly female) are fighting for you, me, my children, your children, my father’s plight, and for our country’s pitiful track record of sloth when it comes to human decency.
Attalah Ali Shabazz and Shayla Sanders are amazing women. Sometimes, when I’m in close proximity to their conversations, I am always astounded to realize they are usually planning how to make VCU a safe place for my black daughter—who deserves to see more than white faces on the money she gives her college, white hands handing her syllabi, and white police staring her down when she has to call out for justice while raising a cardboard sign.
The women of Black VCU Speaks are doing the work of a father. They are doing the work of a Board of Visitors. They are doing the work of a nation. I can only reluctantly fathom what kind of plantation this TWI campus would be without the sweat of black women throughout the history of our shared earth. What I know for sure is that John Stanley Blake Sr sits back in his galactic seat today, admiring the slaps on a campus clock by young black women, and he’s smiling that smile only a lion’s teeth can configure. Go get it.