Consider this my primal scream. I’ve spent years unpacking the traumas I experienced during my adolescence and early adulthood, and some days, I wake up in a room full of bulging suitcases. The difference is now I have the tools and the bandwidth to deal with the task at hand, and it is a fact that I would not have attained those things if I had allowed myself to be passive. I had to re-educate and re-orient myself, reckon with my own trauma. I’m an exquisite expression of the divine, which I had to re-learn. A major nucleus of trauma in my life was my educational spaces. I paid to be tortured… It wasn’t kink; it was academia.
Most of my life, I went to “elite” schools. Gratefully, these weren’t my only educational experiences. I’ve gone to private school, public school, prep school, and a private liberal arts college, some predominantly white (PWI) and some predominantly Black. The predominantly Black schools provided psychic protection for me. It is a primary reason the insidious, intentional razing of the self PWIs engage in is incomplete within me. In short, I am pedigreed and I am fed up.
I went into my first U.S. PWI at the age of eleven. It was the Dalton School, the top day school in New York City — perhaps even the country, depending on who you asked. I am still proud to be an alumna when I think about how the academics were harder than my college’s, how artistic some of my peers were, and how stacked against me the institution was. Like every dark place, it had its bright spots. When Dalton got me, I was bright, confident, and driven; by the end of that year, I was a shell of myself. I had done my job: showed up as my best, brightest, friendliest self, and had been met with hostility, derision, and fairweather friendship. Affinity groups led by Ms. Sevilla (a loving, spiritual, painfully intelligent woman) frequently got me through my time there. It was understood as the trade-off we had chosen — we were to be relegated to the margins if we wanted to partake in high level academics (read: white, wealthy, and exclusive). As an intuitive child, you know exactly when people would like you to shrink, and I felt that every day from eleven to eighteen. I felt terrible for my Black peers who had been there since kindergarten; I could see a lack of self-esteem that I simply did not have. Alternatively, their coping mechanisms were more developed because they had been socialized intimately with the racism of the institution before they could tie their shoes.
The trauma I received there left my health (physical, emotional, and mental) fragile. I cannot recall most of my early to mid-teen years. To this day, when I talk to my friends from that institution, we marvel at our memory loss from that time. I will address Dalton in more depth in another volume. It was the place that took my voice from me and gave it back, and for the latter, I thank them. Graduation felt like a sigh of relief, and I was determined not to shrink myself ever again, and certainly not at my presumably liberal, liberal-arts college.
So, I went to college. I decided on Amherst College, a tiny “Little Ivy” smack-dab in the middle of Massachusetts. One of the reasons I had chosen Amherst was because it had appeared to have the highest concentration of Black people and they seemed to like each other. I was used to infighting and cliques. I wanted to attend a small liberal arts college with an open curriculum, which made the list of possible schools very narrow. HBCUs were couched to me as safety schools. I had heard too many Howard horror stories about financial aid, administrative dysfunction, and chaos; PWIs are not immune to this, it just never has the power to become their entire identity.
My first negative experience with Amherst was with the Financial Aid office. It was the summer before my matriculation. Amherst touts itself as endlessly generous with the ability for the overwhelming majority of its students to graduate debt-free, marketing itself in deceptive ways that need to be addressed. Now I did not expect a free ride — I have always been keenly aware of class dynamics and my positionality — but I expected something fair. My parents were older and comfortably middle class, and my father had retired in my first year of high school. We live in the city with the highest cost of living in the country. We received an award of, if I remember correctly, approximately $10,000, and were expected to come up with approximately $70,000 more. When we submitted our appeal, a dean said to me, and I quote, “I don’t know why you would come here if you couldn’t afford it.” (This is a sentiment which I’ve now heard has been echoed to more than one Black student in similar or exact terms.)
My first semester at Amherst College, Amherst Uprising flared. Black women, sick of injustice and inequity across the world and within their institution, led a sit-in that was supposed to change our world. Heinous conduct by the administration, non-Black students, staff, and its untouchable faculty was exposed. I have to thank those women for letting me know what I had stepped into and calling it out; without them, I would have encountered, again, even more psychic damage. I was brand new to Amherst College, but not to fighting white supremacy in academia. Never to that — not after Dalton. I stood up and said that I felt I had been deceived, written a bad check. Over the next five years, Amherst did its best to prove me right. The sadism embedded in the ways predominantly white academic institutions consume and discard Black life has to be eradicated. If academia doesn’t change, it has to be dismantled. Flowery statements are not enough: academia has to reckon with the damage it has wrought and make substantive reparation to its Black students.