The conversations about slavery and the American Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s are always awkward when one is Black in school. For some reason, non-Black students’ and non-Black professors’ eyes always manage to land and linger on the Black faces in the room. And the stares seem to represent a gamut of emotions and opinions from “Listen! They’re talking about my people owning your people” to “Aw, this must be so hard for you being Black and all. Woo woo…”. Regardless of the seeming intent of the glares, they’re annoying, uncomfortable, unwarranted, and stupid.
I first noticed the look in elementary school. When the MLK holiday and Black History Month were near, the energy in the room would get weird. Being 1 of 3 Black kids in class, the eyes would always fall on us during the history lessons. The most memorable, and certainly most ridiculous, experience of “the glare” happened in high school.
I was in history class. It was never my favorite subject because it was always presented in the most dull ways. However, this teacher used a book with a little edge to it and he wasn’t averse to some tongue-in-cheek while teaching. He was the first history teacher I had who made the topics interesting and I found myself pouring over the book just in case he gave one of his pop quizzes.
While in class talking about the ways slaves often used songs to lay out plans for escape, the teacher turned to me and said, “Miss. Rogers, you probably know ‘Swing Low (Sweet Chariot)’, right?” I nodded, assuming he was just confirming validity of what he’d been saying with the Black kid in the room. But his follow up question was, “Would you mind singing a little of it for the class, please?” Imagine a record scratch here because I’m pretty sure I heard one in my head too.
At the time, I wasn’t sure if he was being encouraging or insulting. Decades later, I’m still not sure. I mean, I did know the song, I’d sung along to it before, and even though I hated the glare with a passion, the idea of being part of teaching my non-Black classmates something was somewhat appealing. I was also pondering why he thought it okay to ask me in the first place. And now, looking back, I feel like he was asking me to sort of verify and perform my Blackness for all other kids who didn’t know anything about this life.
I sang it, y’all. I quietly let out a line or two of the song, the teacher thanked me for being such a good sport, and other students in the class commented about never having heard that song before and how they weren’t aware I could carry a tune. Way grown me feels disgusted I even bothered and thinks I should have asked him if he was mistaking me for the afternoon’s entertainment or token singing Negro. Unfortunately, at 15 or 16, I wasn’t quite there in connecting the weird feeling in my gut to the expectation I perform my Blackness for the masses like a good Black.
That idiotic stare that accompanies the subject of Black history and current events is just a side effect of living in a world obviously meant for everyone BUT us. A world that vilifies us, steals from us, murders us, and secretly covets us at the same damn time. Though our existence is obviously, keeping up on the ins and outs of our history and our present are optional for the dominant culture while everything about them is accepted as common knowledge and the norm. I haven’t ever seen a room full of students stop to stare at all the white kids in the room during the Gettysburg address conversation.
I’m left to wonder how Black students are supposed to survive in an institution that never centers them in any way. A system seemingly set on either erasing their reality altogether, denying the truth of it, rewriting it, or expecting them to perform it as entertainment. How are they supposed to navigate a system allegedly meant to educate them while leaving them without the adequate knowledge of themselves? It seems we leave with the ability to perform on cue, but without information on how to navigate this world that wants everything we have but doesn’t want us.
I wish I hadn’t sung that song. Hell, I wish he’d never asked me to or thought it ok to ask. I wish there were no calls for us to perform because our lives aren’t fodder for their entertainment. I wish there were never moments requiring us to even think of such things. Maybe in that moment, I should’ve wished for the chariot to swing low. ©