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Black on "Black at Bryn Mawr"

bluish's picture


Sometimes “slipping” is talking over someone by not inviting them to the conversation.

            It is a bright and lovely late morning. We meet in front of Thomas Great Hall, a spot which frequents the college homepage. We are to be lead on a walking tour entitled: “Black at Bryn Mawr.” At the top of the steps are, what appear to be, two white women. These are two-thirds of the project’s team, and the primary tour coordinators. I am the only person here who is Black at Bryn Mawr.

            This essay is not intended to disqualify the research conducted by these three women, but rather to reevaluate such an experience through the lens of the participant, opposed to that of the spectator. I, along with many others, are actively participating in the black at Bryn Mawr experience; we are not afforded the luxury of claiming archival research as our closest tie to this past; we are denizens of it, we are in the throes of its present tense manifestations. The tour seemed to echo a recurrent dilemma amongst forward-thinking institutions: discussions of race, and specifically blackness must hold the current experiential truths at their epicenter, and this will only be accomplished by placing those who are directly impacted at the fore of discussion. The tour is representative of just this. The intent is sincere, but its execution and implementation expose the “slipping” point-- to expose the anti-black history of this institution through the gaze of the non-black, to be walked down what would have been and what may still be my own memory lane by those who would have gone and still go unaffected by its reality. Slipping isn’t exclusive to direct communication with another person, slipping can be the absence of that communicative inclusion.

            During the tour, my immediate question was, “Why are none of my black friends involved with this?” In conversation with some of them, I thought it appropriate to inquire about their knowledge of this project and its fruition. What I found out was unsurprising. From what I was told, there was little to no communication of the project with the black student body, a friend saying that “the only time we heard about it was when it was finished.” These testaments only further perplex me. At no point during this project did the irony of their own identities in relation to those they are speaking for surface? And if so, how does one continue on, without revision? These questions may go unanswered, but they are posited before the larger conundrum of: what is the role of helpers and allies within black liberation? And more specifically, what is the white academic’s role in the uncovering of that history? These are precarious, slippery points of conversation, but they must be grappled with if the possibility of reconciliation is to be more than just imagined.

          The tour is not meant for those who are black at Bryn Mawr. The tour is meant for those who observe from a distance, who may look down at their own leisure, and gasp at a foreign, horrendous past. Being black at Bryn Mawr does not allow for these luxuries; it does not allow for one to dip their toes in the shallow end of white supremacist history. The “Black at Bryn Mawr” tour is best suited for those who are “Not Black at Bryn Mawr.” The delivery of this information is vital, but the project glosses over the relevance to present-day experiences of black students. The catalyst for the project, the hanging of a confederate flag, has gotten lost within all of the statistical research. It is the everyday experiences of black students on this campus that supplement this history. One should not be made a guest within their own space

          It is my hope that in future academic endeavors the idea of the subject versus the object will be more deeply considered. Through the outsider’s lens, black women and their history at this college become objects; there lacks an experiential component which is critical when discussions of race are held. The history is removed from its context; the past tense is withheld from its present tense counterpart. My friends, most of whom were organizers of marches, protests, and meetings during the confederate flag aftermath, are the subject. They were thrown into a wildfire of administrative opposition, ostracized by classmates, and victims to numerous threats. Their trauma was inescapable, and their voices are still here. Being so close to those who have no other choice than the present tense makes it hard to believe in these projects-- the inclusionary measures that are speaking on behalf of a people who is very much here, and very much ready to speak for themselves.