Saturday…in the Dark

umass-at-night_14

University of Massachusetts Amherst at Night

Perhaps pain is a catalyst for growth.  If that is so, going to UMASS made me a giant.

Julianne Robertson

Washington, Adams, Coolidge, Kennedy.  Anyone who attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, commonly known as UMASS, recognizes these names as Presidents, yes, but also as the high-rise dorms in the Southwest residential section of campus.  Low rise dorms were also named after notable Americans:  Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville and others, but the names of each dorm had dual meanings.  The UMASS residence hall system, like those in other universities, groups students according to class, race, career interests, and other demographic considerations.  Accordingly, each dorm had its own flavor and unique atmosphere.  Pierpont, with it’s beautifully rendered psychedelic murals was the Pioneer Valley’s drug haven.  Coolidge and Adams, the high rise women’s dorms, were relatively proper, clean and quiet.  Kennedy was 21 stories of chaotic, rabble rousing madness.

Then there was Washington dorm.  As a 17 year old from Washington, D.C., I enjoyed meeting people from New York and Boston.  The men in Washington were invariably stylish, confident and very attractive.  Two in particular, I will call them P and M, were each bright, handsome, charismatic and intriguing because they’d been friends before they arrived on campus.  In September 1978, they were a wonderful addition to the small Black community in the midst of UMASS’ 25,000 student body.

Racial tension existed in Amherst in the aftermath of the the Boston Public School desegregation riots.  Many students in that era had attended recently desegregated schools, and horrific stories about South Boston were heart breaking.  On the other hand, Amherst is a bucolic college town setting with picture-perfect scenery and a post 60’s peace and love atmosphere.  In theory, every student could learn and grow in a safe university setting without ever experiencing the harsh realities of the outside world.

Theory and practice diverged wildly one Saturday night.

30 years ago, one of my African-American classmates was attacked by a group and badly roughed up while we were gathering for a party.  The instant he walked in a massive group of men left with him to confront the attacker.  I will never know exactly what happened, but eye contact with a returning member told volumes about the sorrow of brutality.  We all tried to comfort one another and get through the evening.

In the morning, Jose was dead.  1_soilingJose was an African American of Puerto Rican descent, but had not been at the party, and he took no part in the attack or subsequent events of that horrible night.  On Sunday morning, my dear friend Ike Bradshaw found Jose leaning against the wall of his dorm room, apparently strangled.  No police investigation ensued, no forensic evidence was collected.  Nothing.  In late November, the University had to prepare for finals and UMASS’ month long wintersession.  A community meeting was held in which we were all advised to stay calm and avoid commenting on the events until further notice.

No grief counselling, no funeral, no justice.  We were a community under seige, and only our youth and resilience allowed us to manage the confusion and anger.  Really, the experience plunged me into what I now recognize as a dangerous depression.  I got away from campus, weathered the storm, and returned to finish  the remaining 3 years there.  But I never forgot Jose.

I will never forget Jose.

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Faith of Our Fathers

I feel afraid.

I want to write about the fact that Barack Obama’s candidacy for President is an opportunity to honor the very last message uttered publicly by Dr. Martin Luther King:

“Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Mason Temple Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968

Dr. King was assassinated approximately 24 hours after he uttered these words.

I want to write about Americas’ promise and the ripeness of this moment to fullfill part of our human destiny and ascend beyond divisions and group differences. I want to write about each person’s love for their fellow man and the inherent goodness that God has bestowed on each of us. I want to expound on the creative solutions to the economic crisis that America will devise in the future. Unfortunately, creeping nihilism, mixed with my usual angst have conspired to force me to confront a monstrous truth. There is still a deep, long vein of racial hatred in this country.

America sells itself as a meritocracy. The idea of pulling oneself up from the bootstraps and being rewarded for talent and hard work are central themes in our belief system. No problem. If the current Presidential race were based on pure merit, however, the right would not resort to conjecture about Obama’s religion, or his parentage or any other issue than his ability. Hatred is the origin of that line of inquiry.

WOL Radio has the sad duty to announce that at 6:01 p.m., Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. We repeat, today at approximately 6:00 p.m., Dr. Martin Luther King was fatally shout outside his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee.”

In my 7 year old world, at 7:00 p.m. April 4, 1968, I felt that hate. Hatred reached into my living room, stopped me from doing homework, and hit me in the face. Hard. It was personal, and I could envision the shooter gloating and bragging to his friends about what he had just done. I felt as if He’d shot me and every other person in my community. In the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the graphic coverage of the Vietnam War, and visions of the Civil Rights struggle, grief, loss, anger, and confusion all worked in unison to derail my belief in the opportunities of tomorrow…at least for a while. For years, I was wracked by fear that the country would change and that the government would cease to exist. When I discussed these fears with my Dad, he looked at me and said: “Don’t be afraid, everything will be allright.”

I don’t believe that America will have another day like April 4, 1968, but I do see the storm clouds of division tearing at the fringes of the country. The difference between 1968 and today, among other things, is that Barack Obama is not a black candidate for President, he is the duly selected nominee of a major party who is black. His candidacy alone perhaps fullfills part of King’s dream.

The Presidential race is becoming more hotly contested as we speak, and candidates and pundits alike have made some startling statements. America has or should have moved beyond hateful rhetoric. None of us should be exposed to ‘leaders’ talking about who is “un-American” or who is “patriotic”. It is irresponsible and insulting. The economic crisis of this time requires Americans to unite behind the best candidate and forge ahead with unity, regardless of race, or class or gender.