Saturday…in the Dark

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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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Making Sense of the Incomprehensible

The pain of losing a friend or loved one can be traumatic, even debilitating if the death is unexpected. In the wake of a sudden loss, mourners often retreat from society and contemplate what the deceased person meant to them, and eventually, ask the ultimate question: “Why did they have to leave?”

I recently read: Messages from the Masters, Tapping into the Power of Love, by Brian Weiss, M.D. (Warner Books) Dr. Weiss, a psychiatrist, has developed a body of written work documenting the controversial topic of past life regression. His essential premise is that Earth has been created by God as a learning environment and each human soul lives numerous times, acquiring knowledge that brings us closer to true enlightenment. His technique, spiritual psychotherapy, involves inducing each subject into a state of deep hypnosis during which they purportedly recount experiences from past lives. Invariably, the subjects return to waking consciousness with deep insight as to a problem or issue in their current existence. Dr. Weiss’ discussion also encompasses the idea that the capacity to love is in our nature as human beings, and that love is a universal energy which unites all things. I believe him.

On the other hand, life’s tragedies challenge that belief. Hugh Johnson was a wonderful a man. He was my son’s Godfather. In August 1989, he left Washington with Congressman Mickey Leland to go on a mission to an Ethiopian refugee camp. Before he was to leave for the airport, we stopped by to say goodbye and to give him some money to purchase African artifacts. Just before we got into the car to leave, Hugh asked me: “When is that baby due again?” (I was pregnant with my second child) I thought to myself: “Hugh we just talked about that” but I said: “November.” He said: “We’ll be looking out for that.” I remember taking an extra good look at him, and having a vague feeling of dread, but being a worrier by nature, I discounted it. The plane he was on disappeared in Ethiopia before reaching its destination.

After an agonizing week of praying and watching CNN around the clock, Patricia called to say that the wreckage of the plane had been found and that there were no survivors. Hugh, and 13 other people died in the plane crash that killed Congressman Leland. The babies he left behind lost something no one could ever replace. What was the deeper meaning of his death? What lesson did we all take from that loss? Even 20 years later, the ‘why?’ just escapes me.

In September 1992, my husband and I enrolled our then 4 year old son into a Washington D.C. pre-school. Our little boy appeared to enjoy the learning and socialization process well enough. The only other black child in Donald’s class became a special friend. DeVaughn was with Donald constantly. He was bright, bubbly, handsome and completely adorable. I loved him. Donald, DeVaughn, and my 2 year-old daughter Justine had marvelous play dates, spending hours talking, singing, role playing and all the other things little people do.

Then DeVaughn was murdered.

On a Sunday morning before I was to take Donald and Justine to see Dance Theater of Harlem, my husband came in the room looking stricken. Alarmed, I turned off the television and felt my mind break as he told me what happened and that the headmistress of the school called to alert him before he saw it on tv. There is no way to reclaim the piece of my psyche that I lost in the aftermath. I cried every day for weeks afterward. I cried for DeVaughn, that he was hurt and that he suffered. I cried for his Mom, who was also hurt in the attack. I cried for Donald and Justine’s lost innocence, knowing that they would always remember their friend and his loss.

I was angry at myself for not understanding that the life of a black child can be at risk even when it is sheltered in the coccoon of white privilege. In an attempt to sheild my son from the rugged truths in our world, we wound up bringing him to an ultimate truth: the life of an African-American male can be extinguished at any time and for no reason at all. The killer murdered more than DeVaughn’s body, he erased his future. There will be no football, or girlfriends, or college career for him. We will never get to meet his children or his wife. All we have are memories of his smile and delightful laughter. The memories really don’t satisfy or bring true comfort.

I still struggle with this loss. My son still struggles with this loss. He had DeVaughn’s birth and death dates tatooed on his arm on his 18th birthday. Unlike the subjects of Dr. Weiss’ book, I really can’t make sense of DeVaughn’s death. Maybe if I hadn’t loved him so deeply, I would have long ago put this memory away. Does that mean the answer is to love others less to avoid the pain of loss when they are gone? I don’t think so. But the pain and the questions persist. They always will.

My prayers are with Jennifer Hudson and her sister.