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I love being an English major to the point that I paid for a shirt that says “I put the lit in literature.” But the constant focus on white male authorship makes me want to drop the major for good. “Literature and the Pursuit of Happiness” was going to be my favorite class this semester; it fulfilled a core requirement for the English major, and I was taking it with my best friend. And happiness seemed like such a broad topic—what new, emotionally tumultuous, deeply introspective novels would we be studying that would ultimately bring us to a wide and profound meaning of what it means to be happy? Then I read the syllabus. We wouldn’t be reading works from any authors of color until mid-April—the last two weeks of class. What we were focusing on were Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby. I’ve read all of these pieces a minimum of three times, and so has every other English major. I dropped the class.
Take a look at any Duke admissions pamphlet, or Duke’s website. Any prospective student has probably read class demographic numbers like 25 percent Asian, Asian American, Pacific Islander; 13 percent Black/African American; 14 percent Hispanic/Latino.
If you’ve never experienced palpable stress, try going into an organic chemistry help room at 4 p.m. the day before the first midterm of the semester. Students are constantly moving across the room, talking to other students and competing for the attention of the TA. Sometimes, out of desperation or impatience waiting to be helped, people tap my shoulder to ask about random problems from obscure practice exams that I’ve never seen more and certainly didn’t study. The more time I spend in the room, even after I get help, the more the concern builds that on the night before the test, there is too much left to study.
In the music video for Chris Brown’s “Freaky Friday,” the white rapper Lil Dicky wakes up in Chris Brown’s body. Now, just because he’s black, he can throw the “n-word” around as much as he wants. If you want, watch the clip here (fast forward to 2:19).
“Get your Bibles out y’all,” one of my professors said, mostly joking, as we started a discussion about how a passage in a Flannery O’Connor story we were reading connected to something in the book of Revelation. A few classmates laughed at this, because the idea of carrying around a Bible is funny to them.
In liberal circles, we throw around the term “white privilege” just as frequently as we extend our allegiance to the newest group or cause that we feel has been wronged by the oblivious white man—whose power over other groups was unjustly given to him in the first place. White privilege jokes have almost become their own category of entertainment.
Growing up, when my mom wanted to take me to see a movie where the majority of the cast was black, we had to drive much farther to find the few theaters around us where the film was playing. Whoever chooses which movies should be in big theaters, like Regal and AMC, evidently didn’t think “black movies”—movies where the majority of the cast is black—would resonate with their consumer base, which defaults to white Americans. It never occurred to me why my mom and I had to wait for months and drive so far out of the way to see “Jumping the Broom” and “War Room” until now.
If T-Pain has such a good voice, why does he use auto-tune? I won’t pretend to know enough about vocal music to give a discerning critique of his vocal range. But you don’t need to know that much about music to know that T-Pain’s voice in the NPR Desk Concert version of “Buy U a Drank” is good. It’s raw, it’s ironically wholesome given the subject matter, and it makes you want to consider stopping by a jazz concert with your lover on your way home from the club. If you’re my mom reading this, or for some other reason have never heard his song “Buy U a Drank,” here is the regular song, and here is the acoustic version that has over 12 million views on YouTube.
“Sleep when you’re dead.”
There are twelve girls that live on my hall in my freshman dorm. Seven of them are white. Six out of those seven white girls are the only girls on my hall who rushed sororities. This is a personal experience, but to me it seems like a microcosm of those who choose to be involved in Greek life on campus. On the bus one day during rush week, I told a girl on my hall who wasn’t rushing about this observation, and added “Isn’t that weird?” She shrugged at me and said, “It’s kind of expected.”
Having a black woman as president would not just break the glass ceiling for America. It would shatter the glass ceiling under which little girls have grown up—exactly the ones who Oprah mentioned were watching in her Golden Globes speech on Sunday—who are overly ambitious dreamers and long to see someone who looks like them at such a pinnacle of American success. A black female president would signal the first streaks of light on the horizon for those who are tired of saying and hearing “me too.”
The people I celebrated my 19th birthday with were all people I’ve only known for four months—at most. Some of them I wouldn’t have considered good friends prior to Halloween. It was strange to me as I planned my birthday brunch and simultaneously texted and snapchatted friends from home, many of whom I’ve known for seven years or more. This was my first birthday since I turned 12 that I celebrated without those who I previously thought should know me best and understand me most. What’s four months to seven years?
In the seventh grade, I decided that I wasn’t going to be called “black” or “African American” anymore. I re-classified myself as “chocolate,” which I felt was a better descriptor of the actual shade of my skin. I told all of my friends about my new racial identity, told my parents, and checked “Other” on multiple tests or surveys that asked me my race. My family has no idea where we’re from in Africa, and I was old enough to notice that my skin wasn’t actually black.
I adamantly detest the mac and cheese from Panera Bread. The sauce is so liquidy it’s practically soup, and they’re apparently too artisan for sharp cheddar. They insist on using bland white cheddar instead—if you can even call that cheddar. The whole dish seems to have been concocted to only have as much flavor as a four year-old with a tragically underdeveloped food palate can handle.
I was being so productive last Saturday morning I could hardly believe it was real. I woke up at 8:00 a.m. despite having been up since 1 a.m. the night before, and instead of laying in bed listening to music or going back to sleep, I decided to catch up on reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers for a literature class. I arrived at the part where a black family is gathered, and the grandfather is speaking about what he thinks it will be like when Jesus Christ returns.
My first true version of myself was in words. I have vivid memories of when I was three and four years old, sitting on the floor in front of my dad’s recliner chair. I would narrate stories I had concocted on the stove of my mind while he penned my words to the page. My platforms were a piece of printer paper, the back of an envelope, a blank page of an old leather bound calendar that I begged him to give to me. I discovered the simultaneous comfort yet lurking solitude that only writing gives, even before I had learned to write words for myself.
This is the era of popularized black intellectualism. Twitter is teeming with emboldened minority youths who call out cultural appropriation, xenophobia, and American society’s racist tendencies. Millennials don’t see rappers like Chance as just rappers anymore–they’re social activists, they’re intellectuals for what they reveal about black culture to white audiences. I’ve had multiple discussions in different settings about racism being the father of race, not the child. People who don’t identify as black or African American are raving about the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and I haven’t even been yet. Are you really woke if you haven’t read Between the World and Me?
“You’re not really black. You act white. You’re white on the inside.”