The Second Semester (Entry #7)
Why do babies starve when there’s enough food to feed the world?
Again more lyrics echo in my mind’s ear. Not only was something profoundly missing from the world within, something was deeply disturbing in the world without. “All ain’t cool in Kansas.” I am beginning to sense that it isn’t merely the need for a better distribution of resources, or that some people simply want too much for themselves. There is evil and lots of it in the world—and something needs to be done-.
Because of the influence of my senior year high school English teacher, I had a social consciousness. That is why I wanted to go into international law. I wanted to try to make the world a better place. Part of that was youthful naiveté, but that aside, if a person is not looking to improve the world, then what is he or she living for? This struggle, however, was not only an external one. At Amherst, there were plenty of “limousine liberal” types who felt that they could better the world—but more often than not, they neglected the betterment of themselves. It seemed natural to me that this struggle would have to go on outwardly, as well as, inwardly. If we sincerely wanted to reform the world, we would also sincerely have to want to reform ourselves.
During winter break, I pondered what life was going to be like given that I had flunked out of college. On the last day of the decade, I write down some of the most significant events of the past year. Let me digress for a bit (something my students know that I am wont to do). Had it not been for these Journals, innumerable people and events would’ve just slipped through the net of my memory. But by reading of those events and people, their memories are resuscitated and the past is relived in the present. These Journals serve as a touchstone of remembrance. They are a steady reminder of the influences that have made me the person I am. And they are a reminder of the mercy and grace that Allah has had upon me, for things could’ve turned out far different from the way they did.
The day after filling up five pages of memories, I write: “I’m in this intellectual purgatory—I can’t go back to my former life in Springfield, and I can’t live in an ivory tower.” The days were gone of riding around the north end of Main St. or up and down State St. and Wilbraham Road blasting the latest jams on the car stereo, while “checkin’ out the ‘freaks’” (which was the not so endearing term that was frequently used to refer to females). “Once a mind is stretched to a new idea, it can never go back to its former dimensions.” Amherst had, in that one semester, stretched my mind to realms that I did not know existed. And although plenty of expansion took place, the over-intellectualizing at Amherst, I felt, stultified action, and the skepticism of Amherst was inadequate for the inner longings of my soul. Again, I was set adrift, but unlike my situation after high school graduation, I wasn’t a comatose-to-self Negro. I was beginning to wake up on the inside.
A few days later I would write in the Journal that I could not sell out—how could I ignore the suffering in the world so I could live a comfortable life? I would write: “Limit desire and it would limit conflict.” So much of the inner conflict and outer conflict we face results from our wanting things—not just wanting material things or even non-material things, but simply wanting things to be other than what they are. I was beginning to struggle with the notion that my life might not turn out the way I planned. At this time I write that I could find a girlfriend and “get rooted to society.” I could embark on that life of convention and what seemed too often to be a life of “quiet desperation,” or I could strive to be true to myself—and embark on a journey self discovery. More by circumstance than choice, I would end up taking the latter path… and that made all the difference.
As it turned out, I did better than I thought that first semester. I would be able to return to Amherst for the spring. I’d have food, shelter, and intellectual stimulation for another five months. Two courses I took that spring left an indelible dent on my mind. One was a course on Central American politics. This was right after the US invasion of Panama and at the tail end of the Contra-Sandanista era in Nicaragua. Central American politics was a pretty hot topic in the media. Among the readings for the course was I, Rigoberta Menchu, which is an autobiography of a Guatemalan Indian woman and the oppression and terrorism that the poor faced from the ruling elite in that country.
Whether it was the situation in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, or Guatemala, the US foreign policy was to keep these lands open for American corporate exploitation—regardless of how much the human misery this exploitation would cost. It was in this course that I came to really realize the hypocrisy of American foreign policy. Although American politicians would speak of the need for “democracy,” when elections did not turn out in favor of hand picked puppets, then the American elite would launch propaganda campaigns against those democratically elected officials or governments. If the propaganda did not work, then assassinations or the military industrial complex was brought to bear upon such a state.
The epitome of hypocrisy was seen in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the US was selling weapons to Iran (while supporting the regime of Saddam Hussein in his war against the Iranians—just for the record, Saddam Hussein was once an ally of the US and was given millions of dollars in weapons to fight against Iran). Since the Contras were guilty of many savage atrocities that could not be covered up, the US Congress had blocked funding. Nonetheless, high-level elements within the US government circumvented this proscription by using the money from weapon sales (to Saddam Hussein!) to support the Contras—who could not be seen as something other than terrorists. Also, the Contras were supported by drug money (cocaine, in particular), at a time when the US was “declaring a war on drugs” here in America. This would also be a time when the streets of inner city black America would become awash with crack cocaine, murder, and the mass incarceration of African-American males.
This was a little difficult to wrap my head around. I knew that things weren’t all peachy-keen, but the lies, deception, and hypocrisy were difficult for me to stomach. How could I want any part of such a system?
It was in that Central American politics course I had another college awakening. The tension had been building for a while in the class. There were the “minority students” and the white liberals who were growing increasingly disgusted with the litany of atrocities taking place in the region, but there were also the old school conservatives who were feeling more and more on the defensive—and feeling compelled to defend the indefensible. In particular, there was one student—one of the, one might say, jar-headed kind of white guys on campus—who commented that the these countries were important to the US because of their resources (largely, fruit plantations and cattle ranches) and should be made accessible to the US. When that student tried to offer such a flimsy excuse for inconceivably inhumane policies, the lone Puerto Rican in the room—and he was probably from one of the upper class families—went the “ef” off with his thick Castillan Spanish accent!
Although I cannot speak for the Latino student, I knew for myself, that on that afternoon, in that classroom, I had a political epiphany. Not only was there evil in the world, but there were people willing to justify and profit from it, and I was sitting amongst such people at Amherst—people with an utterly warped sense of morality—people who would go on to influence and formulate policies that would cause untold suffering and misery the world over in the name of greed, power, and what can’t be described as anything less than straight-up evil.
The other course was conducted by an Ethiopian professor on the works of Frantz Fannon. Fannon was a revolutionary and a philosopher from Martinique (an island in the Caribbean). He fought in France during World War II and later attained a Ph. D. in psychiatry. During the Algerian War (a war between the native Algerians and the French colonial occupiers) he fought on the side of the Algerians. Fannon’s magnum opus, The Wretched of the Earth, which stems from his experience in Algerian, became a handbook for the revolutionary’s of the 60’s. But it was an earlier book, Black Skin, White Masks, which is about how colonized blacks internalize inferiority and self-hatred, that opened my mind to a new dimension of thinking. A blogger named “Abagond” has a short summary of the book here:
Black Skin, White Mask got the gears of my mind thinking in an entirely different sense racially. It was the first time that I had ever read something analyzing why black people behaved the way they did. This was the beginning of my “intellectual understanding of blackness.” So many of the peculiarities I had observed about black people while growing up, I just took for granted as just part of “being black.” I never thought about trying to understand why—I just knew what was. The desire, for instance, that many guys I knew growing up for a light-skinned black girlfriend or a white girlfriend (even if she was on the portly side and other aspects of her appearance left a lot to be desired) began to make sense to me. Unlike the typical complaining I would hear when I was growing up from black folk about racism and the legacy of slavery, Fannon was providing an analysis which could lead to a much deeper level of self-understanding—of self-clarity—and potentially to action. I was beginning to wake up to an an aspect of my being that had laid dormant all my life… and in the approaching summer that dormant being was going to erupt.