We passed a group of white guys, potentially affiliated with a greek organization, and instantly found myself stumbling back into the nightmare that was middle and high school. Each of them checked my friend out in turn, slowly, methodically. There was a hunger and an appreciation. They passed me next.
I felt the indifferent graze of their gaze as they looked through me. Reminiscent of the many times boys at my predominantly white middle school would rather not dance, than dance with me, I found my fiercely proud and apparently fragile self-esteem shrink quickly back as I was awash in old insecurity and self-critique. Arriving at the party made things no easier.
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I was surrounded by white women. Of all varying shapes and sizes, yet still cloaked in the same basal self-assurance of being subconsciously affirmed in the media, on campus, and in pop culture. For a long time, I was the only non-white woman in the room. Wearing all black, with big hair, and bright red lipstick, my fashion choice only augmented the differentiation that my skin initiated. I faded between the present and middle school me. I could almost smell the burnt hair from all the time and energy spent straightening my hair to try to blend in more. Though I really was convinced that straighter hair, a narrower nose, and lighter eyes were things I no longer desired, or coveted, I did find myself nervous in that room full of what I had been socialized to believe was normative beauty.
At one point, I shut myself in the bathroom and forced down tears. I choked back years of looking at movies, magazines, TV shows, and books that showed me that beautiful would never be attainable for me. I forcefully tucked my hair behind my ear and reminded myself of how far I had come. I wore my hair big because it was a part of my personality. I drew attention to my big lips and the shape of my nose because they were a part of me.
In that party, between toasts and wishing people happy birthday, I confronted an old me.
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A Ghost of Insecurities Past. I confronted those old desires, and forgave myself for having ever pursued them. I contemplated the system of white-washing and socialization that I continuously find myself ensnared in, and comforted myself with the fact that I recognized the source, and chose not to entertain it. I took deep breaths and reminded myself of the many people who helped inspire and nurture my self-love.
My boyfriend and I have talked several times about this experience. I have told him how I felt in that moment. Obviously in the moment, when I was having a small break down, his texts were reassuring and affirming. I mean the many different ways he carves out space and time for me to be myself and learn to love myself.
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The more in love I fall with him, the more I also love myself. He pushes me and moves me to be introspective, to challenge myself, and to stand up for myself. I was able to recognize those old desires and fears, and rebuke them because I have a stronger sense of who I am today than I did then. I teared up for these old desires and was frustrated by how they could still give me such a sense of discomfort.
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My sense of self-awareness and self-love ushered me safely past that danger zone. So, when my father says my name he calls his mother and his great granddaughter too — he summons present and past and a future that the rest of us do not know. So much is gained in that naming. And yet, so much is lost between childhood desires that never manifested into memories and fathering, birthed from a desire to spite absence and the weight of fatherlessness in a culture that looks for names in the blood of present men.
Where did our parents find names when so many of their fathers were ghosts? Where will our children find names when so many of our men want to make us ghosts?
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Family name: Kanyogo, origin unknown. Meaning unknown to me. A name passed onto me through my father, and his mother before. It is a name I will keep, always. This home is a two-story stone building, with a dark garage-turned-storage room that perpetually smells of dirt and rat poison. It is roofed by flat, red bricks that crying, black crows make a resting place of just before sunset. It is a home that has always been a construction site. Someone, my grandfather or his children, has always dreamed up new reasons to bring its old bumpy walls down, new ways to make it more like home.
There has always been an old crack, an old leak or a new struggle to fix. And so someone has always found a way to remind us of the volatility of the material, the body — how things collapse and are rebuilt again and again.
Yet somehow we still managed to weave silence into each new wall that was built — to silence pain. On most nights, we live in a place where so much is possible — where, love can blossom into 58 years, and three great-grandchildren. We also live in a country where mothers lose children to big men whose birth rights are pillaging and a traumatized people; people who breed silence, as if the earth below them is not already saturated with decades of spilt blood — as if it has not been hemorrhaging to a point of collapse with each new poor, black body left to rot in its streets.
These days the land is leaking, betraying its own worst kept secrets. I was born two years after my parents married each other in September There was genocide and liberation that very same year on our continent. Occupation: Student. A place in limbo, where happiness can come to die or simply change its source. Here, I spend too much time trying to hold myself together and not enough time dreaming beyond the mundane pressure that squanders passion and will. Here, I spend too much time counting the days till Friday. Objective of visit: Education.
Over 40 years ago my grandfather filled out a similar application to pursue further education in Canada. I wonder what he was thinking about when he filled out each section: the life, the family he was leaving behind or the opportunities that lay at the end of that process? I wonder whether he thought he would like Ontario a little too much, enough to want to stay.
I wonder whether he thought about coming back home, foreign. I think about transience — how I am forming memories and relationships in a place that makes me feel impermanent; like an addendum. A place, that in about a year and a half, after graduation, will be looking to oversee an elaborate exchange: one degree for my subsequent assumed absence and four years of laughter, tears, twangs, successes, sinking feelings in my chest, shivers, transnational ghosts, fear, opportunities, failure, deep pain, reflection, and memories of places and people that will be difficult to see. When they were drafting these visas, I wonder: did they remember that beyond our occupations, beyond their own attachments to these imperial boundaries of a country that is determined to keep those that it steals from out — did they imagine that these visas would serve people, so much like their own people?
People who are tired of justifying their own existences — people, who love places they were never supposed to love; people who dare to hold onto people who will be difficult to keep. Did they imagine that these applications would be filled out by people? This is an open love letter to Black Duke- the students, faculty, staff, workers, and administrators of African descent.
This letter is specifically meant for firstyear students in response to the act of anti-black violence that was directed at our community the beginning of this semester when the Mary Lou Williams Center was vandalized. I wrote and I am reading this letter to loudly and publicly affirm you, your brilliance, and your belonging at this university. The student body erupted in outrage, national news flocked to campus, and the next state over in South Carolina, I followed along anxiously on the internet.
I was a senior in high school who had recently chosen to come to Duke. It is a question which asks how you should prepare yourself for the seemingly inevitable next act of violence. It is a question to express doubts about your safety here. But in this letter, I hope to say a bit more. Over the next four years, you will have moments when a sense will creep over you and whisper to you that this place was not meant for us.
It might happen when you find yourself the only Black student in a classroom where your classmates discuss racial inequality with detachment and abstraction. For me, it happened when I noticed during my four years and over 20 classes at Duke, I have only had one professor who looked like me.
I felt it when I saw two senior administrators commit acts of violence against black workers and no. You might, like I have, come to know deep down that these things are all connected. And I want to say--I know that This is not limited to Black students. Latinx, Muslim, Asian American, Native peoples face unique but similar challenges. And not even all of us experience the harms in the same way. The harm of these systems is felt more by women, my brothers and sisters in the queer community, and those from low-income backgrounds.
Those of us who might have different ability statuses. What is unifying, is that we will all feel in different ways that this place was not meant for us. I want you to know that creeping sense of dis-belonging is wrong. It is a lie. I believe, without reservation, that this university- and the world for that matter- can and will be better.
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I recognize that the university is not… it cannot be It is a place which at its best, can represent progress for individual Black people, our families, and our home communities. During your time here, you will also have the chance to relish in black joy, success, and brilliance. You might choose to join in the work of making Duke better, of building the future we know to be possible.
We chose to cry out loudly to say something that mattered. But l know it is hard. Sometimes the battle is too much. It is okay to feel exhaustion; know that you can rest. In the meantime, until we reach a place where this place looks and feels like a community rooted in love and justice, know that you belong here.
You are more than enough. You now belong to the stunning legacy of over 50 classes of Black students at Duke. Of the activist and freedom fighter and city councilwoman, Jillian Johnson.