Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Racism is man's gravest threat to man - the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason. ~ Abraham Joshua Heschel

This morning, Barack Hussein Obama, was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. I honestly never thought a man or woman of color would ever become President during my lifetime. I've lived a long time and I've been witness to a lot of racism and I just never thought it possible.

On this historic day, I am thinking about my time at Philander Smith College.

Philander Smith College was founded in 1887 to "make education available to freedmen (former African American slaves)." In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order, the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which designated Philander Smith College, along with 102 other public and private institutions, as a national resource to whose principal mission is to educate black Americans.

In 2002, I became the first white person to be hired to an executive position at the college.

It was a tumultuous year for me. At the college, I encountered mistrust, fear, anger and suspicion which ultimately forced my resignation. I also underestimated the reaction of my colleagues. I thought perhaps my appointment might have a small negative effect on my career, but I was not prepared for the level of exclusion I experienced at state meetings and conferences. No matter. I learned more about the African-American community and myself in that year that I had in my entire lifetime. I saw and experienced first-hand a part of America I'd only heard and read about.

Today, I am thinking about the former President of Philander Smith College, Trudie Kibbe Reed. She received her bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees at a university in Texas, despite continued racial bullying and threats, and became the first woman to be appointed President of PSC.

I am thinking about Dr. Jesse Hargrove and the story he told me about his year at UC Berkeley where he and his peers from other HBCU's were subjected to being studied for IQ genetic inferiority, even though Dr. Hargrove was studying 6 languages there.

I am thinking about the 17-year old girl from the Arkansas delta who visited the campus during one of our summer meet and greets. While on a tour of the library, she rode the elevator up and down several times before the tour guide could coax her out. It was her first time in an elevator.

I am thinking about the 19-year old young man, fresh out of jail and newly enrolled, who was living in his car. His parents moved while he was in jail and he had no idea where they'd gone.

I am thinking about all of the students of color I met during my time at Philander Smith College. I am thinking that the level of suspicion and mistrust I felt as a minority in that environment pales in comparison to the suspicion and mistrust those students, their families and friends feel on a daily basis.

I don't think we white Americans can fully appreciate the symbolism of an African-American President for the African-American community. We've always had white teachers, white principals, white doctors, white senators, white leaders, white Presidents. We only needed to look around us to see ourselves, our color.

Now, Dr. Reed, Dr. Hargrove, the 17-year old girl and the 19-year old boy can look at President Barack Obama's face and finally see themselves reflected in his eyes.

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