It was a bright, warm day that spring of ’70. I was walking an empty street on my way back to campus from a nearby mall. A bar there had become my retreat as I tried to bury the emotional pain of my breakup with Marcia. The street was deserted. There were no sidewalks. Empty weed-filled lots bordered one side and small houses past their prime lined the other. I was alone. The loss of my love had numbed me. I was disconnected, disembodied. I wore my grief like a noose.
I could see the campus ahead when a car with three White teenage boys rolled to a stop alongside me. They weren’t students from the university. They were “townies” who harassed the college “snobs” when the opportunity occurred. The car, a 2-door Chevy that obviously needed work, was covered with a dull gray primer apparently on its way to becoming something else. The teens sat there the engine idling, staring at me intently, sizing me up, apparently trying to decide what to do next. Were they looking to offer me a ride? Not likely. In those days in small town Indiana, it wasn’t yet uncommon for a lone black to be beaten or killed for no other reason than being black with little concern for any consequences. The lynching in Marion, promoted in local papers, had drawn more than 10,000 people to be entertained by the spectacle of seeing two Black men beaten, stomped then dangled by their necks kicking till their last breath. When one of the victims tried to grab the rope to hold himself up, he was lowered, his arms broken then hoisted back up to complete their insanity. Spectators severed digits from the corpses for souvenirs. No one was ever prosecuted even though the photographic evidence was widely distributed as postcards.
I stopped and turned to face them. An anger swelled within me fueled by my grief, burning in my eyes. Were these the same boys that had threatened us that night downtown? No matter. They would suffice to share my pain. In that moment I became the beast of their nightmares. I began to imagine how I was going to unleash hell upon them. I was not at all concerned about the odds or even the outcome. My anger became a rage looking for a victim. Perhaps the lack of fear in my eyes convinced them this “nigger” wasn’t going to go down easily. Are Black men inherently dangerous? No more so than anyone who feels they have nothing left to lose. Maybe the boys decided it would be best to move on. They did and so did I.
When I was a little scrawny kid, my older and much larger cousin, Jake, the one who “married” Phyllis and me, did something that aroused that same level of anger. My other cousins had to peel me off of him. It has always been a part of me I’ve kept caged deep within. A tall, well-built, angry Black man was the embodiment of white fears from the earliest days of slavery. It fulfilled some stereotypes that still slither around us today that can perhaps explain the unjustified violence of police officers whose minds have been poisoned by that fear. Why a small innocent move can trigger death.
The looks. The stares. The taunts. The threats. Day after day. From every direction. Some seen, most not. At any moment. The tension is always there. It all began to change me. Evolving you might say. Subsistent paranoia for survival physically, emotionally and psychologically. A different person untethered from the values that had governed me before. Becoming someone else. Perhaps becoming what racist Whites wanted me to be to validate the Lie. After all, we create what we fear.
I became bold, shedding what was left of the shy introvert always measuring my every step. As I was walking across the track field one day, I noticed Dave, from my photography class, getting shots of a very attractive girl whose blond hair glowed in the sunlight. Perhaps that was why he was so intrigued, bobbing around her his shutter firing away. But I was sure he had something more in mind. I walked over to check out what was going on and uncharacteristically stepped into the pictures. She said her name was Lynn.
1970 was a time of continued turmoil. Mississippi law enforcement officers killed two young Black Americans at Jackson State College, a historically Black institution. The Black Panther Party, initially formed to provide social services and security for Black communities, was being hunted down by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Undercover agents moved through campuses, even Ball State, like the men who hid their hoods. Nixon announced the war in Vietnam was widening into neutral Cambodia as the American death toll continued to climb. A student strike was called and protests erupted across the country’s campuses. Then the Ohio National Guard shocked the world when it fired on student protestors at Kent State University killing four.
Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970
The following year, I sat alone on the Green outside the Art Building to show my support for ending the war. With a golden draft number, I was in. Blue skies. Sunlight flickering through the trees. Bob, one of my classmates and excellent potter, had asked me if I wanted to go with him and his girlfriend to Ralph’s Mother at Wabash College the coming weekend. It was a weekend of great music, free food, free weed and whatever else you could want for free. What old codgers would have called a Hippie Love Fest. Sounded like fun to me. A girl with glowing blond hair was crossing the Green. It was Lynn. Uncharacteristically and without hesitation, I asked her if she’d go with me. Astonishingly, she said “Yes.” Okay then! The shy, introverted, Black kid from Edgemont Avenue had flown out that 2nd story window and was gone but someone different had survived.
The summer of my senior year was unnotably calm. Though the fog of racism persisted, I had become acclimated to it, like the air you breathe, totally immersed. Because of my change in major from architecture to design, I was a little short on the credits I needed to graduate. So, I moved off campus into a house just a short walk from the Village with Dan, my white roommate. I ran into one of Marcia’s old friends from the Dirty Dozen there for Summer School. She invited me to a party at her house that weekend. I had no other plans. Some others from The Dozen were there. I was the only black kid there as I recall. Beer, pizza, laughs and chatter were the fare of the evening, a relaxing time. As the subjects of conversation meandered, someone asked if we knew Marcia was getting married. Excitement erupted. Questions abound. But the room went silent in my head as the group continued on. I don’t know if they noticed when I picked up my beer and drifted silently out the back door. It was a crystal-clear night and the stars were abundant, just like the night of our first kiss under a lamp on the Green. I stood there looking up as tear rolled down. The pain began to creep back in bringing with it the darkness I thought I had left behind. It had been over a year since she left for God’s sake! I made my way back home, sat on the kitchen floor and called Jack. As always, he was there for me and listened quietly as I cried like a baby.
I limped emotionally through the rest of the summer of ’71 sitting in my living room in total darkness listening to music that shared my misery, Lucky Man by Emerson, Lake and Palmer was a frequent dirge. I identified with his struggle and defeat. I recognized that in addition to all the life experiences and learning I had attained during my four and a half years at Ball State I was also leaving with a degree in depression. It still lies sleeping in the corner to be aroused by any slight. I wrestle with it to this day, trying not to feed it or let anyone else toss it a treat at my expense. The web of racism had woven through and across every aspect of my life, silently, destructively, almost deadly. But I was moving on. What other choice did I have? This is the society I was born into. The culture my parents and every generation before them since their capture on the western coasts of Africa had endured. I am here because they survived. I would dishonor them if I didn’t as well. I had to find a way to manage and control it lest it destroy me and my progeny to come.
Who am I? I am Black!