While driving across this emerald green, Midwest campus town that looks like Hogwarts in Harry Potter, I see the smiling faces, walking, riding scooters, biking, seemingly without a care in the world. I hear their laughs, see friends joking around, basking freely on the golden rays of life. I love it here, I love my campus. But I wish I could feel so free.
I envy their carefree smiles, even as dark thoughts cloud my mind. And I wonder: Do they not feel what I feel?
Like them, I am a student. But I carry a burden with my books and earnest pursuit of a graduate degree. I long to be as free.
I want to smile in the sun, laugh and ultimately to taste what I perceive to be freedom enjoyed by so many of those who are not Black like me.
I long to be free. Free like the wind, blowing on a summer’s day. Instead, I wake up with a heavy weight on my shoulders, shackled by the trauma embedded in my DNA from slavery to Jim Crow, to the constant and historical threat against the Black body to the painful mysterious story of Jelani Day.
And here lately, I am shaken. Though I cannot take a day off from this American experience of pain and heaviness, even as I smile sometimes through tears in a journey through which I have faith that I ultimately will prevail.
My own smile and light have been dimmed by the disappearance of Jelani Day, 25—a Black graduate student at Illinois State University, discovered on September 4, floating face down in the Illinois River in Peru, Illinois, 60 miles from his college campus.
I am troubled by news reports of Haitians in pursuit of a better life being whipped by officers on horses. By the continued senseless shootings back home in Chicago that leave innocent children dead.
I sometimes struggle to smile, to find levity, to feel free. I sometimes fight back tears, hold a finger to my eyes to push them back in public.
As a graduate student, I cannot afford to be immersed in pain. I have lessons to learn. Classes to teach. I must shake it off, get through the day, deal with the numbing trauma that for African-American students like me is sometimes hard to bear. The death and disappearance of Jelani Day hit close. He was a graduate student in Bloomington, Illinois, I’m a graduate student in Bloomington, Indiana.
Two separate Bloomingtons, two separate universities, but the same challenges in the same campus town.
Like so many of us who attend predominantly white academic institutions in mostly white towns, Jelani and his case caused, for me, ripples of concerns about my own safety. And the absence of answers about what happened to Jelani triggers within me a million questions, some of them formulated by the context of my own traumatic DNA.
Perhaps greatest among those questions: If Jelani Day’s Black body was not safe on his college campus, why is mine?
I am smart, a scholar and a teaching assistant. I carry with me lessons imparted by my parents over the years. And yet, I am not immune from violence or trauma, or necessarily safe, even on a college campus.
Jelani was a Black man who was not a thug, not doing wrong, and, in fact, doing what he was “supposed” to do. A good son, brother, and student, he was loved. Like me, he was a member of the Divine Nine. And none of that saved him. That reality struck me as I stood recently at a high school auditorium in Danville, Illinois, covering his funeral services. His remains lay in a mahogany brown casket, family and friends mourning his loss as I stood numb.
What will keep me safe?
I am torn. I want to be free. But I am imprisoned by a list of do’s and don’ts:
“Do be safe.”
“Don’t come in too late.”
“Don’t walk anywhere alone, (you know there are racists out there, so be careful.”)
“Do call home, let us know where you are.”
You can do all of this and still end up dead, like Jelani. This is my Black reality.
As I drive across campus, I see students who are free. Free to be them, unapologetically free to ride scooters, free to bike, free to drive there without fearing the police, free to depend on campus to protect their very existence, and free to simply smile freely.
I drive, envious of their smiles and the absence of tears in their eyes.
Samantha Latson is a graduate journalism student at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, and a free-lance writer. Email: [email protected] com