The invisible speakBy Almosa Pirela-Jones | 11/23/2015 11:26am
Clad in all black, I approached a similarly dressed assembly of students at Malone-Hood Plaza. There were plenty of familiar faces in the crowd – campus leaders that I had become acquainted with in one way or another over the past two years. I kept my distance from the center of the action, content to studying signs with catchy slogans and the expressions of those who had merely stumbled upon our humble group. An event organizer, Amanda Bennett, thanked everyone for their attendance before handing the floor to Jahman Hill, who moved us all with a spoken word poem in which he cried, “Maybe if I were greek, you would listen.” As our march from Malone-Hood Plaza to Gorgas began, those words echoed in my ears.
A familiar face called to me twice, and when I looked up, I found an old high school friend smiling back at me. He asked me if I agreed with the protest, and I told him I did. As a first semester freshman, he bombarded me with questions about campus politics and the general environment. I explained the fall 2013 sorority scandal to him, and I told him Black students understood where they weren’t allowed – or rather, where they certainly weren’t wanted – and his face changed. Having both graduated from an extremely diverse high school in a wealthy suburb of Memphis, I understood that my complaint seemed like a completely foreign concept.
When asked for specific examples, my first complaint was lack of access to parties. Unfortunately, the issue runs far deeper than unfriendly bouncers at pool parties, and discrimination on campus is not confined to race. Machine politics negatively influence students based on sexual orientation, religion and disability as well, and the two hundred-odd students from varying backgrounds who attended this event were a humbling tribute to a segment of campus that is fed up with secrecy, lack of inclusion and marginalization. The University of Alabama’s president, Dr. Stuart R. Bell, acknowledged the problem earlier this week in an email to students, offering to create a Strategic Planning Council position known as a Central Diversity Officer. Unfortunately, this step, while appreciated, will not bring about radical changes in the lives of independent students.
Across sidewalks, a busy street, and the muddy quad, protest organizers led the group in an off-key rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” and when we were finally face to face with Gorgas library – named after the wife of Confederate General Josiah Gorgas – we heard from Sehar Ezez. She addressed the concerns of Muslim students, and reported that many were afraid to show their faces on campus in the wake of the bombing in Paris, and it made me seriously consider all of the unabashed jokes I have heard about Middle Eastern and Asian students alike in my time here. The cracks about international students’ smoking and the smell in B.B. Comer suddenly seemed a little more real with a face attached to them.
After her, Rachael Hartley ascended the steps and shared the details of the sexual assault she and her best friend experienced at the hands of a trusted high school classmate. There was no justice for Rachael or her friend, and she claimed the very semester she was sexual assault, then-President Judy Bonner released a statement calling a Crimson White article about consent on this campus "not as accurate as we would hope." Rachael was drunk and sexually assaulted, and in her darkest hour, she was forced to accept that her university was not behind her.
After about an hour, people in the crowd got chatty, and one of the organizers led the group in a series of chants. I watched my old high school friend leave with friends, and I broke away soon after. Behind the protest, spectators had gathered, trying to figure out who was causing such a scene and why. Protestors chanted “No justice, no peace,” over and over, so loud that their cries could be heard across the quad and as far as Malone-Hood Plaza. On the way to my car, I silently hoped that this event was just the beginning of a revolution that may or may not be televised.
To my old friend, I would say that the culture of fear runs so much deeper than parties because the Civil War never ended in this place. Each day, students of color walk past monuments honoring the contributions of soldiers and educators who spent their lives reinforcing white supremacy. Slaves are buried here. The Civil Rights Movement is nestled neatly in a corner of campus, and it goes unmentioned on campus tours. Sometimes the pain students of minority backgrounds experience is rooted in the slurs they endure. N----. Ch--. Cripple. B---. Other times, the pain is simply reading over a syllabus on the first day of class and realizing the contributions of your ancestors will not be studied. Pain is walking down a sidewalk and getting pushed into the mud by a group of unapologetic, giggling sorority girls. Pain is avoiding the Old Row at all costs, and in turn avoiding the cold and silent stares. Pain is opening up emailed advisories from the campus police and trying to figure out exactly how much free time for crime the ever-elusive dark skinned male has on his hands. Pain is being told to stay in school by dining hall employees and janitors who very easily could have been you in slightly different circumstances. Pain is setting foot on campus every single day for class and silently asking, “Can they even see me?”
Almosa Pirela-Jones is a junior majoring in English and African-American studies. Her column runs biweekly.