- Posted August 18, 2013 by
Silver Spring, Maryland
This iReport is part of an assignment:
First Person: Your essays
More than I Ever Dreamed
For the third or fourth time, I put down Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink in favour of another book—More than I Ever Dreamed—an unknown memoir by an unknown writer. It came to me by a circuitous route spanning close to fifteen years, culminating with the completion of my own memoir and a visit to see David Woods, my former professor and dear friend, who had just suffered a stroke.
David represented something pivotal in my life and a part of me believed he belonged in every sentimental moment too. So, when I finished my manuscript, I promptly handed it to him. Outside of family, his approval was one I really needed. It was an added bonus that, as a professor of
linguistics, with a doctorate from Georgetown University, he could be counted on to spot stray commas and awkwardly phrased sentences.
I met him in 1996 when I arrived in the U.S. as a graduate student. I left Jamaica, excited by the prospect of living and studying in Washington, D.C for a year, as planned initially. Alongside the excitement though, was a good deal of trepidation and it was not about trading in sun-drenched beaches 365 days a year, for wearying winter weather like that of 2009/10. It was of something more intangible and less benign: racism.
Jamaica, a former British colony, has its issues with race and skin color but it was something different from what I read of racism in America, and as a member of the black majority, I clearly had less to fear, physically, culturally or psychologically.
Additionally, I was contemplating my move at an interesting juncture in American history. General Colin Powell, a black man of Jamaican parentage and former National Security Advisor and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of staff, was at the center of frenzied speculation that he might be a candidate for the 1996 U.S. presidency. He, ultimately, did not pursue the nomination; he did not have the fire in his belly, he said.
Others say the real reason was Powell’s experience with racism, growing up in segregated America, and his family’s, particularly his wife’s concern of potential anti-black backlash that could cost him his life. Born and raised in Alabama, Alma Powell understood better than most, what such a challenge to the status quo, even in a more liberal America, could mean to her husband. She did not think it was worth it.
Regardless, the possibility of a Powell candidacy became one of those flashpoints for talks about race in America. From my post, editing international news at the Gleaner, Jamaica’s national daily, it seemed that America was not quite ready.
I applied to Howard University in Washington, D.C. to do a master’s degree in mass communication. A historically black university, with a history of civil rights advocacy, it seemed like a safe choice.
I soon learned that sharing the same race was not the same as homogeneity of thought or culture and all that implies—shared norms and values—and it certainly did not mean harmony, common identity, belonging, or acceptance. People are different—influenced by culture, belief system, character, experiences, and personal response to the world around them.
This is true of blacks, whites and everything between but truth is easily over-ruled by emotions when one contemplates the idiocy of having to defend one’s humanity against prejudices, based on race or other variables over which one has no control.
So on to Howard I went. As I grappled with the culture there, David became my anchor. The tall, effortlessly elegant New Hampshire native was the one whose meanings I mostly shared and understood. I depended on him to help me navigate the confusion and alienation I often experienced in an environment where I thought would be most comfortable. Moreover, his kindness and unwavering faith in me were all I had on those days when I questioned the madness of my decision to leave Jamaica.
It was unthinkable that one week before the release of my book—the manuscript he enthusiastically endorsed—and the party I planned, he would be immobilized by a stroke.
Two months later, I drove to his Chevy Chase, D.C. home to see him. The avid athlete was almost back to his old self and although he has a good quarter century on me, I had to go at a fast trot to keep up with his long stride on our impromptu walk through the neighborhood. Back at his house and hours of talk and tea later, I prepared to take my leave. The conversations took a sudden shift to his mother’s memoir, More Than I Ever Dreamed, which up to that point, I did not know existed. I prevailed on him to find the copy he though was “somewhere upstairs.”
It could easily have been titled A Beautiful Life. I read with a craving almost, for his mother's life—filled with love, family, travels to exotic places and philanthropy at different levels, grounded in her Quaker religion. It was, in many ways, the script that I would have written for myself, but for the vagaries of life.
Of course, I understood David so much better and the values that guided him to be a friend to me and myriad other wandering souls at Howard University. I vowed to keep paying them forward.
Each time we meet for a walk nowadays or lunch at Negril, Eatonville, Nando’s Peri Peri or whatever ethnic impulse guides or fancy at a particular time, I cannot help but reflect on the irony of how it all came about: how my attempt to flee white racism led me to one of the great friendships of my life—with a white man.
David respected me and I, him. And, the friendship he offered early on, helped me process some of my feelings about race/racism; it opened my eyes that much clearer to the folly of treating any group as a block rather than embracing each person of whatever race and the special qualities they bring—good and bad.
Now, one of the great joys of my life is just being part of the American Experiment—the opportunity I have to forge relationships with people of all race, nationalities and ethnicities.
It is an opportunity I would not have had in Jamaica—and I would have it no other way.