Dear Natasha

Graphic courtesy of Natasha Torres

Note: This piece was originally written and published in Late 2014.


Dear Natasha,

Letters are old-fashioned, who writes them anyway. Duh, aint nobody got time to pen a damn letter when they can just Whatsapp, Snapchat, GroupMe, Tweet, Inbox or any other verb derived from the hundreds of messaging apps on our fancy millennial smartphones! I can’t even remember the last time I wrote one myself. To sit down and write this letter is to break from the norm, to resist the status quo — something special I have learnt from you.

To begin with, I hope you are having a fruitful week. Given that it’s around midterm weeks, most folks at ‘gate are in the so-called ‘struggle bus.’ I hope this bus has spared you, my dear friend, a ride. When I last saw you, you seemed to be in a different kind of ‘bus’ — not the kind whose passengers pull hyper-caffeinated all-nighters but the kind whose passengers revel in intellectual curiosity and critical engagement. You were smiling as you emphatically told me that I had to read the books that you were reading, books on feminism from the perspectives of women of color. I felt honoured that you were confident enough in me to audaciously tell me what I should read, and do it with a smile. I promise you that by the end of the year, I will have read at least one, if not all, of your recommendations.

In about two months, my time as a student on the Colgate campus will be all but expired. As you already know, I will be spending my last semester in Jamaica on study abroad and will only be back for a week in May, to graduate. It’s okay to hate me for doing this lol. All in all, who’d have imagined that curtains would come down on our college careers this soon! Can you believe we will soon be walking in front of a packed field house to receive our diplomas? While we all look forward to this day with lofty wishes, I am afraid the diploma, which by the way I am told is written in Latin, together with its cousin the transcript, will not tell the entire stories of all the crucial life lessons we learnt at Colgate and of those we learnt them from. I am afraid the transcript, albeit important in the ‘real-world’, will essentially be just letters and digits on a piece of paper, and so will the diploma. On the other hand, you, my friend, are, and will always be, the embodiment of the critical life lessons that I have learnt at Colgate, the moving, living, breathing soul that has taught me so much by just being; if I paid tuition for each of these lessons, I’d owe you several million rands by the time I shook President Herbst’s hand to receive my Latin-worded diploma.

My friend, let me retell you a beautiful story. I say retell, not because I have narrated it to you before but because you certainly know it; it is part of your story, or rather it is part of our collective story, only, this time, told from my perspective.

***

September 17th, 2014, 10:30 PM. Location: Lawrence, Room 105. Normally, the early sleeper that I am would be curled up in my bed, snoring, by now. On the contrary, I am awake in a unique way. In fact, I daresay I am wakeful, very consciously so. I am wakeful to the power within me to change things at Colgate; I am wakeful to the increasingly salient fact that something unprecedented — a storm of some sort — will be sweeping through Colgate in a few days; I am even more wakeful to the sense of passion and community growing in this room by the minute. The energy is so palpable that I can feel my heart racing, my veins piercing through my skin. I wonder where I have read or watched this kind of scene before, because I have never been an actor in one. Oh yes, that must be from stories of the likes of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Wangari Maathai, all in their quest to terminate the oppression of one group of people by another. Many are the pieces I have read, many are the voices I have heard, proclaiming vehemently that our generation, Generation Y — the generation that fed on X-box and Kim Kardashian in its teenage years — is too complacent to even think of agitating against injustice as an option. How I wish these skeptical tongues would eye the events transpiring in this room in Lawrence, right now. I bet they would forever hold their peace.

Better yet, I wish these skeptical tongues would see you, my friend, standing in front of over one hundred pairs of eyes here. I wish they’d hear you, my dear friend, clearly articulate the action plans that the school administration ought to implement to remedy the exclusive campus climate. I wish they’d experience the mood that engulfs this room when we collectively decide to stage a sit-in in the Admissions Building starting this coming Monday, and not leave the space until we get a written promise that all our action plans will be met.

Somebody at the back of the room shouts for you to speak louder. Angrily, I swiftly turn my head to spot the rude interrupter but their lips are fast shut. “Sure. I am sorry public speaking is not my thing guys,” you respond in a louder voice, with a hint of characteristic self-deprecating humility. As you say this, I am filled with an incredible amount of pride in you; the person standing in front of the room is no longer the short and introverted girl who lives in my dorm and works with me at the IT Service Desk. At this point, you, my friend, have transformed into a towering figure that is inspiring revolution in the souls of the occupants of this room. When the meeting eventually ends at 11 PM — an hour later than the scheduled time — I want to hug you for a whole minute and pledge, between tears and smiles, my complete support for the movement in whatever shape or form, kwa hali na mali as we’d say in Kiswahili.

***

My friend, fast forward to the next Monday. The location has changed to the ultra-modern Hurwitz Admission Center — the same alluring face of Colgate that less than a year ago received a three million dollar facelift. The numbers have grown from a hundred to over three hundred and the question on everyone’s lips, and tweets, is: #canyouhearusnow? Given the fervor in the voices of those chanting slogans outside the glass doors into the cold Monday morning, the national headlines that we make and the loud hoots of solidarity that we generate from vehicles passing on the road nearby, I am convinced the administration — and the world — has no choice but to hearken to our voices. However, I am soon to realize that, like Mandela’s, it’ll be a long and winding road to being heard.

It’s about 9:30 AM. You, my friend, alongside your fellow founders of the movement’s parent organization, the Association of Critical Collegians (your sisters Kristi, Kori & Melissa), have gone up the stairs, gone into the rooms that house the powers that be. Kori soon comes down and announces to the eager protesters, amid cheers, that you’ve held the first meeting with the administrators. She says that even though they view our concerns as ‘valid’, they do not ‘feel the personal touch’ in them. As such, they want us to ‘tell stories of instances we’ve felt discriminated against or excluded.’ At first, I find this rather absurd and fear few people will find the courage to face the gathering to tell their most personal of stories.

I am more than mistaken to think so. When President Herbst, Dean Douglas Hicks and Dean Suzy Nelson descend upon us, instead of spreading shivers down our spines, we seem to have finally gotten the elusive genuine shot at their ears. One by one, students stand on the staircase, which currently serves as our podium, and clothe their bitter experiences with words and visceral expressions. Mimi, a first year student, battles tears as she talks about how she’d never felt hated until she came to Colgate and somebody had the guts to question if ‘her kind’ went here; Liza, a friend of mine from Nepal, whose face is almost always curved into a cute smile, lets her tears flow as she talks about micro-aggressions and feelings of helplessness as an international student here; Lefeka, another first year student, courageously, shares about her recent loss of her mother to cancer and recounts to us a horrible experience that leaves most of us wondering whether we’ve reverted to the Stone Age: earlier in the semester, a student had run into Lefeka after she’d talked about her mum’s death in a public forum, the student had asked her if her mother had really died of cancer or if she had been murdered for drug dealing. These stories are harrowing, to say the least, and almost all our faces and eyes reflect the mood. Christelle, a senior friend of ours, noting the apologetic tone in most of our speeches, rises to the ‘podium’ and with measured fury and unwavering passion faces down, sharply, into the administrators’ eyes and declares, “We are not sorry. I hope all these stories haunt you at night because they should, and if they don’t, then, I AM TRULY SORRY.”

You, my friend, also grace ‘the stage’ with your presence. You talk about how you went through your first two years at Colgate feeling empty, like a ghost. Your statement strikes a chord within me because I know that feeling all too well. It is the same feeling that had made me decide to try erasing the memories of my first year at Colgate from my mental memoirs, to pretend that that year, with all its depression and extremely below average grades, never happened. I am tempted to believe that it is the same feeling that had informed the graphic strip you drew and presented as part of our final presentations during our extended study in Cape Town, South Africa three months ago. The graphic is retrieved vividly from my memory and I see the words, “I wasn’t meant to walk up this hill” written across one of the panels. I remember how you, my friend, had cried as you explained how this part of the graphic referred to how it was a privilege for you to walk up the hills at Colgate University and at the University of Cape Town given your socioeconomic background yet you still felt you did not belong in these spaces. I remember how I had let you, my friend, cry on my shoulder at that moment and whispered softly that you had spoken for me too.

At around two o’clock, the testimonial session is adjourned for people to have lunch. I am scheduled to take a test for one of my Psychology classes at 2:30 PM, today. I spent the last two days studying hard for this test but given the disheartening stories I’ve heard and the cocktail of emotions and thoughts they’ve elicited in me, I believe I lack the right mental state to take the exam. I hurriedly type an email to the professor explaining the situation; I tell him “I fear I might get a memory blackout or an emotional breakdown in the exam room.” He doesn’t respond until later that night; he simply says, ‘Let’s talk about it.’

***

As I lie on the floor of the Admissions Building that night, I examine my decision to skip the test and cannot come to a conclusion on whether is was a good thing or a bad thing. One thing I am one-hundred-percent sure about, however, is that spending the afternoon at the sit-in was worth it. The storytelling had gone on for about three more hours. Melissa had talked about how she was tired of ‘her babies’ — other OUS scholars she mentors — recurrently getting disappointed by Colgate and breaking down simultaneously, she could not handle it, she needed help; Bennie had talked about how he feared for his dear life on this campus simply because of his sexual orientation; Kori had passionately expressed her disappointment with not just Colgate, but also with other similar college institutions in America, that, she had found through her research over the summer, allowed minority students to feel excluded, “It’s not just Colgate, we’re all fucked up!” she’d sworn; Shammi, a freshman boy, had talked about how he had observed that he physically shrunk himself by slouching while walking around campus; Victor, my Kenyan friend, had wowed us with his precise presentation on how he doesn’t want to be ‘that guy at the door at frat parties’ telling males-of-color they can’t get in ‘unless they bring girls,’ like girls are simply a currency minted for the satisfaction of fraternity boys’ demands, what bullshit misogyny!

Throughout the afternoon I had kept postponing my wish to get up and speak for myself. You know, growing up as an only child to a single mum teaches you to keep most things to yourself, independence of some sort. As it became apparent that the storytelling session was about to end, my friend Gloria had to almost drag me on my feet when I told her that I really wanted to speak but I was feeling nervous and that my thoughts were scattered.

Mine was the last testimonial. “My mother had never been prouder of me than on the day I got accepted into Colgate with a scholarship,” I said, reminiscently. I told of how over three hundred people had joyfully gathered in a send-off ceremony at my home to wish me well with my studies before I left for my first year at Colgate. “But when I got to Colgate, I felt so stupid. I had so many worries and all over sudden nothing made sense. At some point, I even contemplated suicide. I had to go to the counseling center to simply survive. Even though now my social and academic life has improved, things need to change. I am sure not much has changed; we have only learned to cope better with it. We shouldn’t have to learn to cope!” I declared, prompting a chorus of approving snaps. As I stepped down the stairs, I knew that the sit-in had scored one valuable point: using the power of storytelling to provide healing and a sense of human community.

***

In the next four days of the sit-in, it takes a life of its own. There are moments of tension and there are moments of bonding, there are moments of confusion and there are moments of illumination, there are moments of anger and there are moments of inspiration. You, my friend, and your three colleagues, ‘our vessels’ as you’ve called yourself, are locked up in long meetings with the administrators trying to advocate for us as they craft the solutions to our concerns. I feel tired and confused by the end of the days but I cannot even begin to imagine how you must feel by the end of those meetings that drag on and on and on and on. When a written response to our petition is released, we’re willing to forgive the administration for being late in releasing it but we’re not ready to forgive them for their curt, vague and noncommittal offers. After prolonged deliberations, we send you, our vessels, to tell the administrators that we’re not satisfied and that our struggle continues, aluta continua.

In the meantime, I re-read our petition and I can tell from the wording that you, my friend, were very instrumental in crafting this document. I can bet that you worded Point 15 — we ask for trainings for Colgate students and faculty as preparation for study abroad. This training will include some literature and conversation about the politics of studying abroad, what it means to be “immersed” in another culture, “voluntourism,” and cultural awareness. These study abroad trainings should also include conversations on engaging with differing structures of power and privilege on a global scale. One conversation, for example, might advise students of color when they study abroad in predominantly white countries. Given our experience in the South Africa extended study program, in which Professor Stern and Professor Moran had underscored the importance of thinking critically about the politics of study abroad, I am very glad to see this point. In any case, I am tired of seeing Facebook profile pictures of white student ‘saviours’ posing with mobs of African children. I learn from you that our education’s value is largely dependent on how well we apply it to better our realities. You have tapped your experience from studying abroad in Venice and in South Africa as well as your Education Studies background to provide real solutions to problems enduring not just at Colgate but also around the world.

Courtesy of Muturi Njeri

I am reminded of your summer research that I read about on the Colgate website the other day. In the introduction you had said, “As a student of color, while I was in Italy, I faced marginalization within a group of American students; while in South Africa, I was forced to navigate my national identity and privilege. My time abroad was complicated, hard, and spoke to larger systemic issues.” Following your two different experiences in Italy and South Africa, you decided to conduct research interviews and write a thesis to complicate notions of study abroad as a homogenous experience. Maybe at some point I can be one of your interview subjects but I understand full well what you mean when you say that issues of gender, race and class affect study abroad experiences. Recently at an African Students Union meeting, we discussed this topic especially in relation to The COVE’s recent voluntourism trip to Ethiopia. During the discussion, I had compared and contrasted my radically different experiences as a participant in two extended study programs with Colgate students: Uganda in Summer 2012 and South Africa in Summer 2014. As I put it in my presentation at the end of our program, South Africa forced me to think critically about the privilege that studying in the US had given me and how that affected my interaction with others, especially back home, in Kenya. I summarized my thoughts in a photo of me gazing down upon Cape Town from atop the hill at the University of Cape Town with the caption: Latest member of the Global North? The Uganda program, on the other hand, was one of sheer ostracism as I quietly observed other Colgate students treat and talk of Ugandans as if they were second-grade humans. During the days, some of these students took all manner of photos, including those of sick patients in a hospital (with prospects of exhibiting these photos of Africa at Colgate), and on the evenings sat comfortably on couches downing Bell beers and laughing about their funny interactions with the natives. Given my loneliness, I had decided to make friends with local Ugandan youth who I could relate with better but one of the professors had almost slapped me at one instance, as he yelled, “You have to choose if you are here with us or with them!” I must have been so different from the other Colgate students that a headteacher in a local school we visited had had the balls to ask his students to “clap for the driver for bringing our visitors” while pointing at me. I’m sorry if these scenes have you thinking I am plagiarizing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.Nonetheless, I am thankful because while I initially felt all I could do about this kind of issues was let them slide, I now feel empowered and challenged by your example to do better.

***

Courtesy of Jessica Pierce

 

Back in Admissions, on Thursday night, our first battle is won when we approve a revised working document that we feel responds to our wishes comprehensively. While this is just the beginning of the war against non-inclusiveness at Colgate, everyone is in a jovial mood. On Friday when the sit-in is finally over, we victoriously march in a long line around campus singing “Colgate, no hate, we love Colgate” and “Whose Campus, Our Campus.” The march culminates at the intersection of Broad Street and Kendrick Avenue, opposite 1934 House. After chants, photos and a happy group hug, we, the you and the I in this story, share this golden moment in which the you embraces the I and says, “I love you.

Come to think of it, I love you too, my friend. I love you for La Casa and The Social Justice House, the comfortable homes that I have lived in over the past three semesters at Colgate that wouldn’t have been interest housing without your tireless efforts; I love you for Sisters Of the Round Table (SORT), and for all the enlightening discussions and events SORT leads such as the Vagina Monologues and The Lounge; I love you for being Natasha, for being angry Natasha, for being artistic Natasha, for being caring Natasha, for being quiet Natasha, for being complicated Natasha, for being radical Natasha — and for being @tashaohh on Twitter and Instagram.

Finally, since you have tasked me to read a couple of books, I think it’s only fair that I reciprocate. Mi amigo, I bet you didn’t see this one coming! One of my favourite musical albums of all times is calledLove + Protest by Kenyan musician Eric Wainaina. One hint: according to Wainaina, the album is a combination of songs inspired by this Che Guevara mantra, “The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” I know a good number of the songs are in Kiswahili, but wasn’t your last monologue at The Lounge, very powerful, not despite, but because it was written in Spanglish? Listen to toLove + Protest and give me credit when it becomes your anthem.

Mucha gracias mi amigo Natasha.

Your friend and think-mate,

Peter Muturi Njeri.

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