In my poetry seminar last Thursday, we read two recent books by the African-American poet Claudia Rankine. She writes from a place of grace, strength, pain and experience. That afternoon at that table in LC, her voice on the page was the only black voice in the room. We did not address this as a class.
For those approximately two hours, I tried and failed to imagine myself into the black body of the lyric subject. Reviewing my notes later, I found that I’d written: “positing a speaker whose words are relevant.” It wasn’t hard to understand for whom the words were relevant; they could not have been more relevant. But because I couldn’t fully know the speaker, I could only posit. No matter how relevant the message, when we read, we are always positing, always limited. In this classroom, that was all I was and remain capable of doing.
Though I write regularly, I’ve been eyeing this column in particular for a while now. No matter how many times I reached into my pocket to add to the little note I’d begun on my phone, no matter how many hugs I gave and conversations I had recently, I couldn’t conceptualize the words I wanted to fill this page. I felt and still very much feel impossibly ill equipped to be writing this week and this day. What right do I have to this space?
I keep coming back to this blank, white space, to this space that I’ve been allotted and charged to fill since my sophomore year. I’ve thought about all the white spaces on Yale’s campus that I comfortably fill, on and off the page. Semester after semester, it’s so easy for me to think of 750 words to fill this space, to sit in a seminar where people of color are absent. Writing now, I can’t move through these lines with the same ease.
It would be only too easy to fill the space with the beauty of the March of Resilience and its resounding message. It is so tempting to write about the ways in which the idea of community manifested itself, about the feeling of my voice feeding into a rush of sound, and about the number 1,200.
But this groundswell of solidarity may not feel as present a week from now. Something different must sustain this drive to redefine community at Yale. I must force myself to simmer in the feelings of discomfort that have spurred me and so many others to action. I don’t want to neglect to attend to the parallel atmosphere in academic spaces. I support the push for the additional distributional requirements proposed by the Black Student Alliance at Yale and the push for greater diversity in hiring. But creating new positions, classes and spaces does not discount the fact that we have a lot of work to do with our existing ones. Just as our community is not complete when ridden with fissures of discrimination, so too are our courses. I will still spend the rest of the semester in a classroom where a woman of color will not be heard unless she is on the syllabus. Though 31% of undergraduates are students of color, I have never been in a class that reflects this statistic. Why?
It’s important to remember that these cries are not just expressing the incompleteness of our community, but the incompleteness of our education. Surely, this is something I’ve intuitively felt in my time at Yale, in classes that have addressed implicit bias, empathy and sympathy. The brave voices I am hearing now have allowed me to understand more fundamentally this disconnect between the boundaries of academic discourse at Yale and who is most heard within them. I’ve seen that the Yale I most want to believe in exists in the streets and on Cross Campus with a flood of determination and unity. This is a good place to start — more than good, really. Still, we can be better at filling the spaces we have here. We need to fill the spaces that define community better, fill the spaces that define our education better.
Caroline Sydney is a senior in Silliman College. Her column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .