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The Historical Hiatus

“I can’t do this anymore!”

I exclaimed from the top of my lungs, a cathartic release of the volcanic emotions that had been bubbling up ever since the start of the second semester. Given my location on the fourth floor of the Rockefeller library, this disruptive outburst normally would have elicited a range of responses, the least serious being a few turned heads, and the most being a security guard and a couple of triggered students confronting me. However, it was near midnight on a Friday evening. I practically had the whole floor to myself. To put it in simple terms, I was down bad. Older peers, professors, and advisors always tried to reassure me that my struggle was normal, scoffing as if I was being facetious when I told them that I had considered giving up on my pre-med aspirations at least a few times a week, responding with dismissive remarks like  “oh you’ll be fine. That’s the same struggle everybody experiences.” This advice stung like a bee.  When I observed the rest of my non-black peers, it was evident that they weren’t enduring the same struggle, and when I asked them about it they told me that their experience with classes was fun, feasible, and stimulating. Something just didn’t add up. My best guess, although it was a mindset I tried to avoid as I never wanted to give myself an excuse, was that this was attributable to the disparities in our upbringings and how they influenced our opportunities and exposures. Not only did we differ racially, but we came from different socioeconomic backgrounds. I never made that connection until I recalled an event from the past.

Back at home, my dad would tell me, “you’ve got to work twice as hard as the white man, and even then the levels still won’t be even.” My mom would add, “this country may have abolished slavery, but black people have yet to experience true freedom.”  True Freedom. A professor once told me that there is no freedom without equality. I wondered how true freedom looked, felt, smelled. That evening at the library,  I turned to look out the narrow rectangular window beside me and spotted a flock of birds flying past in the night sky. Seeing them fly made me recognize that this was the liberated state of being that I truly craved. Longing to procure this same feeling and relieve my stress I relinquished myself from the responsibilities that called me to spend half the night studying at the Rock and retreated from the building. The temperature had risen since the previous snowstorm, and it summoned a thick veil of mist from the melting snow that made campus feel like a literal ghost town. My field of vision was minimized to a five meter radius so I took every step with caution. The air was cool and crisp, and it filled my lungs with the taste of the spring dew that would cover the resurrected blades of grass at dawn. A few minutes had passed when I finally found myself on the quiet green, wandering aimlessly, following the voids within the walls of mist that offered the tantalizing chance of escape from this labyrinth of obscurity. For a moment, it was as if a passageway suddenly opened up in the mist, conjuring me on a straight path towards something–the slavery memorial. I was always intrigued by it; for some reason I had strong, visceral reactions to it that seemed to change every time I saw it. While I scrutinized the monument, I felt a vibration from my pocket and reached to check my phone. The time was midnight, and the notification was from my calendar, alerting me of the first day of black history month. I sighed and put my phone in my pocket. The night has been long enough already–I might as well cut myself some slack and call it quits, I thought to myself. And so I turned to make my way back to the Rock to retrieve my belongings and head back to my dorm, but before I made it past the Van Wickle Gates the clocktower rung, a resounding sound that couldn’t have been more eerie as it echoed through the foggy winter night. What happened in the next few moments is hard to explain– and believe. Suddenly my anxiety spiked and it felt like the environment around me started to change–except, it actually was. From the murky fog appeared a silhouette of a man. Then another one, and a third, until the entire Quiet green was filled with them. Slowly the mist faded, and what I saw before me left me paralyzed. Before me stood hundreds of chained up slaves. And I was one of them.

Shackles were tightly clasped around my wrists, digging into my flesh, incarcerating my soul. Although I could see that there were men and women around me, their faces were indistinguishable. I wanted to cry out for help, pinch myself to wake from this terrible nightmare, but I couldn’t move. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. My surroundings did. The mist thickened and a strong breeze passed that nearly knocked me over. When I opened my eyes, my hands were no longer shackled, and the slaves had disappeared from before me. Instead, there were dozens of students walking past, as if it was a normal weekday afternoon and people were commuting to and from class. As I observed the sight before me, I realized a recurring theme. All of the students were white. Suddenly I felt out of place, searching for a shade of black that would give me a sense of familiarity and comfort. Then I realized that I was standing next to a black man that looked oddly familiar. He sat on the bench across from me, gazing into the mist which had now become very faint once again. His eyes were a soft, dark brown, and through them I could see that he was contemplating. They channeled intelligence and intricacy, but also an emotion that seemed lonely and despondent. Maybe, I wondered, if it had to do with the fact that he had yet to spot me, even though I saw him. Through those eyes he only saw the piercing stares from the people around him who spoke through their glares, chiding things about how he didn’t belong. I felt the empathetic urge to reach out and grab his attention, but before I could move my environment began to shift yet again. I was beginning to believe that I was surely asleep at my desk at the Rock. Just as suddenly as the mist had hid my surroundings it revealed a new set of surroundings. Now I was in a large mass of people, black people, marching down what had to be College Hill. Their faces were filled with passion, and they shouted chants for equality and inclusion. Immersed in the events around me, I tripped and lost my footing. I hit the ground hard and for a minute I feared that I was going to get trampled over. However, I wasn’t crushed by a foot, but greeted by a hand. Cocoa colored skin complimented by a radiant smile and thick, curly hair, the lady before me was true beauty, but a warrior at the same time. Gratefully, I accepted her grasp, and as soon as our hands touched I felt a shock go through my body. Her momentum helped me up but as I regained my footing the mist was back at it again, washing over the crowd of black students and carrying them away. This time, I knew my ride had come to an end because the mist completely cleared, and I found myself back where I had started, on the quiet green, as if I never left. But now, my anxiety was gone, and suddenly my overwhelming load seemed like not so big of a deal. My current issue no longer had to do with academics, but the fact that what I had just experienced wasn’t a dream. So forth came the emerging question: what did it mean?

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