I remember going home to Leland sometime near or immediately after my undergraduate graduation. My grandmother, who has been a domestic worker for my entire life, drove me to meet one of the white women she worked for who had a graduation gift for me. Though I wasn’t thrilled about meeting this woman, I’m never one to turn down a check. When we arrived, rather than picking up the check and leaving, the woman insisted on entertaining us for a few minutes. She asked all of the typical questions people ask of a new college graduate: what was my degree in? What was I doing next? She gave all of the condescending advice that white people give to the family of their domestic workers: don’t fuck up like you people are prone to do (…ok, I’m paraphrasing a bit there).
And at some point in the conversation my grandma said, “I wish I had the opportunity to get some of that education.” I can’t remember ever seeing more sadness in her face. Even in the wake of family deaths, she presented a composed smile that rarely broke so when I saw the sadness in her face I shattered.
I knew that I was first generation college graduate, and I knew what that meant technically: that my parents and grandparents (and I don’t know anyone farther back than that) did not attend college. Because I majored in Sociology with a minor in African American Studies, I knew why they did not attend college: they were denied access to formal education through an interlocking system that formally excluded them and dictated that they must gain jobs to help sustain their families. But until that moment, I’d been disconnected from the raw emotion of those experiences. I didn’t recognize how the weight of social inequality must have squeezed tears from the eyes of millions of people just like my grandma, and that the smiles of pride they display as my generation earns university degrees hide an undying ache, an intense sorrow at a lifetime of stolen opportunities. That’s the flip side of the relative success of this generation of black Americans. Every small moment of achievement is inevitably and deservedly accompanied by a modicum of jealousy.
I can barely look at this picture. The sadness is overwhelming. This now vacant space is symbolic of those stolen opportunities: education denied, wages stolen, dreams unfulfilled. Rampant oppression.