Flashes of Racism
by Stanford Lewis
It was a beautiful day to be alive. I had just flown in the night before from Cambridge, Massachusetts. We had driven from Kenwood, the community next to Oak Park, Illinois, the neighborhood where President Roosevelt had spent much of his time. We were headed to an upscale Chinese restaurant. The view along Lakeshore Drive was spectacular. The trees seemed taller and greener, the sun shone on the lake, the weather was a balmy 65 degrees, and for Chicago in March we were in heaven.
When we arrived at the restaurant we found a parking space that was not in the next zip code --wonderful, I thought. When we entered the restaurant the aroma of chicken, rosemary and sesame seeds met us at the door. We immediately broke out to wash our hands and we were back at the buffet in a flash. The music was soft and classical, the windows facing Lake Michigan had a post card effect and the crowd was a mixed bunch.
As I stood waiting in line, a white man with brown hair and stocky build with a big dough belly, decided to take it upon himself to come over to pay me a visit. I thought nothing of it at the time.
He said as he walked up behind me, “I see you have on a Stanford University shirt.”
I turned around and look at him and replied, “Yes, I do.”
He responded, “That’s a fine institution.”
I said, “Yes, it is.”
He said immediately, “But, I can go one better than that.”
I said, “Really?”
He said, “Yes. My boy goes to Harvard University”
I responded, “Oh, really? So do I.”
He said, “What house do you live in?
I said, “I do not live in a house.”
He responded with a giant smile, “But all undergraduates live in houses at Harvard University.”
I said, “All undergraduates might live in houses, but I am not an undergraduate student, I am a graduate student. I live off campus and my name is Stanford Lewis and I got this sweatshirt from a friend of mine who did graduate from Stanford and who ordered it for me because my name is Stanford.”
The white stranger looked at me with surprise and disgust in his face. He turned around and walked swiftly back to his table in a far away corner from which he had come.
It was August, 1989 in Ithaca, New York and I had just come out of my season of suffering, unemployment, underemployment, and social isolation. I was a graduate student at Cornell University on a full academic scholarship in history. It was a new beginning in what seemed like my age of miracles. It seemed that I had the golden touch. I applied and academic doors opened—hallelujah. My first day there the sun was beaming and the air was cool and crisp—a wonderful day to be a graduate student in upstate New York. I was walking around casually taking in all of the sights. There was new building construction, wide open fields, and much to be observed in the small town of Ithaca where Cornell is its major employer. It can be said I was in my element.
I was hungry and thought I would search for a place to dine. On my way I encountered a regal looking continental African man who I immediately struck up a conversation with. I told him that I was a graduate student in the Africana Studies Center and that I would be delighted if he would join me for lunch. He immediately agreed. We set off together looking for someplace to eat. He too was a graduate student studying finance and languages and both of us being new to the area didn’t know where to eat. We looked around and saw down in the middle of a hill a Chinese restaurant that was empty and looked like the perfect place that would serve a healthy meal so we walked over to observe the buffet and we quickly decided to stay for lunch.
The restaurant had just opened and there were very few people in there. After we had gone through the line and sat down at the table we heard a commotion coming from the kitchen and the Chinese workers were peering out at us and muttering something. I did not know what it was they were saying and paid it no mind, however, my new continental African companion seemed alarmed. He looked up from his food and stared in the direction of the muttering and said to me, “they’re talking about us.”
Then I said, “who is talking about us?” He said, “The Chinese.” And I responded, “what?” He repeated himself and then proceeded to tell me that he had studied in China for years and that he had come from a wealthy family in Africa and his father expected that he would be an international business man to the Far East. He continued, “what they’re saying about us is really not nice.”
And on that score he stood up and walked over to the buffet table where the Chinese were serving and began to speak in Mandarin to their and my surprise. I was literally flabbergasted. And the Chinese were equally amazed. They ran out from the back like ants. My friend never lost his composure. After having spoken to them he returned to the table and I with an open mouth asked him what he had said to them to change their attitudes. He said he complimented them on their food and their country and told them that he had studied in China for years. I never saw or had another lunch with my African companion but I shall never forget how he diplomatically overwhelmed us all.
It had been a long and arduous trip from New York City to Senegal. When we arrived in Dakar the city was a cornucopia of humanity –Africans were everywhere doing everything speaking French, Wolof and English. The background was filled with the lyrical sound of the Muslim’s call to prayer. This was a new experience for me having been born and reared in the American south. I found the sound exhilarating even though I was unaware of the Arabic language in which the call was being spoken. It was a Friday and this was the Muslim’s holy day. Early morning Dakar seemed like a regular Sunday in America and there was a peace that filled the city that made me feel quite calm and at home. It’s difficult to explain the sensation unless you have experienced it before. The only other time I have experienced this feeling of peace and tranquility away from home is the time when I attended the million man march where black people congregated for peaceful expression to dramatize horrific conditions in America. This same feeling of peace and tranquility was alive in Dakar and gave way to the extreme business of the day.
It was mid-morning; we were hungry and preparing to go to brunch. We were being escorted to the so called better parts of town and restaurants which happen to be Lebanese. I being an experienced traveler was not pleased that we were in Africa spending our money with the Lebanese and so I began to mildly protest that since we were in Africa we should be spending our money with the Africans and dining in Dakar. However, this was not the plan for the day.
We travelled quite a distance to get to the Lebanese restaurant and hotel which was 5 stars. The atmosphere was calm, the scenery was plush, and the music was soothing. The tables were round and could seat eight so we seated ourselves accordingly. Afterwards a very attractive Asian woman approached us to take our orders. I decided not to eat and that I would spend my money in the African community in Dakar. Little did I know that my decision would be a force of tension because all the seats were pay as served. In other words it was assumed I pay and eat if I occupied a seat. After everyone had been served and eaten I informed the waitress that I had not eaten and that I should not be charged for the meal served. She informed me immediately that I owed $13.00 for a plate of French fries which I never touch. I began to tell my companions this is why I prefer to eat in the city with the African community because we would get better prices and not be over charged for food. After a brief commotion and a few of the other diners explaining that I had not eaten the waitress kindly relented.
But, there was another storm brewing on the horizon that neither the waitress nor most of the other patrons could foresee. There was an African American patron at our table who by profession was a mathematician who had a special gift for numbers. After the waitress had presented the check he asked to see the figures. To everyone’s surprise he said that the figures had been miscalculated. The waitress kindly recalculated the check and came up with the same total. The man asked to see management taking the position that the figures were incorrect. Management was outraged and became indignant. So, what ultimately happened was that they separated all of the figures, recalculated the bill and to everybody’s surprise the mathematician was right. They had over charged all of us. I was so impressed that I went over and had a personal conversation with this gentleman. He told me he also had a gift with numbers and could calculate in his head nearly as fast as a calculator. He was aware that the waitress was padding the bill and we mere mortals were unaware and would have accepted the enormous bill as American tourists do.
The summer of 1983 was preceded by a semester of challenging academic work at Fisk University where I discovered that there was a possibility of studying abroad at Oxford University at Oxford England. I believed that international studies at a European university would be a jewel in my burgeoning academic crown. I was uncritical at this point in my studies about European bias and I believed then as many continue to believe now that anything European was superior. Academic excellence was my goal. I inquired at Fisk regarding the particulars for acquiring the British studies at Oxford scholarship. I was informed that there were two scholarships programs; one that paid the total academic cost of a summer semester abroad and another which paid partial scholarship for a summer semester of study abroad . I was further informed that the fully paid scholarship recipient had to be an English major. To my dismay, I was a political science major and therefore could not qualify for the total scholarship but I was not daunted. I might have been poor but I was determined. I did apply for and received the partial scholarship. I had to design a financial plan to make up the difference of several thousand dollars which seemed like a fortune at the time. After conducting research, I decided to incorporate myself, that is to say, I went to the Fisk administrators and inquired on how to give anyone who wanted to support me a tax break and requested if I could use the school’s non-profit status and to my surprise they agreed. I waged a successful campaign to raise the other half of the money needed for my studies and even raised extra spending money.
After a summer of intense reading and writing it was time to return to America. The last social event of the summer was held in a British pub. Jay and I (Jay was the only other Black student out of 400 students in the program) decided to attend the party. We entered into a room filled with white people. By this time we are comfortable in our environment so much so we separated and were socializing. After a while, I began to miss Jay so I started to look for him but couldn’t find him. I wondered where he had gone or if he had decided to leave suddenly but he would have informed me so I continued my search. I finally found Jay surrounded by a group of white men who were being confrontational and the issue was whether or not Jay had kicked over a beer that had been left on the floor and Jay was being required to pay for the beer. I listened and observed the situation and it was escalating and I knew that Jay was short on funds so I interceded by paying for the beer and told Jay let’s get the hell out of there so that we could return to America in the morning in one piece.
Under the tree at St. John’s at Oxford Dr. Pennfield stood outside of his dormitory and as I entered the quad he called out to me.
“Stanford, someone entertained me all last night with their radio. Was it you?”
“No, Dr. Pennfield. It was not me. First I don’t own a radio. And, secondly, I don’t live in your building.
“It must be Jay then.”
“He doesn’t have a radio either.”
At the time we were having the discussion a white student walked out of the building where he lives with a large radio with earphones plugged in. Dr. Pennfield shook his head and walked off.
For a month and a half we had eaten three meals a day and today’s lunch was special. Usually we started out with a prayer in English and it always ended in Latin then the meal would be served but on this particular day there was a lot of conversation among the students with Jay and I being the only Blacks as usual. The conversation started clockwise with Jay sitting closest to the whites and me sitting beside Jay. They began to discuss their parent’s occupations and I really didn’t think anything of it except for the fact that I had known Jay for a year and I never thought to inquire as to what his parents did for a living—it just never came up and it was not important from my perspective but since our parent’s occupations had been made the center of conversation I wondered to myself what Jay would say.
Well of course, there were the typical doctor, lawyer, success stories among the whites present and there was one who said his father was a political lobbyist. This was a new occupation for me having only finished my freshmen year in college. Then all of the attention seemed to turn to Jay and of course me, but I was really unaware of the level of intensity that was focused on the two of us because usually the high table was served first with the few of the university professors sitting around it. All of the other professors were interspersed at the low table sitting with students and the room was usually a buzz with student conversation and the activity of the waiters.
But, it seemed this time that all eyes were on Jay. And all ears were attuned to his lips as he said nonchalantly, “my father holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and he teaches at Morgan State.”
Atypically, one of the professors sought clarity in Jay’s response. He said to Jay, “ Do you realize how rare it is for a Black man to have a Ph.D in Philosophy? Jay responded, “Yeah, I know.”
He looked at Jay and said, “I hold a Ph.D in Philosophy. Then he asked Jay, “what is your name young man?”
“My name is Jessie McDay, III and my father is Jessie McDay, Jr.” The professor cleared his throat and said yes, your father Dr. McDay was my teacher. Needless to say everyone’s mouth including mine fell open. Everyone were so amazed they neglected to ask me what my parents did for a living.
We had been on a world wind tour rising early in the morning and staying up late at night listening to the deep thoughts and lectures of Professor John Henrik Clark, Dr. Ben, and Dr. Jacob Carruthers, as well as many other Black scholars. We were the largest group of African-Americans to return to Africa and we were staking our claim. There were lectures and discussions on nearly every aspect of ancient Egyptian culture and how the European Egyptologist has stolen the birthright of African Egyptians. In this regard, we were suspect of all non Africans who dared to inform us on ancient Egyptian culture.
By this time I had seen the Step Pyramids and visited Karnak where the temples were so large I witnessed five grown men hold hands around the base. I had seen the magnificent carvings in stones on the wall but how could I be sure that the greatness that was Egypt was actually that of native Black Africans. I wanted so badly to believe what our professors and scholars were teaching us was true but how could I be sure? Our suspicion was confirmed in the Cairo museum by our Arab tour guide. Every exhibition that was on display had several labels attached. There were French labels; there were German labels; and of course British labels, all representing those people and cultures who had conquered Egypt.
I was standing out in the hallway in the Cairo Museum when as if by magic my attention was drawn to a giant case. This case was different in that unlike the other cases which had multiple labels it had no labels identifying its contents. I thought that odd so I requested of our Arab tour guide as to what the cases contained. He told me “animal hair” that the ancient Egyptians made their wigs from this hair. He further instructed me that the ancient Egyptians were baldheaded for sanitary purposes and they used these wigs. I thought about this explanation for a moment and it didn’t seem to make sense. So I looked at these wigs very well. There were huge afros that looked like rain clouds. Locks that hung the entirety of the case that where very thick and wooly and the answer was clear at least to me. I told that tour guide that yes this was animal hair alright—human animal hair that belonged to the African’s who shaved their heads and created the culture that was ancient Egyptians. From that moment forward I knew that the ancient Egyptians were Black like me and that I would be a part of the movement to help popularize the truth of the Blackness of ancient Egypt.
The African-Americans were anxious to visit Goree Island but our continental African tour guides were not. I posed the question to our guide who told us to call him “Packer” why did the tour guides seem so reluctant and I asked him specifically would he be going to Goree Island and I further inquired what was at Goree Island that made him not want to go. He said that there was a bad or negative feeling and spirit there. Of course, I felt he was talking nonsense. In my western arrogance and my desire to be a first rate scholar what he was saying was simply incomprehensible. Unfortunately, I was too eager to brand him as a superstitious African and I dismissed his position. Certainly, I would go to Goree Island, as I had gone everywhere else and there would be no trouble. The day that we were to leave was filled with anticipation and our regular continental African tour guides were conspicuously absent.
Upon our arrival we saw French and other European tourists wandering around the island questioning the Black tourists as to why they were crying or why were they sad. I saw none of this sadness in the Europeans. As for myself, I dismissed the Blacks on the island as being overly emotional and not being properly educated about what they were experiencing. I on the other hand would get to the bottom of all of this Black and African centered nonsense.
The island was bustling with commerce. Cooked shrimp the size of your hand was sold as well as an array of trinkets and African memorabilia. The curious thing however, was that these African vendors who sold you the wares are in fact fronts for whites who are actually the owners of the stores. As we began our tour of a house with another guide from the continent, we were told that the Europeans occupied the top floor and the Africans were enslaved in the dungeon. I thought this cruel because the residence wasn’t that large and comprised of only two stories and so it was difficult for me to comprehend how white people could literally be living on the first floor while Africans were literally dying in chains in the basement.
Next, we were taken to a tiny room in the basement and told that this is where the infants were kept. To my way of thinking nothing is more helpless than a human infant. We were told they were placed in there alone where they often died. Then we were taken to a door which was a few hundred feet away from the Atlantic Ocean where we were told this is called the door of no return which many Africans had been forced to go out of making this the last time they would see the continent of Africa. It was said that many Africans grabbed hands full of sand and swallowed it as they were being pushed through this door as a way of keeping some of Africa with them. We were further instructed that out of this same door that many of the poor infants who died were tossed to the waiting sharks which had gathered.
That these Europeans could party and live the highlife while Africans were made to suffer, starve, die and live in their own excrement was incomprehensible to me. The filth and the stench must have been unbearable how Europeans could live with this I asked myself. Then we were moved to a final room where we were all told to get in the room which was the size of an average bedroom, maybe a little larger, one woman said she was claustrophobic and refused to go into the room and I heard someone say, “you get your ass on in there cause so was some of our ancestors” and somehow people began to cry. The men were breaking down and everyone was crying except for me and the white people. I was looking around and white people were asking questions which seemed inhumane and inappropriate.
I was the last person to exit the room. After everyone was gone I touched the wall and looked closely at the little slits that had been cut in the wall for air. What I’m about to say I know I cannot convince anyone of it nor can I prove it empirically, but I had an experience unlike anything I have ever had before. As I was preparing to exit the room, I ran my hand on the wall, feeling the slits, and it was as if there was electricity then there was something that spoke to my mind that seem to say ‘you have a major role to play and you tell the world what happen here—the pain, the suffering, the human atrocity that occurred you must tell America this story.’ And, then suddenly water poured from my eyes as it if came from a fountain. I could not stop myself from crying. I cried uncontrollably for the next several minutes. I knew I had a part to play in telling the story of our ancestors and now I knew why the continental African tour guides had not wanted to come back to Goree Island—because they were exhausted.
To say that Brazil is a tropical paradise is an understatement. The diverse countryside holds something for everyone. We lived in a five-star hotel across from the Atlantic Ocean and at any given moment anything could happen. The streets in front of the hotel were filled with merchants selling their wares and prostitutes selling sex and the police were nowhere to be found. There was something for everyone.
But, what is often overlooked in such a fantasy land is the abject poverty in which most of the people live. There are hoards of street children sleeping in corners huddled together for warmth like abandoned puppies. In fact, I was compelled to ask some of the children why they were outside sleeping and to my surprise they told me they had no homes or nowhere to go and no one to look after them and that they were on their own. I couldn’t believe it. I decided that the least I could do for these children was to go to my hotel room and give them the blanket from the bed. They thanked me and afterwards I spoke to a few other people and they gave their blankets up as well and the children seemed grateful.
Despite Brazil’s tropical beauty there is a geopolitical ugliness that is within its midst if anyone cares to see it. Brazil, not unlike South Africa, has a gradation of color schemes, which ranks the status of its individuals by giving them social and economic prestige based on the color of their skin with the scheme ranging from Black, medium brown, high yellow and everything in between with white of course being the best. I was dumbfounded when I found out that the Blacks in Brazil are called African Americans. I thought that those of us of African ancestry born in North America had a monopoly on this claim. I was wrong.
By this time we had seen island paradises with blue green water. We had visited coffee plantations that grew cashew nuts. We had taken an excursion into the favelas which would have been like taking a visit to the American projects. Unfortunately, like the projects the people who make their living in the favelas are scratching to survive. The rate of alcoholism, prostitution and gang violence are parallel to the American projects. As I viewed these ugly realities in my mind of such a beautiful place I could not in good consciousness go to party in the castle as one of our last group activities. I thought about it long and hard. And, I realized as a person trying to be progressive and politically aware I could not dance, drink, and have a good time in a place where our African ancestors had been enslaved so in my own way I protested by not attending.
We had been invited by Karen Yarbrough, the 7th District State Representative in Illinois to her inauguration for her second term. It was to happen in Springfield, Illinois approximately 200 miles from Chicago. I was her speech writer and an integral part of her campaign and inner circle. We were looking forward to going to Springfield to celebrate her victory. I rode with an older man with whom I had become very good friends. We met nearly every Friday to eat at the Chinese buffet in Maywood, Illinois. Larry Parham was a short dark complexion man with a grey streak in the front of his hair. He also suffered from the Napoleon complex always seeking attention and needing to be respected at all times. He pledged money to the campaign that he did not have and had to borrow but he would always stand up front and center in the public to make his grandiose pledges he needed to be seen and I learned to like him in spite of this fault.
Larry had been selected as the representative’s driver and we went everywhere together. This occasion was no different as he was driving and we made record time. He was very proud of this accomplishment. After having gotten to Springfield we found ourselves hungry and the day rapidly coming to a close so Karen, Larry and I set out to find a place to dine. We decided to have pizza. Now, Larry is about twenty years my senior and the representative is thirteen years my senior. For all practical purposes we looked like an ordinary family having dinner. We entered the restaurant and it was filled to capacity we sat down and not long after a waiter took our order. Karen and Larry ordered drinks while we waited.
As we sat talking and preparing for Karen’s next day induction, to all of our surprise, a white lady who had been sitting directly behind us with her group walked over and tapped me on my shoulder and asked me if I wanted their left over pizza. I thought this question was incredible beyond belief. She repeated herself when I did not respond. Karen and Larry looked at each other and then look at me. Karen later told me she was nervous because she did not want me to curse the lady out given her political position in Springfield. In fact, I had on a specially designed hoodie with her name and district, and my name on it. She had given these out to the closest members of her brain trust. I was still processing this strange question trying not to misunderstand this white lady’s perspective.
However, I was having a difficult time understanding how she could conclude that I needed her leftover pizza when in fact I had not asked her for pizza plus we were there waiting for our own pizza to be served but before I could respond she read the back of my hoodie and asked, “who is Yarbrough?”
I pointed my finger across the table at Karen. Her attitude quickly changed. She said, “oh, I’m sorry.” And she covered her mouth with her hand. I didn’t mean to cause any disrespect.” And she began to walk backwards towards the door. When she got out of ear shot Karen said to me, “I am so glad you did not curse that woman out.”
We were in Senegal West Africa and we were being paired up with roommates. I was paired with a Catholic priest from Chicago. I was living in New York at the time. I did not really think about it much but having gone to Harvard Divinity School did make me a little apprehensive about the conservative Catholics. However, upon meeting him I found there was no real big problem with him. We did have one brief theological conversation where he started talking about Jesus walking through walls. I knew then there would be no more theological conversations with him so I resolved not to talk theology with the father.
It was a very hot morning in Senegal. We had spent the previous day at Goree Island and some of the African women we had met were asked to come to the hotel to braid the African-American women’s hair and measure them for dresses. However, the women from our group had gone out on the buses to eat at the Lebanese Restaurants. I however, had resolved to eat all my meals in the community of Dakar and spend all my money with the continental Africans. I had also convinced a lot of others to do the same. A Senegalese family was standing down in the lobby just before noon waiting for the return of the tourists. They were perspiring profusely. So, without a thought I invited the family to come up to sit under the cool air with me and we could get to know each other.
The family followed me to the room and there we sat talking about why they had come from Goree Island. They informed me about their poor salaries and working a day here could earn them as much as a half of year’s salary. I was appalled to learn of their economic condition so they had come to work and I was glad to be able to afford them a little relaxation before their work day was to begin.
Little did I know that my roommate who had gone with the other tourists had returned. He came to the room, opened the door, saw the family sitting in the room and he was furious. He called me outside. And asked, why would I have them in the room?
I responded, “Who, them…"
He said, “Those Africans. Don’t you know that they steal?” I saw white. I was livid.
He said, “ Yes. Get them out of our room.”
I responded, “No. They can stay. The only person who is going to be leaving the room is you. How dare you come to Africa, looking for marijuana and sex and accuse our brothers and sisters of being thieves. I then went back in the room and told the family to stay put and went immediately to the tour guide head and requested that the priest be removed from my room. He was moved out the same day and I managed to connect the family with the woman they came to work for and get them several women who they made dresses for making their trip a success.