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Of Coats and Hoods

September 1, 2015

Its taken me years to tell two stories whose pain went too deep.

But now I’m ready to so here goes:

During my senior year at Whitman College I purchased a used winter coat from an online military supply store.  As soon as winter hit I donned my ‘new’ coat and wore it everywhere.

One cold night, as I walked home from the library, I approached a couple with young baby in a stroller. We drew close on the dim sidewalk, and the man suddenly wielded a baseball bat and took a protective stance in front of his family. Shocked at the immanent attack I scurried across the street, terrified for my life. Describing the scene to my roommates we agreed: that man had seen me, a tall black figure in a heavy coat, as a menace. This was rural Washington, where a grocery clerk had once reacted to my skin color by asking if I planned to use foodstamps to pay for my purchases…(I was too dumbfounded to offer a response)

After college I earned a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science at the U. of Minnesota.  My trusted coat was a frequent shield against the insanely cold Midwest winters.

One night, again after a late night of studying on campus I donned my old coat and stepped into the elevator. A senior faculty member was there already; she shrank away, clutching her bag tightly. Three silent floors later, her quivering voice demanded why I was on campus. Stunned silent for a minute, I explained myself.  “I’m one of the new grad students.”

But this met only dubious silence. Apparently a black person in an old coat was unwelcome here at night. Explanation and justification were needed for my black body occupying such hallowed, ivory tower space.  It was so painfully obvious that I did not belong.

Years later, that same coat kept my mother warm as she watched my Ph.D. hooding ceremony, and induction into the academy (by a different woman professor 🙂  I marvel at the fact that where that old coat had so often marked my exclusion, this hood announced my belonging.

Or so I thought…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2015 10:17 PM

    Dr. Wanjiru, It must have been great pain – I can imagine – but gladly you’ve found inner courage to express this in words. What a juxtaposition of belonging and exclusion!

    It’s much adorable that you’ve lived to tell the story; a story that hopefully inspires many to speak out their unspoken and free themselves from inner shackles of emotional turmoil. Keep up the good work and continue to find strength in adversity.

  2. September 3, 2015 2:29 AM

    Mama, how did I not know about this blog. Well done!!

  3. jonneke permalink
    September 6, 2015 11:25 AM

    I have been thinking about this post a lot. I remember what happened to you in that elevator. And I think about what never, ever happened to me when a faculty member saw me late at night (they probably said something complementary about working hard). Even though we were in exactly the same position in terms of time, place and cohort. And many more examples come to mind beyond this. I see my own students going through the same thing. And like you they turn these humiliations into knowledge and advocacy and efforts to support others… but they shouldn’t have to.

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