Of Coats and Hoods
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…