I don’t even know how to start this piece. This introduction. I’m searching for the right way to say this. I’m tearing at my brain. I’m losing it. But there is no right way.
Columbia College Chicago, this project is for you. When I first walked through your doors, I noticed the lack of attentiveness given to queer students of color. I attemped to join, create, and carve out spaces for myself and others to feel at home. I admit, most times, success. But here’s the problem, Columbia, that should not have been the case. Granted, you acquired a new president who has dedicated himself to your growth. Your betterment. Granted, you held teachers in your cheek teething at the chains around our necks, wrists, and ankles–teachers who pushed us beyond our own cultural understandings; thus creating an environment where QPOC voices were given equal, if not a higher, platform over white/white passing students. But Columbia, I grew painfully tired.
I came to you in 2013, eager to study poetry at an academic level. My first poetry class was taught by CM Burroughs. A black woman. In her class she only taught works by writers of color. Immediately, I was introduced to contemporary poets who looked like me, talked like me, and came from where I came from. However, she was the only teacher who taught taught more than two books from writers of color that I had during my entire career at Columbia. Other classes taught by a white person taught the same book. The shit is sad. I was a black boy who was eager for poetry. But soon I became eager for poetry by black poets. It was clear to me that I could only satisfy my hunger in CM’s class. Again, the shit is sad.
I’m still trying to figure out where I’m going with this introduction. Where I’m trying to find understanding. Solace. But I don’t think it’s coming. I don’t know if it ever will. If it’s supposed to.
In the next week, I will be featuring five writers–all of whom are queer people of color–who will be sharing their stories at Columbia. I’ve asked them to be honest. To give the page everything. Many of them had troubles with the topic. That is to say, I believe, that their experiences or the act of recalling said experiences is painful. It is. It is painful being a QPOC at Columbia. It is painful sitting in a classroom about pre 20th century poetry and being told by the teacher that we will not study Phyllis Wheatley after asking if we could. It is painful when a white student says they can’t critique your work because they feel it’s not fit for them. It is painful when you ask a prospective dean about his attentiveness to platforming marginalized voices, him explaining that’s not his mission, then learning he was hired. These were a few of my experiences.
But, I don’t want your pity. We don’t need your pity.
I remember having my final 1-on-1 with my Student Government Association Advisor, David Keys. And he asked me if there was anything, as President, I wish I could have changed or done better. I honestly don’t remember my exact response. But I remember feeling there could have been so much more. I ran for presidency because I craved to change the school’s response to diversity. I can’t say I accomplished my goal. I mean, yeah, I sat on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. I spoke numerous amounts of times at Rainbow Push Operations. I interviewed dean prospects, challenging their outlook. I headed other committee meetings asking these same questions. But, shit…. was it enough? Why did I feel like it was not enough? I don’t know. I felt like everything I wanted to do could not be done. Plenty of times I wanted to call the school and President Kim out on bullshit. On the lack of transparency from his office and the school in general. My advisors would always tell me not to or in a different way. I don’t think they were trying to silence me. I honestly think they were just looking out for me. They cared for me and wanted to teach me how to address disrespect or misunderstandings in professional settings. But, I was silenced. Whether they meant it or not. My voice was silenced.
I don’t know how to start a fire under water.
And Columbia, I was swimming in your system. A system that was structured to erase, diminish, and silence QPOC. Is it your fault? Not necessarily. We live in a country where it’s educational institution is systematically drowning brown bodies.
I am and was privileged. I was the first queer black student body president. I founded a black poetry student club. I was able to pay for school. I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts in poetry. I easily pass for straight. I am cis. I am of an abled body. All this to say, I was able to navigate Columbia almost seamlessly. However, others, including my best friends, were not.
Others cannot. So, “Dear Columbia” is dedicated to them. To the brown bodies who have drowned, are drowning, and are thinking about swimming. I don’t know how to start this piece. I don’t know what’s next or how to complete this introduction. I don’t care either.
Dear Columbia, do you care?