This Is the Wrong Question

This is the wrong question for African American Bennington alumni. 

I specify African American because our historical relationship to the United States is different from the Afro-Caribbean and African experience. African Americans are an original and painful product of white dominance. A better question for African Americans at Bennington is: What role has the College played in helping African Americans hold on to a fragile hope and elusive sense of possibility when we face a uniquely vicious form of oppression in the United States?

What shocks so many African American graduates of my era is how little progress has been made. Some of us think we’ve fallen behind, given what’s going on in this country right now. But if there’s any institution of higher learning that can confront the complexity of racism with meaning and compassion, it’s Bennington.

I have accommodated white dominance and ignorance for most of my life. It was that accommodation that drove me to succeed in school; that forced me to be the only child of any color in my classes throughout elementary school; that allowed me to understand the complexity of love in a country terrified of difference; that allowed me to be privy to the unguarded opinions and thoughts of white people about people of color. It was accommodation that generated perverse understanding when I was told I couldn’t spend the break before spring semester with several white friends because black people weren’t allowed at her parents’ second home. Many years later at an alumni round-table discussion during Reunion, other African American alumni shared their stories as well. There was one story that was not brought up at the event, but that was burned in my memory after I read it in Lydia Brassard’s ’08 senior thesis. It brought forward an anti-black, racist incident an alumna of color had experienced in her house at Bennington. In the thesis, Brassard wrote: "When 'Charlotte ’06', a woman of color, attended Bennington, students who lived in the house where she spent the majority of her time named their pet rats the 'N' word and 'Coon'. When Charlotte expressed her dismay and discomfort about the situation, she was cast as 'too sensitive'."

After leaving Bennington, the impossible begins to form on the horizon of our lives, and it gets bigger with each passing year, fueled by the double standard racism advances, and it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. It’s about the color of your skin. There are only two races in the United States, white and not white. Those of us who are not white, leave Bennington without many of the advantages—both concrete and abstract—that so many of our white friends take for granted.

If we have acquired any kind of success worthy of a Bennington education, we know the art of accommodating white expectations. Students of color leave Bennington and realize (over and over) that nothing is equal for us. How the world embraces us is unequal. How we respond is unequal. Black people are active targets of either hate filled individuals or overzealous police throughout the country. We still carry what WEB DuBois refers to as “a double consciousness.” The pain of witnessing the generations behind us come to grips with all this is unbearable.

We left Bennington with an extraordinary education and thought anything was possible. The question remains: what role has Bennington played in how African American graduates hold on to the fragile, elusive reality of possibility when we face a uniquely vicious form of oppression?

Janis A. Pryor ’71 spent more than 30 years in politics and media. Her work has garnered several awards including the Iris Award for talk show programming, the International Television and Film Award for cultural programming, and an Emmy Nomination for editorial broadcast journalism. She has written two books, the latest, Dinner with Trixie, the South settles an old score with the North (Black Pawn Press).

Suggestions & Reflections

At the Fall 2013 All Class Reunion on campus, three alumni—Janis Pryor ’71, Esther Moses Hatch ’72 (the late founder of the Independent School Diversity Network), and Roberta Hunter ’74—led a round-table discussion with other alumni and staff about their experiences at Bennington as people of color. The conversation and dialogue was important to help the College as it works to build community and to foster inclusion on campus. Since that time, Bennington has created numerous programs, initiatives, and trainings to develop a more inclusive and diverse community— including a workshop directly led by Esther Moses Hatch in 2015 shortly before her death.

This is ongoing and essential work. We invite your reflections, recommendations, and participation. Please be in touch with Delia Saenz, Vice President for Institutional Inclusion, Equity, and Leadership Development with your own recommendations. Janis Pryor shared ideas of speakers and programs below to foster conversations about privilege, race, and community.

Dain and Constance Perry—Give a showing of the PBS documentary Traces of the Trade that profiles one of America’s largest slave-trading families, the DeWolfs of Rhode Island. Dain Perry is a direct descendant of the DeWolfs. With his wife, Constance, he has sought to confront their own role in this chapter of American history and its legacy by retracing the slave-trading route that their ancestors took from Africa to the United States. Invite the Perrys for a showing followed by a dialogue.

Peggy McIntosh, professor emeritus at Wellesley College—McIntosh originated the concept of white privilege and has developed anti-racism training programs for educators. She lectures on the advantages she has because her skin is white. She is also the founder of the National SEED Project.

Crossroads Anti-Racism Training—Based in Illinois, this group develops workshops on systemic and institutional racism. Their trainings highlight in part historical facts that illustrate the evolution and perpetuation of racism, why and how racism is so entrenched in American society, how it impacts all of us consciously and unconsciously so we can create ways to dismantle systemic racism along with the language to talk about this.

Other speaker suggestions—Ta Nehisi Coates, Imani Perry, Michael Eric Dyson, Nikki Giovanni, Kiese Laymon, Michelle Alexander, Melissa Harris Perry, Tim Wise, Robin D’Angelo, Eugene Robinson, and Jim Wallis. I suggest a course be designed that is based on the writings and work of these recommendations, as well as other authors, who address the complexity of racism.

Correction: This essay has been updated from the time of its original publishing to accurately reflect the incident in which pet rats were named anti-black, racist epithets. The alumna’s experience was not shared at a reunion roundtable, but instead included in Lydia Brassard’s ’08 senior thesis that detailed the experience of women of color at Bennington throughout generations.