This essay was written three years ago on Martin Luther King Day in Oxford, UK.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday: January 15th, 2015.
I woke up at noon and scrambled to make myself presentable enough to eat in the dining hall. I lingered in front of the mirror, contemplating what to do with my hair. I hadn’t braided it last night, resulting in increased volume and loose, wild curls. My grandma, a Southern woman born and bred, would’ve called it “bushy.”
I tried putting it in a bun, but the ends failed to tuck. With my stomach growling and the clock ticking, I decided to scrape it into a ponytail, slicking the waves back only to meet my big frizzy pouf. This would have to do.
On the walk to the dining hall, I briefly thought about returning to my room, doing my hair, and going out to eat later. But, I told myself, “You are allowed to have a bad hair day and eat, too. Go to the dining hall.”
Before mounting the steps to the dining hall, I glimpsed the only other black girl I had seen at Oxford thus far. She wore braids that swung down to her waist. As she turned the corner, I thought once more about returning to my room, but pushed the thought aside. I had earned this. I had earned eating in this dining hall. I had applied to the Princeton-Oxford exchange program and I had gotten in. I was a matriculated student for two terms, just like everyone else.
But I’m not like everyone else.
As far as I know, there are only two or three other people here that have hair like mine. Most students’ bad hair days are limp, greasy locks, a little cowlick, easily confined within a hat or a beanie. Their hair remains an acceptable volume, an acceptable texture. They eat in peace.
I did, too. As far as I could tell, no one was staring at me. Sure, I picked up on a few lingering glances here and there, but these have become normal. At Princeton, and in America generally, white people looked a little longer at me. I expected that here, where I counted a grand total of one other black person thus far, white students would look a little longer too. But was I really eating in peace when I felt obliged to think about how my hair, which grows naturally out of my head like this, would distract someone so much that they would distract me from eating? Or would it simply be my blackness that distracts them?
On Friday, when I arrived in Oxford, I was greeted at Merton College by a student ambassador, who was Japanese. We lugged my bags down cobblestone paths – through a courtyard boxed in by buildings weathered with age, a sprawling open lawn dotted with trees a few centuries old, and gothic gates topped with a crest. This place was not made for me.
Later, the ambassador took me out to lunch because the dining hall was closed. On our way to Taylor’s Deli, he mentioned that there were very few blacks at Oxford, but especially at this college.
“A few years ago, Oxford came under fire for admitting too few blacks. Merton only admitted one,” he said.
I don’t remember what placating remark I offered in return to suppress the dismay I felt when he confirmed what I already knew to be true.
When the dining hall opened on Monday, I went to lunch, where I saw the ambassador, seated along with his friends. Naturally, I joined him. He introduced me to his friends, four white guys. When I’m in social situations like this – all male, mostly white – I tend to proceed with caution, thinking that I, as a black woman, their antithesis embodied, wouldn’t have much in common with them. Moreover, if I said anything too aggressive, i.e. any opinion beyond how the food tasted, I would be branded the “loud, angry black girl.”
The guys introduced themselves to me – quickly, clearly without much care whether or not I understood. I attempted to compensate for their disengagement, asking them to repeat their names. The blond guy in the center narrowed his eyes at me, broke off a piece of bread with more force than necessary, and reluctantly repeated his name. I still didn’t hear him, but that was my cue to stop caring.
He could have just been a jerk. He could have treated everyone like that. But I knew that wasn’t true. As the meal proceeded, during which time he never made eye contact with me again, he laughed and joked. Maybe he was just a jerk when he first met you. I can be like that. But maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he wanted nothing more than to have me walk past their table and leave their male, mostly white group neatly intact. This is the mental evaluation I go through every time someone white is rude to me.
They say this is progress.
On February 1st, 1960, a group of black students from North Carolina A&T College sat at a whites-only Woolworth counter in downtown Greensboro. This was the start of the sit-in movement in the U.S. Demanding the desegregation of restaurants and other public spaces, black students in over 7 states and over 30 locations executed sit-ins in the following month. Martin Luther King, Jr. commented with admiration upon the student-led sit-ins: they were “electrifying.” Of course, they were met not only with shock, but violence. Students sitting-in endured condiment bottles emptied on their heads, spit in their faces, and hot coffee dumped on their laps. When these methods didn’t suffice, they were beaten. The students sat there, or lay there, and took the beatings without reprisal.
These were the students that paved the way for me to sit in the dining hall, at Princeton and at Oxford – elite institutions built on the privileges of the rich and the white and the oppression of the poor and the brown. They paved the way for me to sit in the dining hall, in no imminent danger of physical harm.
But my body – this hair, this skin – is a moving target. In this space, surrounded by white students from the upper echelons of society, I fend off glances and rude lunchtime encounters. Admittedly, these are minor. In Princeton, I’ve dealt with the same. But the threat to blackness is so much bigger than these happenings in isolated spaces of privilege. It is so much bigger than feeling excluded or snubbed.
It is the same violence done to student sit-in protesters. It is the same violence done to marchers at Selma, Birmingham and other cities throughout the 1960’s South. It is the same violence now institutionalized through law enforcement and mass incarceration, which is a structural inequity also present in the UK. These are the threats. These are the things I think of when I interact with white students, or other people – whether they’re thinking about them or not. Because the same disregard it takes to not look me in the eye is the same disregard it took to shoot and kill Mike Brown in Ferguson and Stephen Lawrence in South East London. They are symptoms of the same disease.
Even when I have bad hair days, I will continue to eat in the dining hall. I will continue to look my white peers in the eye, even when they don’t want to do so in return. I will continue to be unapologetically black in spaces with histories of black and brown oppression. And I will do it in the name of the student sit-in protesters, of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of civil rights leaders past, present, and future. Because the struggle is not over if I have to think about how my blackness may discomfort my white peers. Iam uncomfortable because my body and the bodies it can birth are a target all over the world, from the U.S. to the UK to every corner of the globe.
It is 2015. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 86. The sit-in movement began 55 years ago. And it is not over.