These were the statistics. The cold, hard facts. Since 1988, Tillamook State had admitted 3,200 students into the Diversity Project. More than 2,200 were African-American. Another 600 were Latino. The remainder were Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Southeast Asians. Administrators for the program had worked to establish relations with inner-city schools across the western part of the country. We will offer a full scholarship to any student who can meet these simple eligibility standards, they said. A family income under $35,000 and a B average through the last two years of high school. That was all. Poor whites did not qualify for the program. The administrators distributed glossy trifolds describing advantages of an education at Tillamook State, purposes and goals of the program, and support systems in place for students who needed help of any sort. We have dedicated ourselves, they said, with the assistance of grants from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, we have dedicated ourselves to the success, both at Tillamook State and in life, of historically disadvantaged minorities.
These were lies, of course, at least in the sense that the gap between the good intentions of the project’s founders and the reality of the program for its beneficiaries was vast. In three years, the percentage of minorities at Tillamook State had risen from 6 percent to 29 percent, and program administrators cited this figure repeatedly as if it were a mantra, testament of their success. But the school was in over its head. Everyone knew. Many, if not most, Diversity Project students were not up to snuff academically – not their fault perhaps but truth – and the school was flat-out helpless to do anything about it. Anger and bitterness on campus had risen to flood levels. Minority students, blacks especially, believed they had been snookered, that an implacable wall of hostility and insensitivity faced them at every turn, in the classroom, in personal encounters with white professors and students, in the stores and restaurants and residential neighborhoods of the city, too.
That was not the worst of it, though. Racial slurs, physical assaults, threats. Black students could deal with those challenges themselves. The worst of it was subtler and hidden, harder to grasp and define, yet far more insidious and destructive in its effects. It could only be described as the ongoing diminution of the culture and aspirations of African-American students. Who could calculate the corrosive effects upon the spirits of young students of the pervasive assumption, that they were inherently limited, intellectually and academically and morally? Covert, masked slanders of their intelligence by professors and by other students. Perpetuation of cheap stereotypes, about drug use, violence, promiscuity, and laziness. Absence of significant minority presence among professors and staff. Opposition to curricular reform, to desire from white students and faculty to accommodate diverse perspectives of a multicolored world, to acknowledge truths about historical experiences of non-white people, in the context of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, racism, and genocide.
Above all, what black students witnessed was fear, sly and silent antipathy, from white students. This fear they could least abide, the diffidence of the majority of whites, in the dorms, on the quad, in and out of classrooms, thousands of them, eyes averted, faces blank. Ultimately, black students tallied the sum of these experiences as repudiation of their being, as nothing less than pure hatred of their presence, of their existence, as a malevolent spirit rushing through campus like a cold, swirling stream, a northerly, a harbinger of damp and dark times to come.
That was the perspective of minority students on the Tillamook State campus, especially the African-American students. It was not the only perspective, though. In many departments, professors believed they could no longer speak openly about controversial historical or social matters for fear of being tarred with the brush of racism, of ethnocentrism and neocolonial imperialism. They could not grade according to merit. They could not maintain good order in the classroom. The sense of aggrievement was too profound among students, the cultivation of victimhood, almost as a badge of honor, too pervasive. When professors did assert their authority, project administrators were upon them in a flash. Back off, the deans and provosts would tell them. There’s more at stake in this program than in your classroom. Think of the big picture. The school is no longer a clear pane of glass, a drab dress shirt. It is a prism, a many-colored, richly textured cloth (a Kente Cloth!). You must teach students not raised with your privilege and your ways of seeing the world. You must build bridges, go the extra mile, and reach out your hand. Tolerance, forbearance, and generosity must be your watchwords.
And what of the white students? Still the numerically dominant group on Tillamook State’s campus, most were themselves from hard-working local families. They enrolled at Tillamook State because they couldn’t afford to go out of state, or even downstate to Eugene or Corvallis. Many still lived at home. Almost all held down one or two jobs to afford school. Not a few were married and had children. Tuition rose steeply every year as the state legislature cut back on funding. So there was no sense in which most of these students felt privileged or advantaged over minorities. The Diversity Project angered them. Affirmative action, most believed, was a disaster. It was taken for granted that African-American students, especially, possessed weak academic skills coming in to school. They received poorer grades, dropped out of college at much higher rates, and blamed everyone but themselves.
White students also resented the assertiveness of minority students on campus, the entitlement, alien and strange claims couched in an assaultive language of grievance. It would have been easy to dismiss the anger of these students, however, so muted was it when compared to the bitter, barely suppressed rage of young, militant blacks on campus. Indeed, few white students were themselves aware of its dimensions and depth. What placed these students at a disadvantage, what made it hard to perceive this anger, was the lack of any intensity to the vision of betrayal, a confusion about what they had lost. For one thing, the presence of minority students at Tillamook State reinforced and sharpened feelings of superiority held at a deep level by many whites. For another, most white students knew the increased numbers of blacks and other minorities on campus had only marginally changed their life prospects. With or without affirmative action, they were going to have a rough go of it. Lacking a way to sharpen its focus, their anger merely churned, at a slow boil.
* * *
On the first day of the fall term, Eli opened the door precisely at 9:00 and strode toward the table at the front of the classroom. The room was crowded and noisy, and few of the students noticed his arrival. Eli was aware, too, that he looked young for his age, and that it may not have been obvious at first glance that he wasn’t a student himself. He’d dispelled most of his nervousness while walking over from his office. As a graduate student, he had rarely minded this first encounter with his students. Of course, he’d never gotten completely used to the blank stares, the wall of eyes following him into the classroom, trapping him in their gaze. But he was good at connecting with the students. He would talk about himself, explain details of the course, all the while smiling, moving about the room, engaging the students as individuals, learning their names, shepherding them through the syllabus, establishing an authoritative presence with his confidence, not his commandments. By the end of the hour on that first day, the class had almost always begun to meld itself, from a collection of discrete, separate individuals into a closed, tight community.
Eli could tell instantly that this crew was not interested in melding. Along the window, a row of mullets and bowl cuts faced Eli, lean white guys in t-shirts, ripped jeans, slouching in their chairs. These, Eli intuited, must be Rover Boys, Harry’s name for the feckless white kids from area high schools, those who came from modest means at best, and who struggled, generally somewhat haplessly, to keep their heads above water academically, but who viewed T. State as their personal patrimony, their stepping stone to whatever would come next in their lives, and so greatly resented the influx on campus of minorities from other parts of the country, the stepping stone now alien and insecure. “I’m sympathetic, actually,” Harry had said to Eli. “Most of these guys are probably less racist in any real sense than they are provincial and local in their sensibilities. Of course, racism and provincialism can go together, but there may not be any ineluctable connection between them beyond ignorance.”
“And I pushed that little asshole against the wall,” one of the Rover Boys was saying. He stroked the tattoo on his bicep, a rose winding around barbed wire. “I told the motherfucker,” he said. “I said, little man, I’m gonna fuck you up.”
“What did he do?”
“The weenie started crying.”
The other students laughed. “What’d your old lady say?” one of them said.
“Don’t scare him! He’s your little brother! He’s only 11 years old! Shit. I don’t care if the dude is my brother. He was getting into my knives. My hunting rifles. I swear, man, I gotta get out of my mom’s house. I can’t take it any longer.”
A pale, flaccid boy with dark curly hair pushed horned-rim glasses up the bridge of his nose. Saddle-bag cheeks shook and heaved with mirth, his laughter gravitational, flowing downhill in waves beneath a torn white t-shirt stretched nearly to the ripping point over a keg-sized belly.
The boy’s paroxysms caught the attention of the students by the window. “What the fuck you laughing at, Hypodermic Drew?” the student with the rose tattoo said.
Hypodermic Drew continued to chuckle. “I’m laughing at you fools,” he said. “Especially you, Gary. You guys haven’t changed since grade school.”
“Well, you’ve changed, Hypodermic Drew. You were a turtle in grade school. Now you’re a fucking walrus.”
A chiseled, granitic student seated himself in the chair next to Hypodermic Drew. He shook his head and stared gravely at the white guys by the window. “Gary, mellow out, man. Drew Hypo’s got a point. You haven’t changed much, dude. You were bringing your knives to school and freaking on everyone way back in 3rd grade. Your little brother probably wants to be like you, is all.”
“Not that being like you would be a good thing,” Drew Hypo said, drumming peacefully on his belly, his flesh once again at rest.
“Hey Bear,” said another boy by the window. “Nice game this weekend, man. You giving Titus a run for his money at RB.”
“We’ll see. It’s up to Coach. But I picked up some speed over the summer. A change is in the air.” Bear, alongside Drew Hypo, also smiled serenely.
Another group of students, mostly black, gathered in the back of the room, their attention centered on the shortest among them. Not much more than five feet tall, with the tightly muscled build of a featherweight boxer, he perched like a crow on the seat of a chair three sizes too large for him. He rubbed a fist across his forehead, wiping sweat from the edge of the blue doo rag pulled tight around his skull. A thick gold chain hung from his neck. A two-fingered gold ring sat proudly on his fisted hand.
“Yo home! Check this out!” he said to the student seated next to him, his voice a high-pitched whistle, a broad grin splitting his face. “These two old niggers, they got married, but they knew they was too old to have a baby. Six month go by and she say, Honey, I be havin’ a baby. And he say, Git out of here, woman. You ain’t havin’ no baby. You too old. And she say, I be havin’ one, you wait an see. So nine month go by, and she have a baby. And this baby be one ugly motherfucker. He have a bald head and gray hair and a raggedy old moustache, and a heavy voice. She pick him up and put him on her lap and shake him. She say, Come on honey, don’t you wan’ some tiddy? And he say, Naw, I want some pussy.”
The homey laughed. “Dat yo mama, man.”
“I believe dat were yo mama,” the pint-sized black student said. “And that baby she had, he yo papa!”
“Blade T! Sup, baby?”
The pint-sized black student brushed fingertips with the Alpha, one among a trio of boisterous late arrivals, all tall and lanky, with the liquid, rolling flow characteristic of basketball players. “Brother Que Dog!” he said cheerily. “You do some stepping for us?” The Que Dog bent forward at the waist and shuffled his feet, three quick steps forward and two back. He spun to his left, hands tight against the chest, elbows out, tap dancing faster as students surrounding him began to clap out the beat. “Step it for me, baby!” Blade T shouted. “Step it for me!” Of a sudden, fast as he started, the Que Dog stopped and slipped into a chair alongside his friends. Blade T turned and saw Eli looking at him. His eyes narrowed. He turned back to his friends.
“Move these chairs into a circle,” Eli called to the class. “Clear out the center of the room so we can all see each other.” The white boys by the window and the black students in the back of the room stayed put. The other students, reluctantly, shifted chairs in the center of the room off to the sides.
One of the boys by the window, the one who had queried Bear, glanced at Eli. His eyes were deep slits, his jaw slack and malformed. He held a pencil in his hand. He stared at it dumbly, as if it were a foreign object, then curled his forefinger behind it and flicked it, hard, into the center of the room. The pencil skittered along the floor. It slapped against a shoe, fashioned from kidskin, hand-stitched, triple-polished. Eli and the slack-jawed boy and the other white boys watched the brown-skinned hand drop down to the floor and pick up the pencil. A ministerial looking young black man, wearing a three-piece suit, silk tie, silk socks, and cordovans, stood and walked across the room. He held out the pencil and smiled down at the frat boy. “You dropped this, brother,” he said, eyes bright behind his glasses.
The slack-jawed boy took the pencil. “Thanks,” he sneered. “Brother.” The other white boys laughed and the black student, he laughed too. “You’re welcome.” He continued to offer his hand. “We haven’t met: Fiske Newton.”
The slack-jawed boy snarled and looked away. His friends jibed him. “Go on there, Jake,” said the student with the rose tattoo. “Shake that feller’s hand.”
Jake stared at the floor. “Man, go back cross the room,” he said. “I don’t want to shake your hand.”
Fiske Newton shrugged. “Whatever you say, friend.” He walked back to his chair.
From the back of the room, Blade T laughed. “What you doing there, Fiske Newton,” he said. “Trying to shake that white boy’s hand. Ye-eeeeeh. He don’t want to shake that sweaty black hand of yours. You wash up first, boy. Then maybe that white man, that white Massa, be willing to touch your black hand.”
Eli circled to the front of the table and sat down on it. The buzz in the room settled. The students were now watching him. “Nice to see you all,” he said, smiling. “I’d like to welcome you to Western Culture 364, The Politics of Slavery and Abolition.” No one said anything. “All right,” he said. “Good. Let’s get to it, then.”
He called out student names from the class roster. He went through the syllabus with the students, page by page. He explained to the students this would be a class about the connection between slavery and freedom in Western thought and consciousness. Exploration of this theme, he said, would challenge every supposition they had about the meaning of history in their own lives.
“This course is ultimately about freedom in a democratic republic,” he said. “And I’ll be frank with you about my prepossessions. My own research has persuaded me the end of slavery, the rise of capitalism, and the emergence of new and powerful understandings of freedom were closely related. This research has led me to believe freedom is connected to liberation from the shackles of the past. Freedom is about the capacity to shape, actively and consciously, the future. In the 19th century, the fluid, fundamentally revolutionary quality of capitalism offered the best hope for obtaining and confirming this kind of freedom. What I would like to suggest in this class is that, against this vision, slavery, which almost by definition was reactionary, stood no chance.”
This was Eli’s manner, brisk and assertive, softened by a ready smile. He had worked hard to project confidence in the classroom. It was a calculated style, honed from hours watching videotape of himself teaching as a graduate student. He had also learned to do something else in graduate school, to keep track of the students as he spoke, to file in his mind a mental image of each, their distinctive features, what they wore, how they sat, the focus of their attention through the hour. He could see now the students were not responding well to his opening remarks. They were restless and uncomfortable, and he began to worry he was floating ideas well above their heads. Only Fiske Newton and a young white woman sitting next to him named Laurel Modigliani did not appear threatened, put off, bored, or uncomprehending as he outlined the central themes of the class. Laurel sat in the middle of the room, a striking, intense young woman with short, dark hair and fierce blue eyes. She wore black spandex bicycle pants under baggy red gym shorts, along with a T-shirt, three sizes too large, which featured a silk-screen of a ramshackle bungalow and the word Ujaama. She stared intently at Eli, fingering loose folds of her shirt.
“I’m going to hold all of you to a high standard,” Eli said firmly, addressing each student with his eyes, trying to lift the level of their attention through the force of his will, the warmth of his desire. “You may be here for 20 different reasons, but when you are here with me in this room, I expect you to work as if this class is the most important thing in your life.”
“Man, lighten up,” Blade T called out from the back of the room. “Throwing all this mumbo-jumbo at us. Sounding like a coach or something. This ain’t Harvard.”
“You heard me. We’re not here to play that game.”
“You’re Tracy Blade, is that right?”
“Blade T. Ye-eeeeeh.”
Eli laughed. “Is that your street name?”
“What you think, man? Just because I’m black, I need a street name? I don’t live on no street. I got a house, just like you. Tracy Blade’s my real name. But everyone calls me Blade T. That’s just how it is.”
“You go to the racetrack,” the Que Dog said, “you discover, Blade T the man. He the Man! He be sitting so chilly on them nags, they need to wear overcoats!”
Eli smiled and shook his head, thinking of Harry. “The racetrack,” he said.
One of the other black students, who went by the name of Flatbush, laughed. “Oh yeah,” he said. “About half this school be out there on weekends. White, black. Professors, students. Don’t matter.”
“Well Mr. Flatbush, Blade T might be the man at the racetrack, but in here, I’m the man.”
“You ain’t the man,” Blade T muttered. “You the fool.”
The young woman next to Blade leaned into him, whispering he should settle down. Then she smiled at Eli. “Tracy’s tired,” she said. “He rides early morning workouts.”
“I see,” said Eli. She wore a short skirt and sleeveless silk blouse. Her hair, elaborately arranged in cornrows, appeared vaguely Egyptian to Eli, like the hair of the Sphinx. She was disarmingly beautiful. “And what’s your street name?” he said.
“I’m Antoinette Duplessis.” Her voice was soft, with hints of both a Caribbean tang and lush French expressiveness. Eli heard it as a welcome counterpoint to Blade’s harsh, syncopated rhythms.
Eli glanced at the roster for the class. “I guess you are. New Orleans?”
“You right, Toni,” Blade T. said to her, as if there were no one else in the room. “I am tired. But this class, my advisor told me it would be good. Except now, I don’t want to take it from this professor. He too white. He don’t know nothing about slavery. And he think he at Harvard, teaching rich white kids. Well I ain’t rich and I ain’t white.”
Fiske Newton shook his head. “You always worrying about being down for the race, Tracy. It gets in the way.” His voice deepened, the preacher in him pressing forward. “We moving to higher ground, Tracy. We beyond that.”
Blade T waved his hand at Fiske Newton. “Go on home, Fiske Newton. Always telling us to git on the good foot. Shit. You know you just the white man’s nigger.”
Laurel spoke up. “I’m in the diversity movement here on campus,” she said. “And I have to tell you, there’s a lot of anger about your teaching these courses. Nothing personal, but if this school can’t hire African-Americans to teach classes on slavery, there’s a big problem, don’t you think? Students want to know, why are you here?”
Eli turned toward the window. This was no surprise. That his race mattered. It hadn’t been so much of an issue at Berkeley, but there he had been only a TA, teaching courses not of his own making. He also knew there had been an effort made to hire an African-American professor in the Western Culture program. The pool of qualified applicants was embarrassingly small, however, and those few who looked promising received more extravagant offers from top-tier schools in the east. Hiring African-American professors remained a touchy issue. Jergensen had warned Eli students might not warmly welcome him. “What do the rest of you think?” he said. “Does anyone else have a problem?” He was looking now at the boys by the windows.
“I ain’t got a problem,” the black-haired student with the tattoo said.
“Your name is Gary, right?”
The student nodded. “I ain’t got a problem,” he said again, “because race doesn’t have nothing to do it. If you’re a good professor, you’re a good professor. Doesn’t matter what color you are. People here worry too much about color. In my sociology class last semester, the professor had different reading lists for white and black students. Said there was no way we could learn from the same list of books.” He laughed. “Bunch of loony shit.”
Blade T squirmed like a penned-in panther. “That’s fucked up, man!” he said to Gary. “You don’t know what the fuck you talking about. Don’t have nothing to do with being a good professor. This white man ain’t done the time, he can’t rap the rhyme. You know what I mean? That’s all there is to it. All this crap about freedom. White man don’t know about freedom because he ain’t never been a slave.”
“You know, most white people aren’t racists,” Gary said, staring, lids heavy, at Blade. “But they tire of the bitching and moaning and finger-pointing. Just give it a rest, man.” He yawned.
Blade T. popped from his chair as if it were spring-loaded. He stood facing Gary and the other Rover Boys, and moved toward them as he spoke. “Open your eyes and listen to me, motherfucker,” he said. “Don’t be telling us what to think. I’m from South Central L.A. And down there, it be a fucking war zone, if you ain’t heard. The brothers be smokin’ each other over colors, see? And ain’t no one give a shit. Y’all white folks, man, you be hopin’ we niggers wipe ourselves out. That’ll solve a big fucking problem for you white motherfuckers. But y’all better get hip soon enough. Ye-eeeeeh. Cause you can’t keep that violence, that rage, locked up in the Hood forever. Y’all better learn to deal with that violence, or it be dealing with you, know what I mean?”
Eli saw the students in their seats by the window and Blade, crouched low like a wrestler, sliding toward them. He picked up a piece of chalk and squeezed it as he walked toward Blade. “I want you to sit down, Mr. Blade,” he said.
Blade glared at Eli. “I ain’t sitting down.”
The slack-jawed student, Jake, snarled. “Tell the asshole to sit down!”
“Shut the fuck up!” Blade said.
“You be quiet,” Eli called over his shoulder to Jake. “And you, Blade, I’m not going to say it again. You need to sit down.”
“No,” Blade said, looking now as if he wasn’t sure what to do.
Eli spun and threw the chalk at the blackboard, hard. The chalk splintered and fell to the floor. “I said Sit Down, Mr. Blade!”
Blade stared at Eli for a moment, then dropped his hands to his side and slid back into his seat. Frustration and pain spilled into his eyes and suddenly he only looked like a scared boy. From behind Eli’s back, Jake smiled, a sly grin curling around his face like a creeping oil slick. He pointed a long finger at Blade. “Gotcha, bro,” he whispered. Blade just shook his head.
Eli had taught mixed-race classes in graduate school. He believed his role in these classes was to guide the students to common ground, to shift attention away from group attributes, a sloppy way of thinking he always said. He encouraged them to consider the connection between history and destiny as slippery at best, one which, when taken too seriously, robbed individuals of their most human quality, the capacity to cut against the grain, to choose, actively and decisively and with a full measure of responsibility. In the classes Eli taught at Berkeley, he managed to push his students toward choice and responsibility with some degree of success, or so he wanted to believe. It was also true, Eli thought, that students required to endure each other on a regular schedule over the course of a semester eventually got to know each other as individuals, and not merely as representatives of a race. They tended, then, to relax and to interact in a more honest, less scripted manner. That, too, was an important dynamic in the classroom, one he liked both to witness and to facilitate as a teacher. In this class, he’d been meaning to address the race issue, anyway. The outburst from Blade provided an opportunity now to do so. He would speak to this moment of conflict, define it, require students to grapple with it, and thereby seal it. Place it on a shelf in the room. So students would be aware of it, but not cling to it.
Eli returned to the front of the room. He stood behind the podium on the table, consciously using it as a barrier to establish distance from the students and confirm his authority over them. He told the students he knew there was discontent about his appointment. He also understood black professors would teach his, Eli’s, course on slavery differently. But what did that mean? And who was to say, if Orlando Patterson, Thomas Sowell, Amiri Baraka, or Leonard Jeffries taught this course, who was to say there would be any common thread to their teaching, signaling a special, racial authenticity. Did their blackness, their common lineage as descendants of slaves, certify their thoughts, their words? Would all students, especially all black students, learn equally as well from each of these professors? They had not been slaves, had they? Nor had Blade, nor any of the other black students in the class, been slaves. For that matter, were the experiences of slaves, themselves, spanning centuries and continents, so universal that any slave could speak to, and for, any other? Race could only matter if history, the past, determined consciousness, belief, feeling, sensibility. Eli could not yield to the past that mythic authority over the present.
On the other hand, Eli said, Blade had been entirely correct to imply the condition of slavery itself gave birth to modern ideas about freedom. Slaves, undeniably, were a necessary part of the process. That would be a theme of the course. Slavery provided a way to understand unfreedom. But slavery had existed in every century and on every continent without this way of thinking about freedom evolving, embedding itself in the consciousness of humans, and acquiring institutional form. Certainly, other factors intersected with slavery in the United States to produce this powerful idea of freedom, and among the most important was capitalism.
Eli placed his hands on the podium and leaned forward. He was sorry this rift in the class had already emerged. He was not going to assign blame, either. But he did want to make clear he would not tolerate violence and intimidation in his classroom. From anyone, he said, looking first at Blade and then at Jake, the slack-jawed student. He would also not allow students to employ racial rhetoric to harbor the implicit threat of violence or retribution for past wrongs, imagined or real. For some in the room, no doubt, racial awareness and consciousness would continue to drive their interest in the course. But that was not the only way to approach the material, Eli said, and he would not allow this racial awareness to dominate exchanges between students. Again, he wanted that to be very clear. Did the students understand?
Fiske Newton thrust forward his arms, hands outstretched, a gesture of peace. “I understand where you’re at, Professor Wheeler,” he said. “But things are different for black Americans. You white folks put yourselves in our shoes. Walk a mile with us and imagine how it would be.”
“I ain’t walking a mile with you,” Jake said under his breath.
Laurel Modigliani spun in her chair, her dark eyes sparking arc welders. “People like you are the problem at this place,” she said. “Goddamned white trash, low-life, trailer-living, canned-bean eating, Geraldo-watching, sister-fucking racists.” She looked at Eli, apparently nowhere near spent. “Will you tolerate this crap all term? Because if you don’t put an end to it, I’m out of here.”
Eli nodded. Jackson and the other white students by the window were a problem he hadn’t anticipated. In previous classes he’d taught, a distinctive equilibrium typically established itself, the assertiveness of black students paired with the dull silence of whites, who mostly slumped in their chairs, as if the air had been knocked from their tires. The tenor of the times had defeated these students, the view that they were collectively guilty of some global sin, trapped by the past. They sullenly accepted their fate, absorbing like sponges the surplus anger of black students. White students in this class were far less inclined to submit to any premise of ascribed guilt, though, and Jackson, especially, acted as if he wouldn’t mind at all busting a few black heads.
A frail young woman named Paisley raised her hand. She wore glasses and a starched dress with a ruffled collar. A slender gold crucifix hung from her neck. She looked pleadingly at Eli, as if she needed to say this, to concur with Eli and his hopes for the course. He was about to call on her when, quite suddenly, as if she’d seen a ghost, or a murder, she blanched, and began shrinking into herself. Eli glanced back across the room, toward the doorway.
Shahid stood there, hands at his side. He looked shorter and more compact, even, than he had during their brief engagement in McIntyre. His dense stillness once again reminded Eli of a statue, compressed from earth, rammed into a form, baked and then oiled until it glistened like polished onyx.
Everyone in the room saw him, and there was a silence, a moment of heavy waiting.
“Little X!” The Que Dog finally called out. “Yo baby, sup? You in time for the blow-out. We already got ourselves a racial incident brewing here.”
Shahid didn’t say anything. He hadn’t taken acid-laced eyes off Paisley and now she was writhing in her chair.
“Can I help you, Shahid?” Eli said, moving a few steps closer to the door of the classroom, blocking his view of Paisley and the other students.
“I heard what you were saying just now,” Shahid said. He smiled. “It reminded me of a child, trying hard to fill the shoes of an adult, trying hard to command respect.”
“I’m not interested in your interpretation of my teaching philosophy,” Eli said. “What else can I do for you? We’re busy here.”
“I’m in this class.”
“No. I’m afraid you’re not,” said Eli, moving closer still.
“I’m in this class,” Shahid said again. He held up a slip of paper. “I’m enrolling.”
“I’m sorry,” said Eli.
“What you doing, man?” Blade said. “You can’t keep out the brother.”
“Mr. Blade, I’m not talking to you,” Eli said. “Shahid, you need my permission to enroll, and you’re not going to get it.”
“We’ll see about that, Professor. The white man has deprived my people of an education for too many years. Well, I’m going to receive an education. I need this class for my distribution requirement. And I will enroll.”
Eli was now standing in the doorway, blocking Shahid’s entrance. Only inches separated their faces. Shahid’s white cotton robes brushed against his chest. A hint of saffron and garlic drifted from Shahid’s mouth. Eli noted, too, the tendons at the soft part of Shahid’s throat. They were thick and strong, like ropes. His jaw was firm, his teeth, white and even, his nose, slightly pushed in. But Eli mostly noticed Shahid’s eyes, which were hard and direct. “You’re disrupting the class,” Eli said. “I want you to leave right now.”
“You think you George Fucking Wallace?” the other lanky black ballplayer, by the name of Anthony, now righteously agitated, was shouting. “Let the man in!”
“Get out of my way,” Shahid said, his upper body stiffening.
“We’ll talk about this after class,” Eli said to Shahid. “I don’t want a scene.”
“Well, man, you going to get a scene,” Shahid said. He stepped back. “I’m going to give you one more chance to stand aside.”
Gently, Eli swung shut the door to the classroom. He turned the lock. Shahid’s eyes widened in surprise. He jiggled the lock. “Open the door, man,” he said. “Open the fucking door.”
Eli reached above the window and drew down the shade.
For a moment, Shahid remained silent. Then Eli could hear him begin to walk away from the door. Eli’s body unclenched. But suddenly, Shahid had returned. “We’re not going away, Professor,” he said, his voice low and muffled through the door. “You understand, don’t you? We’re going to be a nightmare for foot soldiers of the white power structure like you. We’ll haunt your dreams and during your waking hours, we’ll shadow you like the return of the repressed. Our time is at hand, Professor. We won’t be denied.” And then Shahid was gone, this time for good.
Eli shrugged. He returned to the table at the center of the room and sat down. He stared at his hands. They rattled like dead leaves. Irrationally, he hungered for a cigarette, for something to calm his nerves.
The mood in the class had turned entirely sour. Eli knew this. Laurel Modigliani scribbled furiously in her binder, notes about what had just transpired, Eli assumed. Blade T stood next to his chair, though it hardly made any difference in his height. He spoke under his breath to Antoinette, wagging his head wildly back and forth. She reached over to pat his arm, trying once again to calm him. Eli could not make out the exchange of words but it was not hard to guess the tone of the conversation.
In the seconds it took to take in the rest of the room, Eli also could see that some whites in the class, especially the boys by the window, practically floated in their chairs on a cloud of euphoria, as if they now sensed an opening, the prospect of a new kind of freedom in their own relations with black students.
Fiske Newton stood up. He fingered the buttons on his vest, his eyes sadly blooming behind his horn rims. “We can’t start out like this, Professor Wheeler,” he said. “You know that, don’t you?”
Eli shook his head. Grim and monotone, he excused his students. He said they should pretend this first class had not happened when they met again. They would start over, with a clean slate.
On the way out the door, the slack-jawed student, Jake, pumped his arm and grinned at Eli. “I’m gonna love this class,” he mouthed.