Jerald Walker, “The Heritage Room”

The Heritage Room was named in honor of its two-dozen mounted portraits of famous African Americans. The usual troika of black iconography is here—former slaves, civil rights leaders and athletes—and each person seems, if not angry, then intensely displeased. Even Rosa Parks looks like she could kill. For once I’d like to see portraits of famous African Americans smiling, or frozen in laughter, their heads tossed back and hands clutching guts as they consider the absurdities and ironies of their lives.

This, in fact, was my exact response when I received the harassment complaint filed against me by Julie, the woman sitting far to my left. In contrast to the sternness of the black portraits, my white colleagues are jovial and lively, bantering with each other about being back on the front lines of education after summers spent traveling and undertaking home improvements. The chair arrives with a plate of cookies, and as the last few are consumed we begin the first of the semester’s monthly department meetings. This is my eighteenth such meeting, but I still vividly remember the first; there were twenty-two people in the room, as there are now, and I scanned their faces, trying but unable to recall the names they told me during my interview. The chair remedied this by reintroducing everyone, but by the time the three-hour meeting was adjourned, I had forgotten their names again. But I remembered their types: the Intellectuals, the Comedians, the Socialites, the Rebels, the Complainers, the Mutes. And I, as the English department’s first African American hire in its 161-year history, was the Token Negro.

Two years later, after a contentious committee meeting, Julie decided Angry Black Man was a better fit. “As he spoke,” she wrote to the department chair, “his face flushed. His hands, which were on the tabletop, formed into fists, and he leaned forward over the table toward other members of the committee.” I had done no such thing. Rather, I had merely argued my point during a debate. I tried explaining this to the chair, but to no avail. I was banned from that particular committee for a year. It was during my banishment that, one winter night, I had the occasion of visiting Julie in her office.

It was late, perhaps nine or ten. I often went to campus during this time after my two young sons were asleep, primarily to clear my head but also to get a little work done. And I often encountered Julie. Elderly and single, it may have been the solitude I sought that she was trying to avoid, though no one besides us ever seemed to be in our dark, three-story building. Passing her office, I’d see the profile of her tall, thin form folded behind her desk, the jacket of one of her signature two-piece suits draped over the back of the chair. Without stopping I’d say hello, and then later when I was leaving, if she were still there, I’d wish her goodnight. She’d respond in kind. No other words would be exchanged. On this night, however, as I passed her office to go home, she called my name.

I returned and stood in her doorway. “So,” she asked, smiling broadly as she removed her glasses, “how are things?” Before I could respond, she offered me a seat, motioning towards a chair in front of her desk. It was covered with papers. “Oh, you can put those anywhere,” she said. When I hesitated, she added, with a touch of sadness in her voice, “Unless you’re in a hurry.” I looked at my watch to signal that my time was limited, though this was not the case. I just had a bad feeling about being there.

“I have a few minutes.” I moved the papers and eased onto the chair. She inquired about my sons, to begin with, and then she mentioned her nephew, who wanted a certain toy for Christmas that she could not find. Next we talked about some of the highs of the previous year, and then, when we mentioned the lows, I could not help but express my disappointment at being removed from the committee simply because our positions differed.

“I had nothing to do with that,” she said.

“I was told you did.”

“Well, I’m afraid whoever told you that is mistaken.”

“So,” I continued, “you didn’t report me to the chair?”

“I don’t know that I would use the word report. Now, I did mention that I found your behavior unsettling.”

“Unsettling?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, her hand rising to scratch the base of her neck. “You were so angry it frightened me. I thought you were going to be violent.”

I snickered, thinking that there was a time in my life when I would have wanted her to feel this way. In my teens, while living on the notorious South Side of Chicago, I had worn my hair in a perm, a la James Brown, weighted my pinkie fingers with bulky costume jewelry, carried a straight razor in my sock, cupped my crotch at every opportunity, and snarled a great deal. I was very frightening. I was also very unoriginal; every teenaged male in my neighborhood, it seemed, affected the same countenance. For some, this was the only image that would ever make sense, and they would actively pursue the accompanying roles for which there were no good ends. For others, such as myself, who were both imaginative and cowardly, there would be better roles to play. But for all of us, there had been that centuries-old stereotype of the angry and violent black male that had duped us into thinking this was what we were supposed to be. And it had duped Julie, too.

“You realize,” I said, “that you are a racist.” For a second she looked stricken, as only white liberals can when confronted with such a charge, and I understand that that is because, on some level, they know that it is true. Racism is part and parcel of our culture, the great American disease with which we all are afflicted; there will be no cure until we accept this diagnosis. “The only thing I did in that meeting,” I continued, “was argue my point. Aggressively, passionately, maybe even self-righteously, but not angrily.

And even if I had been angry,” I added, “black males have a right to that emotion without it being assumed that we are violent.”

Her mouth closed momentarily before she stuttered a response, conceding that she might have been mistaken. She apologized. I thanked her, glanced at my watch again, and then rose. She rose too. As I was about to leave, she asked for a hug, absolution, I knew, for her sins. “I’m not a racist,” she said quietly as we embraced.

“Of course you are.”

She pulled away.

“I’m one too,” I continued. “We all are. It’s important that this be acknowledged.”

She insisted that she had nothing to acknowledge. As if to prove it, at the start of the semester, she lobbied for my reinstatement to the committee from which I had been removed.

In the weeks that followed, I continued to encounter her in the building at night, and she continued to invite me into her office. We’d talk for long periods, usually about my sons or her nephew, our classes, occasionally about our colleagues, and once or twice even about race. I began to enjoy our meetings and found myself looking forward to them.

She seemed to as well.

But that changed mid-semester. We were again having a committee meeting, and, like before, we found ourselves at opposing ends of an issue. As is typical in academia, we argued in circles for a long period and nothing got resolved, but that was not what bothered me. What bothered me was what I saw as her condescension, the fact that she attempted to lecture me on my area of expertise, as if I really were the Token Negro. By the time the meeting ended, I was angry and I’m sure it showed: had I sat for a portrait at that moment, it would have fit very nicely with the others in the Heritage Room. And that is the fallacy of those images, for in those same communities where black boys snarl and clutch their crotches, anger is often a prelude to a joke, as there is broad understanding that the triumph over this destructive emotion lay in finding its punch line. Rosa Parks, I am willing to wager, laughed more than she frowned.

I was laughing, in fact, the day after my meeting with Julie and the committee, when I sat at my computer.

Dear Julie, I wrote, I hope that you are not fearful that I will physically assault you, as you told me you were before when our opinions differed. When you see me approaching, just remind yourself that I am a college professor, not a hoodlum, and you’ll be fine.

A few days after I sent it, she filed the harassment complaint. She claimed I’d sent the email only because she was elderly and female, and she vehemently denied ever fearing me before now. The six-page condemnation was hysterical and wide-ranging, so convoluted at times that it failed to make sense, and at times so self- incriminating that I was embarrassed for her. The mere fact that she found my email to be a threat of physical danger, and that she frequently defined the alleged harassment as “sexual” instead of “gender,” showed the extent to which racial stereotypes had invaded her subconscious. I felt bad for her. I regretted sending the email. And I tried not to be too amused by the fact that, in the end, it was her anger, not mine, that was out of control.

The administration agreed. The complaint was dismissed.

Since then I have tried to put the matter behind me, but I still sense tension from some of my colleagues. And Julie does not speak to me at all. When we approach each other in the corridor, she walks right by, and when I go to my office at night, she is not there. The only time we are in each other’s company for any extended period is right here in the Heritage Room, where, unlike the portraits surrounding us, I smile.