Poem / Crossroads

Predominantly White Institutions’ Overtures to Black Students OR This Is What They Tell You Without Telling You

A Black queer anthro-poet unveils the exploitative strategies of many predominantly White institutions that use BIPOC as a broom to sweep their racialized issues under the rug of "diversity."
A dark building is featured with white trimmed windows, a white door, and six white columns underneath a dark clock face.

Enslaved people built the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in the 19th century.

Chrispecoraro/Getty Images

Go to undergrad, go to graduate school, get a Ph.D. heft onto your back, and become the dreams of your family, of your people,
you will never be successful,
you will only know disappointment,
you will get caught up inside the maw of this world and never see life.  

Struggle in silence at institutions that were quite literally constructed by people who look like
you—but crafted to keep people who look like you out.

And the struggle, remember, it is in silence:
They must never know, must never see you stumble, must never see you cry,
must believe you a god, but you must always remember the chains. 

You must be successful, you must believe yourself capable of their success, you must double, you must try, you must be twice as good, you must hide, you must love half as much, you must lie, you must dissociate, you must smile, you must dance, you must exude life in the midst of a slow death. 

You must know the entire galaxy of your worth, but you must feign fear at the thought of its exploration, you must see second-guessing as second-nature, and if you must see aggression it must only be micro, you must make no mistake, you must know their place for you, must know the plans they have for you, must feign ignorance of their plans to prosper at the expense of you. 

You must be perfect, you must stay humble, you must stay humble must stay humble, you must consent to humiliation, must consent to know nothing of pride, you must consent to be nothing but a single being, must believe yourself to be nothing but a single being and must know that is a lie, must know nothing of the cosmos from which you come, must be the sole black letter on a white page, must deny the entire universe of stars you are unto your immeasurable self. You must believe yourself to be the first, the only, the lonely black ship on another voyage across an endless galaxy. 

You must knot all of this together, cosmic contradictions tangled up inside of you, and you must hold it.
You must hold all of it.
For you and for everyone like you.
You must not let go. 

This is what they tell you without telling you. When they tell you, “You are welcome here.” When they tell you, “We want you to join us, you can help make us better.” When they say, “We love your research. We need someone like you.”

This is what they need you to believe. That you and only you can make them less problematic, less discriminatory, less racist. That you and only you are the exceptional dark star they need to take their university to shining new heights. And they will show you this by plastering your history, your glorious successes, your beautiful face in all its dark diversity, in all its referential equity, in all its allusive inclusion, everywhere.

You will be on posters, in brochures, in magazines all laughing, all smiling. You will be in recruitment videos and commercial shorts telling your “story.” You will be re-rendered as a gigantic cardboard cutout, complete with speech bubble and bite-sized quote, and as such they will set you like a butler at the front door of their board of trustees’ ballroom. They will hang a rollout poster of your smiling face from the banister leading to their fundraising event. They will affix you to the front page of their alumni association website to show the “progress” they have made.

And you will have agreed to this.
You didn’t know it when you signed it, but you will have agreed to this when they asked to take a couple pictures of 19-year-old you and some friends for an outreach community project designed to show people who look like you that they are welcome here too. And you will want to do this because of course you want to be around just a few more people who look like you.

And is that so wrong? To not want to be so lonely?
And you won’t even know the answer to those questions until you hear from a friend that they have mounted you as high as they could, up on some billboard like a citywide trophy, meant to sell such lies you have never actually believed. And you will be forever torn because it was all you had, so you had to and did make the most of it. But they, in turn, made the most they could out of you too. You soared, you roared, and you fashioned a voice out of a void, whole new theoretical methods out of the madness, and they tried to take parts of you for soundbites, for commercial spots, for recruitment statistics.

And even now, they still tell you:

  • “We want you, but we don’t want you.”
  • “We want to work with you, but we don’t want to put in the work for you.”
  • “We want your support, but we can’t support you.”
  • “We don’t know if you’re a good fit anymore.”

And sometimes you hear these words, and you begin to believe them.

This is how we start to fall.
When we tell ourselves:

  • “You are not good enough.”
  • “You can’t crack it.”
  • “You’ve missed too many deadlines.”
  • “Your personal life is getting in the way.”
  • “You are a bad student.”
  • “You are not measuring up to the determination that got you here.”
  • “You out of all the people like you, you, the special one, you, so unique, you. You are not worthy.”

We choke on these lies and feel like we are suffocating. We get trapped in the immeasurable space of our loneliness and forget the galaxies contained within us.

We forget to breathe.
We forget that though we have suffocated without air for so long, we still somehow learn to breathe and build entire worlds among the stars. We craft new lives out of the vacuum and within the incalculable space of our self-worth. We live by the orbit of the phrase “and yet we survive anyway.” It is the gasp of air we take in our lungs upon our heads breaking the surface of the atmosphere. It is that ragged breath we use to drag each other up from the depths of worlds in which we were never meant to survive, and yet we have. Being battered back and forth, somehow still pushing, somehow still pulling ourselves through, every crack above the white surface, a rebellion; every Black face, a riotous ode: “Yes, yes, and still, and yet, we made it through.”

You almost forget that it is not triumphant.
That respiration is our most basic instinct. That it is only natural to inhale. That we have to breathe at some point. That the gasp, the wheeze, the pant are all compulsory. They are only riotous, only revolutionary in the way that our lungs might burn, might fight, might scream for the right of air. We should not have to be magic. We should not have to be gods. We should not have to be galaxies.

And yet?

Justin D. Wright (as of 2023, Día Joy Wright) is a sociocultural anthropologist, performance studies scholar, theater artist, and performance poet. In both their scholarly and artistic pursuits, Wright is concerned with notions of national and cultural memories, transgenerational traumas, Black grief, and Black and Black-queer identity-making. Their work seeks to understand how Black people might craft from that pain, grief, and trauma something breathtakingly beautiful—and from that beauty, freedom and liberation. Wright holds an M.A. in theater and performance studies from Washington University in St. Louis. Wright is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at American University and was the 2020–2021 poet-in-residence at SAPIENS. Their poem “The Cookout (and All Other Manners of Heavenly Black Things)” was a finalist for the Best of the Net Anthology 2022. Follow them on Twitter @jd_thewright.


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