During my senior year at the predominantly white, upper-middle class private school I went to in my home state of Georgia, I purposely only applied to schools in Boston and New York. Though the people at Landmark Christian School were “too Christian” and “too kind” to be intentionally racist or ignorant, I’d set my sights on the Northeast, casting it as my promised land, a certain respite from the South, which I loathed.
In my idealistic mind, the Northeast was a diverse region where different races were celebrated and equality was easy. I quickly realized how wrong I was, and that ignorance and lack of diversity were plagues that extended far beyond the boundaries of the Mason-Dixon line. It wasn’t until I arrived at Emerson that I finally felt the burden of being black crash down on me.
A few weeks into college, news from Ferguson—Darren Wilson, a white police officer in the St. Louis suburbs, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, black, 18-year-old—crowded Facebook feeds and news website homepages.
The North wasn’t my “promised land,” but a land of broken promises. I’ve seen more upset black people here at Emerson than ever before. This is a positive change: so many of the black student activists at Emerson refuse to let their emotions be silenced or allow the injustices they face to be masked with politeness. That high school bubble of “security” was false, only painting a distorted image of what was really out there.
On Nov. 24, I read that Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Brown. I felt trapped. As Wilson learned of his freedom, I could no longer escape what was happening around me: The man who I was convinced shot an innocent teenager would be able to walk the streets freely while his victim would never take another breath, nor could he defend his name and honor.
I watched as news broadcasts and conservative editorials painted Brown as a bully that deserved his death. If someone could so easily cast him as a violent thug, I knew the same could be done to me, no matter how many times I made my high school honor roll. Nothing would save me from a racist person’s bullet. It wouldn’t take more than being, as Brown was, at the wrong place at the wrong time for the media to describe me as a “thug” or “gangster.” As New York blogger Crissle West, co-host of The Read podcast, said in a November episode, “The fact of the matter is, you
can be an unarmed black person and get gunned down by the police or security guards or some other government agency. You can get shot for being black and there’s nothing [you can do about it]… It doesn’t matter who you are.”
Ten days after Wilson was given his freedom, I lay on the streets of Boston, the city I once thought to be my promised land. Helicopters circled overhead as I marched through the Boston Common, past the State House, to City Hall and beyond. I couldn’t help but think about all of the other marchers and protesters who had once been in my very position. It took 18 years and countless murders for me to fully recognize that even if I didn’t want a part in this war of ignorance, I had already been drafted when I was born an American citizen.
Growing up in this country, we’re told that if you work hard enough and do what you’re supposed to, you can achieve whatever you want. This mentality helped me get into my dream school, but I have realized this must be a lie. My own naivete painted my promised land as a place free of racial prejudice, but clearly ignorance is inescapable. Even in the promised land.