I had an opportunity my first semester in college to take a 6 credit English class. Ethnic Literature. We read Richard Wright's Native Son. We could chose among several themes for our paper; I wrote about how Wright uses the metaphor of "seeing." How the white world saw Bigger. How he saw himself. Overt or unconscious. Sometimes, ironic.
I grew up in a upper middle class suburb in NJ; many of our dads commuted into New York City. There wasn't a lot of diversity in my high school or my liberal arts college in small town Ohio.
I attended a YMCA summer camp in the Adirondacks.. My first kiss was from Kirby. He called a few times when we got back from camp; my mom suspected he was black. And she told me she never would send me to that college in Vermont where my cousin met the black man that she would marry. I was nervous, embarrassed and silent.
In that same freshman English class, we had to write about a time we felt like we were excluded. I wrote about some moments - at once alienating and amusing - as a high school exchange student in Chile. It was the closest I could come to relating to themes in the books we read, required for that first semester college class, by latinos, european immigrants, native americans, and blacks.
One of my classmates, who would become a good friend, was also going to be a Spanish major. And we debated bilingual education. I was against it; she argued passionately for it. I loved this class.
At the time, Native Son was a gripping read. I glanced over the book before I wrote this. It seems too patent, cookie-cutter, too simplistic. But, at the time, there was something true to me about this book, I embraced it. When the English professor, asked if she could keep my paper (the days of typewriters), as a reference for future classes, I was proud. In that class, I'd been open to a different way of seeing things, and there, it was noted, appreciated.
Just yesterday, I dog-eared a page in Elena Ferrante's third volume about a life-long friendship between two girls in a hard-knock neighborhood in Naples, Italy. "...every choice has its history, so many of our moments are shoved into a corner, waiting for an outlet, and in the end the outlet arrives."
I was home last weekend. They picked me up in the train station, my mom and I talked about the RNC in Cleveland. I love her. We managed, happily, to avoid politics the rest of the weekend. My sister and I could, thank goodness, compare notes and shake our heads together.
These days I get to witness, sometimes help, international students navigate their lives in the US - they have fun, they struggle, and for a few, its life changing. What they see, what they help me see, what they now see differently. Richard Wright's book, Native Son, was a marker on my life's path.
Liz Woyczynksi coordinates an international law studies program. They both work at Case Western Reserve University.
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