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Diamonds in the Rough

Every Black astro/physicist is a diamond in the rough. By making it to wherever they are in their careers, they are stronger than you can imagine. Many of them are the descendants of a long line of survivors, dating back to the cramped, death-filled hold of a slave ship. Many are the children of women and men who spent their lives in the newly-founded United States with their humanities systematically stripped, somehow holding together families despite forceful separation, distance and death. Others are the descendants of the survivors of the ongoing European and now American and increasingly Chinese colonial project around the African continent. They somehow kept the flame burning despite centuries of hopelessness, with no end in sight, with misery following misery, day after day.

How my ancestors came to America.
Today, we are stereotyped as being shiftless, lazy and not interested in education. Yet my ancestors, the slaves owned by white Americans, pursued education despite the threat of punishment by torture and death. They taught themselves and their children to read, huddled beneath blankets late at night by candlelight, dodging slave patrols (the precursors to our modern police force). They created culture, music, mythology and religion under the watchful eye of their masters. They had to steal their humanity if they were to be human. My ancestors did. That's why I'm here today.

Plantation overseer punishes a slave in Brazil, 1834.
Those Black slaves who were left alive in the South, when the slaves were "freed," were set adrift in enemy territory, with nothing but a shirt on their back, if that. They walked miles carrying their babies, they wandered roadless forests in search of their husbands, wives and children with no certainty that they were still alive.

When our ancestors finally managed to eke out a living, barely avoiding starvation as share croppers and seasonal laborers, they lived every day knowing that it could all be stripped away. Their children grew up "free" in a system of state-sanctioned terrorism known as Jim Crow. My grandfather knew never to make eye contact with a white man or woman. He knew how to step off of the sidewalk when white people approached. He accepted that a white man could mete out corporal punishment to his children on a public street, and all he could do was stand aside, staring at the ground. He knew that his life and his family were at stake as he walked outside in a "free" country. A lynch mob was always just minutes away from his home should he dare to act like an American.

My grandmother raised nine children in a house built by her eldest sons out of scrap wood. She taught her kids how to read, how to do math, despite only ever attaining a third-grade education. She pulled the family through lean times. Before she passed away, she told me stories of waking up to find the flour for breakfast eaten and defiled by rats. She fought through tuberculosis, losing a lung while leaving her family in the hands of my eldest aunt. She returned to them and stressed the importance of education, like her ancestors did before her.

White America: These are your forefathers and foremothers. If you claim
Jefferson, Washington or Betsy Ross, you must claim these upstanding
citizens of your country, too. These events were often attended by the
local police, and convictions were extremely rare, making lynching a
de facto legal American institution. 
My father pursued an education in a university that constantly reminded him of his inferiority. He faced discrimination at every turn. Yet he became the class president and graduated with honors. He found a job, then another, and then moved to find another in St. Louis. The house he purchased, the first house owned in my family's history, lost 50% of its value when white people fled our neighborhood, six miles from Ferguson, in the 90's as Black families like ours moved in. He lost the rest of its value in the 2008 housing crisis. The suburban neighborhood I grew up in is today derided as the "ghetto" or the "hood" by white acquaintances of mine who still live in the St. Louis area.

Ta-Nehisi Coates detailed the recent history of housing discrimination after WWII that denied opportunities for Black people to build wealth by excluding them from FHA and GI Bill home loans, ownership of houses in "white neighborhoods," and the legal con game of "contract buying." All the while, white Americans purchased homes and built wealth. They used those homes to take out loans to send their children to school. The wealth they accumulated allowed them to lend or give money to their children to buy homes of their own. Those children carefully avoided Black neighborhoods and kept Black people out of white neighborhoods, right up to this day. Today there is a nearly 20-to-1 wealth gap between Blacks and whites. 

There is a mythology among white America that there was a time after slavery when Black people had all the opportunity in the world and yet somehow squandered it, leaving them in poverty today. But this is historically false. There has been no sustained period in our history when Black people were ever given a chance, and certainly no time in history when we were able to benefit from the fruits of our forced labor. There is a new documentary about Nazi Germany seemingly every week on the History channel. But when was the last documentary about slavery, or Jim Crow, or Rosa Parks' 40-year struggle for housing rights, or the Civil Rights movement beyond standard clips from MLK's "I have a dream?" America has not faced down its history. But I know my history, both Black and white. 
Our lives, stolen then, and stolen now. LUCAS JACKSON / REUTERSS
From what I've learned, I know America does not deserve us. Astronomy and physics do not deserve us. But Black astro/physicists love doing what we do. We do it better than most while working harder than most, for far less than most. We do it, always with a fraction of our brains processing cues from an environment that is allergic to us, dealing with the scars left by messages telling us that we are lesser. We face discrimination to this day, with daily reminders that we are not worth as much as white people. When we speak out against our pain, our pain is denied by our white peers and leaders. We learn our craft from professors who look nothing like us, who know nothing about us, who tend to spend as little time with us as possible. Yet we press on in their labs and classrooms. We are the daughters and sons of some of the strongest people and most determined survivors in American history. 

But we are not full citizens in our own country, where we have lived longer than most of our white colleagues who judge us as lesser. Our colleagues explain within earshot, "We'd welcome them to our graduate program, if only we could find one good enough." With all due respect (and very little is due), we do not accept your standards of "good enough." Your standards of one-dimensional excellence are anathema to us. You will know nothing of true excellence until you are ready for the jazz we bring

Make sure you bear all of this in mind the next time a Black person's application comes across your committee's desk:

We are all diamonds in the rough.


Thanks, as always, to my colleague and social justice mentor, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and to my brother in the fight against racism, Michael Martin. 


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