For the Betterment of Humanity
A native of Chicago who has also lived in Indiana and Alabama, activist Brandon Wallace completed his master’s degree in American Studies at Purdue University in 2005.
For the Betterment of Humanity
By Brandon Wallace
I had just left the rigid environment of the Deep South when I began my master’s program at Purdue University in 2003. I knew what it meant to live in a conservative environment. I also knew what it was to be defined as “other.”
I am grateful that I had a foundation rooted in progressive values. I had a family that loved reading, so I was encouraged to read early. I also came from a family that read everything-encyclopedias, dictionaries, Pushkin and Jackie Collins, Harlequin series and historical narratives by Lady Antonia Fraser. Part of the value system instilled in me was purely a result of being born and reared in Chicago in the early 1980s, under the auspices of Harold Washington and Jesse Jackson and their shouts for change. I had the entire progressive Black political machine at my doorstep and was exposed to it on the street, on the television, over the radio, through the very air I breathed. I also had ready access to different cultures. I could partake in these cultures, blend with them, learn from them, and appreciate them.
These values of openness, tolerance, and embracing difference helped me through my transition from Chicago to Alabama – from an open atmosphere to one that was closed and oppressive. In Alabama, I endured obligatory performances of “I’m Proud to be an American, Where at Least I can be free” at fifth grade music recitals ( I don’t remember the words ever coming out of my mouth. I believe I just mumbled them or hummed), compulsory pledges of allegiance (I used to pledge to a different country every day). These things I chalked up to a bad turn of fate and yearned for the time when I’d make my exit.
My first perceptions when I arrived at Purdue University were that it lacked diversity even more than Alabama. Indiana has more whites than Alabama in terms of its population density. There are reasons for this. Up until the late 19th Century, there were laws on the books that prevented Blacks from settling in the state of Indiana. The homogeneity of thought was much the same as what existed in Alabama, but the degree to which Purdue lacked diversity was much greater. Tolerance among whites for racial, cultural, or gender diversity was abysmally low. The generally held perceptions of Blacks in that community were racist and stereotypical. Many Blacks at Purdue, myself among them have felt the spite and hatred that permeates that campus. Purdue has a history of racial incidents.
While racial tolerance and diversity were rare at Purdue, tolerance for gender and sexual diversity were harder to come by. The white, gay male population at Purdue was extremely racist. There were gay organizations on campus and some of them did operate around progressive agendas. Some of the gay men on campus formed a fraternity. The organization was merely a replication of the established Greek system at Purdue, sending the message that “we can be just as heteronormative as you can.” Heteronormativity was universally embraced at Purdue.
The lack of tolerance for the queer community underscored the absurdity of this. I remember an incident where a queer activist, participated in the National Day of Silence. He was lying on the steps of the Stewart Center inside a chalk circle he had drawn around himself while being taunted by a group of boys. The boys feigned kicking him and erased his chalk line. They continued this abuse until the boy got up and moved to another place. No one stopped to help him or to admonish the ones who taunted him.
Having received a teaching fellowship in the English department, I decided to help dispel the racism on campus. As a graduate instructor, I taught rhetoric and composition, building a curriculum around a progressive agenda. I incorporated concepts of gender, racial, sexual and cultural diversity into my lesson plans. I used clips from Oprah’s “Women of Brewster Place” to discuss ideas of economic status and sexual orientation. I showed the films Paris is Burning, The Crying Game, Stonewall, and Marlon Rigg’s Black is Black Ain’t to discuss ideas of diversity ( in terms of sexual orientation ) and the fluidity that exists in orientation and identification. I also built lesson plans around such topics as historical definitions of race in the United States, bringing such voices into my classroom as Nina Simone, June Jordan, Jane Fonda, Angela Davis, Adrienne Rich, and James Baldwin. Perhaps the most fundamentally valuable idea that I incorporated into my lesson plan was to give my students a general introduction to Jacques Derrida’s concept of Deconstruction. I offered this tool for analysis with which they could dispel the hegemony or structures of oppression that they were likely to encounter throughout their lives.
For five years I taught at Purdue University. I sought to inspire thought, openness, a love of diversity, and tolerance among my students. My hope and faith exists in the betterment of humanity.
Brandon Wallace writes at his blog, Julius Speaks.