Black in Alabama

Mine is the story of a boy who spent his childhood summers becoming black in Alabama, wrestling dirt in the whispering winds of Wetumpka out back of a one-room shack in which his great grandmother raised 15 children. It is the story of a boy who spent time with an old man, fishing the broken banks of Birmingham and riding a tractor in the tattered town of Tuskegee, only to learn years later the old man was not his grandfather. It is also the story of schoolteacher’s son and an Army Colonel’s first-born, who, as a child, was taught being black in an anti-black world demanded he work twice as hard to get half as far. It is with this set of sensibilities, my story of being and becoming an Ivy League professor, one often assumed to have little nuance or complexity, manifests.

When I was 11 years old I wanted to be a quarterback. I had grown up watching Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, and Doug Williams, some of the greatest signal-callers the game has ever seen. I wanted to be a quarterback because the position demanded leadership, something I had seen time and again in my father, one of few black military officers in command of hundreds of troops on a strategic Army base in Europe. But when I began playing football in 1994, I played in a league restricted by neighborhoods. So, the team on which I was placed was, like my neighborhood, almost exclusively white. Given my size and speed in relation to the other kids I was placed at running back, quite typical.

A year later, a few inches taller and several pounds heavier, I was moved to fullback and tight end despite my expressed interest to be under center. Pat, our undersized quarterback with underwhelming athleticism from last year, was returned to his position without hesitation. I asked my Dad why the coach wouldn’t give me a chance, even though the other kid wasn’t particularly great. What I got was a simple, important lesson on social capital, race relations, and the ways in which my having a black body – specifically a black mind – suggested to my coach, who, too, was white and a former quarterback, I wasn’t right for the position. Essentially, my father taught me what he learned when he expressed a desire to become an Army pilot to white recruiters. They often laughed at the notion if for no other reason than to reply “boy, you’re black.”

So, the season went on. I arrived at practice early as I always did to do extra drills before we got started. I asked my coach again for a chance; he said no. Then, in frustration, I walked back to the field somewhere near the 40-yard line and picked up the junior league football – partially deflated by the cold. I eyed the uprights of the white field goal posts and threw the ball as hard as I could. The rotation was perfect; spiraling almost effortlessly across the 30, the 20, the 10, and landing in the back of the end zone to the surprise of my teammates and, yes, the coach.

Fast forward some 15 years later and my desire to call plays transformed into my desire to pursue a life of the mind, teaching and learning as a researcher and college professor. Somewhere along the way I became more aware of the complexities of race, but, even more, my privileges as a straight, able-bodied male from an middle/upper-middle class background.

Somewhere along the way I became more aware of the complexities of race, but, even more, my privileges as a straight, able-bodied male from an middle/upper-middle class background.

Perhaps it was these privileges that led me to Florida State University. It was certainly these privileges that led me onward to graduate school, later, at Penn, where I went against Kanye’s prophetic wisdom and got my masters’ masters. But, still, I desired a doctorate.

In my final fall at Penn, between working three jobs, attending classes, and conducting research, I began the application process to a number of competitive PhD programs. My top pick being to remain where I already was, where I had demonstrated significant success in relation to my peers, and had an adviser with whom I was excited to continue working. I was certain, after two masters degrees, publishing, presenting at conferences, and engaging the House of Cards-like politics of graduate school, my opportunity to become “Dr. Lightskinned Brother with the Bowtie” was near.

The letter read:

Mr. Davis,

The Faculty carefully reviewed your application for admission to the Ph.D. program in Education Culture and Society. Based on our review, we are unable to offer you admission at this time. We had many talented and highly qualified applicants in our pool and very few spaces to offer applicants. We appreciate your interest in the Penn Graduate School of Education and wish you every success in your academic and professional pursuits.

Dr. Douglas E. Lynch,
Vice Dean

Some version of that letter was received three more times from the programs to which I had applied that year. Twelve in total, including the years passed. I was crushed, angry, frustrated, disappointed, and consumed with self-doubt. “How does this happen?” I thought.

What was more, a year later after I began a program at the University of Arizona, “Dr. Doug” had submitted his resignation to the Graduate School. Shortly after, a provocative news article revealed the then-associate dean did not in fact have a doctorate. More surprising was he did not even have a masters at the time he signed a letter denying my entry to his graduate school while I had earned two.

Then, a year ago I was in my studio apartment, still filled with unopened boxes, making a peanut butter sandwich—and not the good kind with the bread lightly toasted, creamy peanut butter on both pieces and strawberry preserves nestled in the middle. It was the two end-pieces we all try to keep from eating until absolutely necessary, dry and stale from our weeks of neglect, and only enough peanut spread for one side. I got a phone call from my adviser during my time at Penn asking how my research was going—not uncommon—and what my plans where after I finished in the field. I told him “Writing, mostly. Not sure where or how I’ll make money, but I have a dissertation to finish.”

It was at this time he asked, “How would you like to come back to Penn? Now that you’re almost done, you could lecture at the graduate school and co-direct my research center.”

I was taken aback by the irony. “How was it so that an institution at which I was under-qualified to continue learning, I am now qualified to teach and produce knowledge?” Though I didn’t think much longer (I was tired of eating peanut butter sandwiches), I accepted the offer, realizing while the struggle may be hard, the victory—the victory—is certain.

By Charles H.F. Davis III, Ph.D

Charles H.F. Davis III is a traveling artist and academic whose work engages the social and cultural expressions of the Global South. He is particularly committed to conducting research on and using new media to document contemporary activism and social movements as forms of resistance to race-related systems of oppression.