By: Elmer Martinez ’19
As a sophomore Lighting Design concentration within the Stage Design and Technology program, I was consistently challenged to produce theatrical designs of quality. Likewise, I was consistently challenged (as I sat in a room of nine students) to keep my composure about being singularly brown.
More than socio-economic disconnect in life experiences; more than the lack of cultural connection which led to a deficiency in intimate relationships and passionate friendships being conceived; more than the passive ignorance or willful choice to acknowledge these obvious dividers, what put me at odds was the stagnant nature of this situation. It didn’t seem to evolve. It was what it was, and everyone seemed perfectly content being oblivious to the fact that there were reasons I chose never to speak to anyone in class unless being spoken to first. I didn’t know how to speak among them. As one of them, I didn’t feel safe.
I had tried to spark conversation on my end at times, but the topics seemed to bounce off an invisible wall of gestures and small talk that suggested these people could hear me but weren’t listening. In my heart, I truly don’t believe it was an active choice to be dismissive of my efforts by my classmates, because honestly in my eyes they’re good people. However, this is what I do know: everything in my life is black. From soft Dominican curls to rhythms of speech, through hip-hop dancing feet, and ingrained within every bite of Puerto Rican food that I learned to make watching Abuela — my Afro-Latino-ness knows no subversion.
The more I initially attempted to put myself out there intimately, the more I ran into the molasses-like awkwardness that inevitably accompanies an “oh that’s cool…” No matter the version of indifference that I was met with, it always felt like I was being told, “Well, I can’t relate but I’m not going to tell you I have no idea what you’re talking about. I can’t acknowledge that it matters because I grew up in another universe. I haven’t cared to go outside of my cultural comfort bubble of privilege to become a well-rounded adult, and I expect you to explain and educate me on every nuance of whatever it is you’re so excited about right now. I’ll still make no effort to contribute to this now unfortunate one-sided exchange. Even when you take the time to explain, I’ll just go back to speaking to someone, anyone, else about what we can already comfortably interact about since – ya know – it’s a lot of effort otherwise to have to get to know you as a person outside of our class structure. What I see of you on social media, which I have already used to form my probably ill-informed, preconceived notions about you, is enough for me.”
I felt bad. I felt isolated for being born as myself. I felt like I made my classmates uncomfortable because they couldn’t speak on topics that make me everything that I am. Music, food, first-world problems, fashion, pop culture, film, life anecdotes, how we grew up. Nothing. People bond over their collective struggles and passions. Between my classmates and I there were no common denominators to our truths other than our mutual craft — it wasn’t enough. I didn’t know what to say anymore, so I shut up.
My silence was not limited to my voice; it extended to the insecurities I had fought all freshman year to overcome. Freshman year, when I was initially shell-shocked by this same mechanism of ignorance campus-wide. I was again hyperaware of my black fashion, my black music bumpin’ out my black headphones, my black sense of humor, even the flavor of my stride as I walked under my careful surveillance, so as to not stand out and make the white people uncomfortable.
When people of color make white people uncomfortable, bad things happen to people of color. No one tells you this formula, you inherit it as learned instinct growing up brown in America: whether it’s another black kid getting shot or it’s a white supervisor in the workplace using their power dynamic against you because they feel threatened by your capabilities. They can use the power of subtle racial stigmas against you when the opportunity presents itself (microaggressions) — this formula is fact. Its articulation in my college experience is my truth in this story.
9:00 AM: Walk in, exchange mundane, socially ritualistic greetings, listen to, and voice, some collegiate bullshit banter about whatever it is that’s making us “so tired” and “so overwhelmed” that morning—because what is Emerson if not a money and soul-sucking vacuum of privilege, and what is a Design Tech student without the urge to complain about something? Proceed to shut up. Listen for 15 minutes to these same classmates exchange excitedly with the other white kids who just walked in, discussing everything and anything they’ve all been doing on their personal time with vibrant comfort and companionship. Sit quiet in class—grab my bag and literally dip out the room as fast as possible the second we are dismissed to avoid feeling ashamed. I ran from my fear with a quickness. Irish goodfreakinbye. French mofreaking Exit. Repeat every other day for maximum effect of systemic/infrastructural oppression caused by a lack of diversity at your collegiate institution that no one seems to want to effectively deal with.
After two and a half months of this cycle, we were to produce and present our “Cue to Music” projects: pick a song and then in the Lighting Design Lab design, program, and execute a full light show to the song on either Fred the mannequin or a real person. Cool, bet—sounds fun… except Fred is as white as my classmates. As a lighting designer, how am I supposed to be the best I can be if I have never studied how to design on darker skin tones at the professional level? It is literally an impediment on my $65,000-a-year training to not have to design on dark skin as a requirement. Our acting program has a miniscule amount of people of color in it and casts less than half of them in any given show. The odds of me getting to design on a person of color are laughable outside of some student shows—even then, it’s with limited resources.
Every class session became a mission I had to mentally prepare myself for. By the time we got around to this project it was the end of the semester and I reached the limit of what my mind and emotions were telling me was healthy about this situation. I had to speak. I asked one of the two other brown lighting designers in the major (who was then a freshman I had befriended, at first, over the fact that we were not white, but also because we actually shared values and interests) to be my mannequin.
The black body is a political body and I intended to use it as such. The song I chose was “How Great” by Chance the Rapper. Being a disciple of hip-hop culture I wanted to use it as a form of resistance from the negativity that had corrupted my self-worth in this space. I wanted something to celebrate, so I turned to my faith in God and in my culture. I wanted to celebrate life and being alive via the glorification of my beliefs and applying my craft with a brown body as a surrogate for my own. I felt a need to reclaim my identity from this space that had put me in a position where for so long I felt the need to suppress it. I had to speak.
Presentation day came and, again, I repeated my ritual of likable small talk before class and sat through some presentations as anxieties of my own grew within me. I had presented two very political projects earlier in the semester: one where I used my own poetry with Biggie Smalls lyrics from “Suicidal Thoughts” to tell a narrative of a black male character who grew up fatherless and had a wayward life that led to suicide, and lit Fred to that, and another where I used Kendrick Lamar’s sampled interview with Tupac at the end of “Mortal Man” to speak about the race issues in contemporary America via my design. This time it was personal, in a different way. It was about me.
I was up—I went to the light board. As I loaded up my show cue file, I started trembling. Luckily, it was dark as I set my cue sheet and my friend took his place where Fred once stood, so no one could tell… but I could tell.
How great is our God, sing with me,
How great is our God, and all will see
How great, how great is our God…
Exalted, my body mechanically started keeping time with the music, eyes glued to my cue sheet, head tilting to see the cues popping off as the washes faded across my friend’s beautiful dark skin while Chance preached his truth. For five minutes and thirty-seven seconds this was our truth; My Truth, the Truth. The room warped with the light of my Afro-soul via the skill of my craft. The music of my people echoed against the walls and my classmates were presented with what at face-value seemed like just another Elmer political project. I was presented with my own voice and it embraced me as a friend long absent. My hand trembled, a would-be lover confessing his infatuation after months of buildup and self-doubt. I was naked in a room of acquaintances who didn’t know me “like that”—ears hot, adrenaline pumping.
This was my act of revolution. I felt unapologetic for the first time in this space. No longer sorry for being myself and no longer worried about someone else feeling uncomfortable about not understanding.
There is more context to these relationships and occurrences than I have the time to explain in this article. If you take anything away from this, let it be the following: This was one class in my second year of school… imagine living at this school… imagine the first year… imagine the other classes… imagine the stories I could tell — ask others of the stories they could tell. I do not feel resentment or ill will toward the students or professor of my class for being products of a system that puts them in a position where they are made complicit in the societal crimes of a greater structure outside of their immediate control or intention.
I respect, greatly admire, and generally get along just fine on a surface level with the majority of my non-POC classmates (if not all) as well as each of my passionate professors. I do, however, hold anyone who should know better than to actively not be aware of their position of power and privilege within this system fully accountable for choosing to remain ignorant to their part in this. I hold anyone accountable who is not ignorant to their position and chooses to not participate in actively making an effort to make it better, or simply does the bare minimum.
I don’t want this story to seem like a powerful act of redemption. Nor do I view it as inspirational. It’s sad, it’s my trauma, it’s real, and it happened. It is not unique—it does not exist in a space of singularity. What it is is a direct sample of the fallout of undiversified spaces and their effect on minorities on a day-to-day level. Don’t glorify this story; no one should have to feel like they need to turn a class project into an act of revolution. This is what I was forced to do to feel sane. We all have trails… navigating the side effects of institutional racism as a result of Emerson’s ongoing negligence to diversify its programs is just one of mine.
I’m currently a junior. When I was accepted into my dream school, I cried for hours. As I reflect on that night, I view it as a precursor to the amount of tears I would shed especially within my first two years at the College. Tears caused by infrastructural racial and psychological aggressions as well as ignorance on a day-by-day, person-to-person basis. I don’t cry about it anymore, and I’m not angry, because I am no longer surprised nor outraged. I’m just tired. Wake up.
Prior to coming to Emerson, I wrote this poem for my creative writing class.
It had no title until today:
I No Longer Wonder
and so I wonder
how the college will react
to the black kid
with the hats and the rags all hanging low
with dirty shoes all wrapped in the tape of poverty
yes, this I wish to see how the college will react.
how will professors sway to the beating of the drums?
how will new schoolmates sneer when I speak bout my moms?
how she didn’t go to prep school but still made life as good
as any rich kid’s parent
with a mansion and limo.
will they wrap Black Hand in white
while preaching all the creeds
of a book bound in blood of Lambs
of thorns and prophecies?
or will pointed hoods surpass the rest
in their “supremacy”
the irony that they wear hoods is much too much for me.
I’ll just ride my bus to old bean town sit in class and write
bout things I wish I knew before I came into this life