Reflections/Jonathan Gramling

Jonathan Gramling

Don’t Turn Around

This is one of those columns that I write that no matter what I say, someone won’t be happy with it. But I am compelled to write it even if it is like a moth coming too close to the flame.

When I was covering the UW-Madison Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) Graduation Celebration at the Pyle Center, one of the UW-Madison student honorees spoke about an incident on campus — I mean social media written by a UW-Madison student — that involved a lot of racist slurs and BS. She spoke about how she empathized with and supported the Black students on campus. She sat at my table and so I asked her to inform me what had happened. She said she would talk after the event. After the event, when I approached her, she was dismissive and basically said she had to be somewhere.

She was a Hmong American student from Wauwatosa and I was a 70 something Euro-American male from wherever. I felt that she was dismissive and didn’t have five minutes to discuss it. She didn’t know that I do a lot of financial work for and support a Hmong-led agency in Madison and have been involved in Madison’s Hmong community since before she was born.

I worry about the focus on superficial appearances that keeps us apart and inhibits openness and discussion, something exacerbated by social media. We are all much more complex and human than the stereotypes that drive American society and are a source of power for some. Higher education is for us to rise above and seek the truth about people and the world around us. Too many Euro-American UW-Madison students are content to learn a sophisticated trade and not explore the greater world around them.

In terms of the Black students on campus, I plead with them to learn from the civil rights movement, a movement that I learned about from sitting around fires at night in rural Mississippi, learning from the civil rights activists who put their lives on the line for the benefit of the Black community. DON’T LET NO ONE TURN YOU AROUND. Yeah, someone went into a racist rant on social media. That is one ignorant white person who doesn’t know anything about which she talks. She is an idiot. Don’t let her control your life and turn you around from getting a world-class education at UW-Madison. Don’t skip classes, turn papers in on time and achieve As on exams in the next week. Don’t let her control your future. Dismiss her as the irrelevant, ignorant person that she is. DON’T LET HER CONTROL YOU! Control your own destiny. Don’t give her the power. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Please don’t dismiss me. I realize that I am a 70 something Euro-American and I can just imagine what images that might conjure up. But as intelligent people in higher education seeking truth, hear me out.

In 1975, I enrolled at Alcorn State University, one of about five Euro-American students at an HBCU of approximately 2,500 students. The Mississippi of those days was a lot more violent and openly racist than the one these days that uses public policy to make the city of Jackson a modern-day plantation.

I have always been a student activist and got involved with some student protests on campus and became friends with the campus activists. A friend of mine, Eddie Young, and I decided to renovate an old share-croppers shack off campus and live there. It was right on Hwy. 61, the transportation lifeline of western Mississippi.

During the Thanksgiving holiday, I went with an activist friend of mine, Michael Ellis, to his home in Como, Mississippi. As the bus passed my house on the way back to Alcorn’s campus, it looked awfully dark where my house was. On getting back to campus and entering the student union, the vice-president of the student council said, ‘Was it your house that burned down?’ Indeed it was.

When I caught up to Eddie, he said he had turned the power off as he went to campus. Our dog didn’t die in the blaze and there was nothing left of the house except the cement blocks it was built on. Someone had deliberately set that fire. The flames were so hot that my motorcycle sitting adjacent to the house had melted.  There was no investigation. They turned off the water and electricity and left.

So what did I do knowing that someone didn’t like me or what I was doing? I crashed in the dorms with friends having only the clothes that I had taken to Como with my friend, finished the semester and returned the next semester and the year after that. NO ONE WAS GOING TO TURN ME AROUND! I was going to complete what I needed to do at Alcorn and I wasn’t going to let anyone deter me. And I did get what I needed from Alcorn. I didn’t let them control me even though the threat of violence was in the air.

So African American students at UW-Madison, don’t let an ignorant person on social media — which isn’t real — turn you around. The best statement you can make is pulling down a 4.0 GPA in spite of the rant. That is what eliminates the control and frees you from white attitudes. DON’T LET ANYONE TURN YOU AROUND!