The Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 10, 1997
Nov. 10, 1997
VOL. 27, NO. 11


The Writings On The Wall

A Gazette series offering a first-person account of an undergrad experience

Stacey Patton
An Undergraduate Life

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

It fascinates me how seemingly disconnected events can merge at some point to enlighten me--or, in this case--liberate my thoughts, my soul.

Earlier this month I sat down to write a story, which I hadn't done in a while. It went like this:

The other day I watched my son. I admired his kinky roots and dark hue. He was sitting at the kitchen table with an Oreo cookie in his hand. He unscrewed the two black circles and then licked the creamy white filling. He then stuck the black circles back together again. Before him was a large glass of milk about the length of his hand. He rolled up his sleeve and submerged the cookie into the white milk. After a few seconds he brought the cookie to the surface again. His arm was dripping wet and the cookie was soaked well. My son smiled, opened his mouth and slipped the cookie inside. I, his mother, quickly jumped to my feet and slapped him on the back. The cookie flew out onto the table. I snatched the glass of milk away and poured it down the sink.

The piece was finished. I found a tack and placed it on the wall behind my door. That wall is my wall of poetry. The writings there express my fears, frustrations, desires and ideas about how life should be.

The story is about more than just a child eating cookies and drinking milk, of course. It is about more than just going through the ritual of eating the Oreo cookie, the American cookie. It is about how minorities can so easily become submerged in a dominant culture and how individuals can ultimately lose their identity and sense of self.

A woman I admire so much, and whose advice I value greatly, said to me just last week, "Stacey, if you wanna be successful, then you got to shut up and play politics. That's the only way you will get anywhere in life."

I left her office more distressed than when I had entered a half hour before.

The hardest thing in the world for me to do is to shut up. The hardest thing for me to do is to nod my head when I disagree. The hardest thing for me to do is to say yes when I really mean no. The hardest thing for me to do is to say to someone in authority that he is right when it is clear--to me--that he is wrong.

One thing that college has failed to do to me is to make me conform--to be less rebellious, assertive or compromising of my personal moral and ethical standards. I still turn a closed ear when I hear people tell me that I must play politics to fit into a system that fails to recognize me as I am, a system that harps at me to "conform," "change," "grin and bear it."

This, to me, is the politics of silence.

Silence aggravates. Silence makes one impotent. Silence is emotionally tortuous. Silence disempowers. Silence kills.

That was my frame of mind when I went to hear the Rev. Jesse Jackson speak about race and religion at the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium later that week. Sitting there in the second row, I felt his eyes make contact with mine a few times during the speech. It was if at certain points he was talking directly to me.

He talked about the so-called American Dream. He talked about racism. He talked about affirmative action. He talked about character. He talked about God. He talked about me, or so it seemed. There were times when I wanted to shout out, "Amen, preacher man!" But with his words I smiled, and he gave me reassurance that what I had been wrestling with all week was real; I was not imagining things.

I was the last person to ask a question during the question-and-answer period following his speech. I asked him for advice on how to remain a transformer rather than a conformer in a setting such as America, such as Johns Hopkins University.

To make his point beautifully, Rev. Jackson summoned the vision of a pot of vegetable soup. "Tomato," he said, "is the base."

America is the base for all of us living here. Johns Hopkins is the base for all of its students and faculty and staff. We are all here together. But the vegetables and meat that are added to the tomato do not lose their form. They bring out the taste and flavor in the soup.

Most importantly, he said, we must act as strainers: We must take advantage of the opportunities here at Hopkins, question what we hear and then take what we can use and throw out the rest.

At that very moment, my anxiety went away.

Having finished the program, Jackson called me to the stage and then walked with me to the elevator as if we were old friends, his arm around my shoulder, mine about his waist. While we rode up to the Clipper Room, he continued to stress the importance of taking advantages of opportunities without compromising my beliefs.

"Don't lose your religion," he said, tapping me on the head and looking down on me with his large eyes and a wide smile. Although my religion is not based on the Bible, or the Torah or the Koran, I understood just what he meant.