I’ve often been to this malled city on the flatlands of western Kentucky, 90 miles from Nashville on the other side of the Mississippi; some of my best friends teach or have taught at Western Kentucky University, the rare state university that provides a high school program to students in the impoverished high schools here. In the writing workshops I’ve offered, I’ve never had an African-American student.
But Western also has a football team, and last night was the Homecoming celebration for its team which had won it latest game, 35 to 19 against the Florida Owls.
Checking in at the Holiday Inn, I waited for a while behind four young African Americans, three men and a woman. They were very black. The men’s hair was done in elaborate dreadlocks; when one of them turned to glance at me, his beautiful face under its crown of black inlaid swirls expressed the mild expectation of discourtesy I remember seeing on the faces of young black people across the country who are causing white people to wait. He might have muttered gently, “Black Lives Matter.”
“What kind of convention are you having here?” I asked the woman who was giving me my room key, then realized that the way I’d phrased my question was an indication of suspicion.
She smiled. “Not a convention. It’s Homecoming,” she told me.
Homecoming. What could that mean? I soon learned; a young man in the elevator told me, with bemused pride, that their concert would be held in Ballroom B.
Although she had assured me that my room was quiet, it was on the front of the hotel, right over what is still sometimes called the porte-cochere.
Porte-cochere! From the days of horse-drawn carriages and ladies in big skirts descending on a footman’s arm.
From the days of slavery.
Around one AM an extraordinary noise woke me up, and I peered out of my window. The concert had just ended. A fleet of cars was drawn up in the circular drive outside the hotel. Several were parked under the porte-cochere which acted as an echo chamber, vastly amplifying the noise of the cars’ stereos.
I have never heard pure noise before: a vibration, without tonal coloring or beats, a vibration so strong it seemed to shake the flimsy walls of the hotel. It shook me as I lay In my bed. Eventually I called the front desk, but even after a second call, the cars continued to steam into the driveway and to take their turn thundering under the porte-cochere.
I found myself assuming that all these nose-makers were black—a false assumption although I hadn’t seen any white people in the hotel. Black because black is noise, for us white people; black because we must tolerate noise, or pretend to, or show our inherent, our inescapable bias. The fact that it is now considered inescapable seems to absolve us of responsibility.
These black concert goes are only three generations removed from slavery; their great-grandparents could have been born a few years before the Civil War on the small farms of this part of the state, not the plantations of the deep south but sill so much a part of the slave economy that Louisville was the site of a slave market where ten to fifty thousand slaves were sold every year, literally shipped down the river—including covert or overt trouble makers, generators of noise.
Their great-grandparents would have known about porte-cocheres, might even if they were house slaves have worn uniforms and handed masters and mistresses down the steps from coaches drawn up there. The noise that wafted up from those porte-cocheres would have been dulcet. The black people in attendance were, of course, silent.
How great a sense of triumph might animate these Homecomers? Is it possible, or even likely, that only those who have been abused in a certain setting can call their returning to it Home Coming?
I don’t know the answer.
But I do know that, for us who in some sense never leave home—the world is home for privileged white people—those who disrupt our sleep become, unconsciously, “Them.”
Lorenzo Mauldin IV’s story in Sunday’s New York Times shows how one of “Them” succeeded because of unlikely mentorships, not family. He started off his football career with a scholarship to play for Louisville.
Perhaps the noise those cars generated under the porte-cochere is really the newest version of OOOM.
As though to comment on my thoughts, an extraordinary story in yesterday’s USA Today covers the boycott by 30 black football players at the University of Missouri. They are joining forces with a student group called Concerned Citizens 1950—the name commemorates the year the university began to admit black students—a combining of forces that is an historical first. The student group had been asking the president to resign for some time, with little attention paid, but now with football practice suspended until a student ends his hunger strike—he’s also demanding that the president resign because of insensitive handling of racial incidents on campus—the movement has a great deal more weight.
As football teams at all our universities, which are the major force in alumni giving, realize their power, we will begin to see changes on campuses that previously seemed oblivious to the demands of student civil rights activists. This is cause for rejoicing.
[The teams may indeed have realized their power, as the protests “spur a day of change” yesterday. Also: “How the Missouri football team just took down its university president,” from The Washington Post.]