If Austin Peay Could Talk: Eva's Story
“If Austin Peay Could Talk” is a new, special series about listening. Paying tribute to James Baldwin’s novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the essays in this series are meant to magnify the experiences of the University’s black faculty and staff. Every Friday, a different University employee will share their own deeply personal story about racism – stories that have been overlooked for too long. Today, Austin Peay is talking, and we hope you will simply listen to these important words.
No one had to tell me I was Black. I distinctly remember the day that I was treated as less than due to the color of my skin. I recall my time in a convenience store when the white clerk intentionally skipped me to assist the next white customer in line. I was shocked, hurt and silenced.
I remember getting back into my parents’ car and silently crying in the back seat. I never told my parents about that incident. I also remember as a child noticing that none of the pictures/posters/books in my school contained any images that represented me. Am I not important enough to be included in these materials? Why is it that the only time we discuss Black people is during February and it’s the same few Black people, as if we have no history? Why are the majority of the dolls white? Why do I not see myself in the images on TV and in magazines?
As a child, I noticed this invalidation of my presence and worth. As an adult, not much has changed. I still have to deal with the microaggressions that occur on an almost daily basis from individuals in professional settings. “Educated” folks. I have learned that formal education, in its current state, does not eliminate bias, prejudice and discrimination. It becomes covert and coded. Sometimes, intentional, sometimes not.
I don’t know why these incidents continue to surprise me, but they do. They occur over and over again and each time I am surprised, shocked, saddened and angry. I wish I could numb the pain, but it’s a wound that is never allowed to heal. I think what hurts the most is when these comments or indiscretions come from individuals who I thought knew better. I thought they were allies and valued the beauty of diversity, but then the veil is pulled away and that bias begins to seep out.
Although one can easily get stuck in the hopelessness of it all, I often reflect on the history of my ancestors and build upon their strength. I am reminded of Jane Higginbotham – my great-great-great grandmother, who was raped and impregnated by her master John Higginbotham and bore him three children, one of which was sold to another plantation. I am also reminded of my Grand Uncle John Burrell Garner, who participated in a sit-in and was arrested and kicked out of law school in 1960. I am reminded of my father who, as a teenager, had a gun pulled on him by a police officer for being at a county fair. I am also reminded of his stories of integration during high school and the bullying by BOTH students AND teachers. Although their stories are filled with pain, I build on their strengths and their hopes for me, their descendant. I reflect on the words of Maya Angelou:
"Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
It’s not easy to live in the skin I am in, but I embrace that I am wondrously made, drippin with melanin, and filled with excellence. I stand on the shoulders of giants and speak our collective truth. If my truth makes you uncomfortable, I challenge you to change the narrative. Listen to the voices and reflect on your actions. Invest in change…be the change.
- Dr. Eva Gibson, assistant professor of psychological science and counseling