Personal Essay: Jonathan Shepard-Smith ‘18

What does it mean to be Black at Davidson?

There is Black, and there is Black at Davidson. The realization of blackness at Davidson is something that both occurs all at once and gradually. From the moment you step on campus, you can sense that you are blacker than you’ve ever been. What takes time is realizing the root cause of these feeling, namely what it actually means to be Black on Davidson’s campus –historically, economically, politically, and culturally –and how because of this, the Black you are at Davidson is different from the Black you are anywhere else.

In many ways, the 665 acres so fondly coined the “Davidson Bubble” by generations of students serves as a refuge from the outside world. The culture of the institution is so thick, it is hard to see beyond it. History oozes from the stately Chambers building, the wisdom held within acting as a vacuum to all those in proximity. Bright and polite peers walk the winding paths throughout campus, a mass representative of all in the liberal arts that is praised: postures of humility, empathetic glances, minds overflowing with the progressive lesson of the day.

As you continue walking these paths, you come to the realization that you are walking the same paths of U.S Presidents and CEOs, lawyers and doctors, humanitarians and world leaders. You are astounded that someone like you is fortunate enough to share the same space as these individuals, and in the back of your mind (the only place you dare consider such a delicate notion) you think that one day long after you’re gone, students might think of you as they walk this very same path.

You reach Commons, the last building before crossing between academic and social life on campus. You stop and look fondly, as you do nearly every time you pass it. The 12 hours of unlimited food and drink mean much more than a full belly for students like you; it is a metaphor for the blanket of security provided by the institution. Entering the presence of Commons is a reminder that you will not go without at Davidson. The worries of hunger, theft, or braving the elements are not concerns for those who dwell inside of the Bubble.

Crossing the cultural border of academic to social territory, the paths spread to ten houses. Each of the houses represents a different sect of social life. You learned during orientation that this space is where all walks of life come to fellowship. There is even one designated for students like you. Here, on any given weekend students congregate to celebrate our presence on this campus, in this world. Though the courtyard is divided into social sects, there is no resistance to students joining others in weekend festivities.

As time transpires, you start to realize the Bubble is not impenetrable. There are times when the air clears. The ominous figures you start to make out in the background send shivers down your spine. You notice Chambers is plastered with the names of individuals who would have fought tooth and nail against your attendance here. A closer look shows where the Black bodies you believed absent are actually present. The difference is unlike you, their presence is not in classroom, but rather sweeping, cleaning, and working the green grounds you once strolled so dreamily. The air clears a little more, and you begin to make out facial expressions. Those originally deemed progressive and tolerant still cannot help but stare, not accusingly but amused.

Black bodies, cultural and physical, are still a novelty. Our interactions are awkward and forced, as if we are dance partners trying a new step that neither of us know very well. Slowly, the initial feeling towards the culture of the wildcat is melted away with each case of injustice towards Black bodies in the outside world. The mantra “wildcats” now feels like a negation of all experiences gained outside of the Bubble, each time the word is uttered it causes a trace of resentment to ooze through to the pores of your skin. You begin to hate yourself for feeling this way, for no longer  believing your earliest interpretations. From this hate arises guilt. Who are you to critique a place that has done so much for you?

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