Being Black in America: Cynthia Oliver

In her own words, an African American community resident shares a first-person story about what it looks, feels and sounds like to be black in America.

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Continuing a conversation we’re privileged to host, The News-Gazette asked African American community members to share their stories and solutions in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

Featured today: CYNTHIA OLIVER, a UI professor of dance and associate vice chancellor for research and innovation.

If you’d like to share your story, email jdalessio@news-gazette.com. To view the entire series, click here.

Being Black in America: Cynthia Oliver

Cynthia Oliver earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at NYU. She is an award-wining choreographer and performer, a professor in the dance department, and affiliate in the departments of African American Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois, where she is associate vice chancellor of research and innovation in the humanities, arts and related fields.

'I want to see the changes and not
just hear the promises'

By CYNTHIA OLIVER

I‘m tired. I’m sad. I’m angry. Like black woman activist Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

The assaults on our communities are daily affairs. They did not begin with George Floyd, or Trayvon Martin, or even Emmett Till. We have been speaking these truths over a century, often to deaf ears.

The willingness to acknowledge injustice and bias might require someone to change something that so clearly works for them, and was always designed to work against us.

So while I wish we could call this “wake-up moment” for white communities one that will be lasting, I want to see the changes and not just hear the promises.

For every black person in America, our experiences are examples of the classic “death by a thousand cuts.” Let me offer a few examples where racial bias has appeared either subtly or overtly in every aspect of my life.

The personal

My husband’s Japanese American grandfather announced that if his grandson “marries that girl, don’t invite me to the wedding.”

So we didn’t. But after his passing, his wife (my husband’s grandmother) and I developed a beautiful and loving relationship.

Moving here in 2000, my husband and I enlisted a real estate agent via the phone. We inquired about a listing. We were scheduled to visit a home. I spoke with her the day of. I followed her directions at the agreed-upon time. I called her from the agreed-upon location. She gave me the directions to the house.

However, when she saw me get out of the car minutes later, suddenly the house was no longer available. She then insisted on taking us to a neighborhood she thought would be “more suitable.”

In the professional arena

For many years, I was the only Ph.D. in my department. However, I remained third from the bottom with regard to salary, until the prospect of my departure.

Upon appointment to a special position, a colleague I valued at the time told me that I was a political hire (code for black and female). He persisted in telling me he should have gotten the job and that I was not qualified to hold the position.

What was most disturbing about this was not just the repeated refrain, but that others knew about this person’s behaviors over the years and were unwilling to do anything about it.

And last, as a parent of a black child

Perhaps the most painful of all is when you have to tell your child that they will be regarded differently because of the color of their skin.

In order to protect and prepare them, we have to begin the brutal strategy of chipping away at their innocence. The day I had to tell my child that he could not behave like the little white boys in the class, because his elementary school teacher punished brown and black boys more than other children in the classroom, was devastating for me.

But as a black parent, if you don’t take on this responsibility, this place will crush them. And I was not about to let that happen.

These are a few examples of what people of color deal with on a daily basis. This is what I mean by “death by a thousand cuts.”

It is persistent and pervasive. We learn how to manage it, sometimes how to channel it. And despite these atrocities, we manage to live with immense joy and creativity.

Sometimes, this is the most radical thing we can do.

If you’d like to share your story, email Editor Jeff D’Alessio at jdalessio@news-gazette.com.

Cynthia Oliver is a professor of dance and associate vice chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Illinois.