By Guest Essayist
“I will be created in the best of your image and you will be created in the best of mine. Joy in the quest.” –Dr. Cornel West
When we arrived the line was long, an energized crowd. Even the bitter cold and wind could not dissuade the eager fans, for we knew that standing in the long line would guarantee us the opportunity to hear one of the great philosophers and political commentators of our time. We had to scurry to the back of the line but once we finally took our spot the night air didn’t seem so cold. Strangers huddled together chattering away. A young man behind me talked to his friend about an up-and-coming trip he was taking across the country. This immediately sparked my interest and I took the opportunity to share some of my favorite stops. A new friendship sparked by our combined love of exploring our planet and meeting others from all walks of life. Our conversation took my mind off the long wait so before I knew it the line was moving forward and suddenly we were inside the auditorium with a crowd of others waiting to see Dr. Cornel West.
The event took place on February 11th, 2016 at the John Greene Hall at Smith College in Northampton, MA. The auditorium seats a little over two thousand people and that evening’s event was certain to be a sell-out. Jenny sat in the final row and I right behind her in a free-standing chair. Wiley (my 18-year-old daughter) ran off to sit with friends. I did what I often do when I first arrive in a room full of people or in this case a room quickly filling up with people, I cased the joint! I watched people as they moved about the room, sometimes noticing a familiar face or two. I told myself stories about some of the characters who presented themselves, I imagined their lives. Then there were those persons who didn’t just show up but, rather, they arrived! There was a presence when they entered the room, the energy shifted a little and I was drawn to them like a magnet to steel.
One such character became part of the gravitational pull and found himself sitting right next to Jenny. In the beginning I was too busy observing the crowd to notice. I mean the energy was everywhere so it does not surprise me that he slipped in and sat down before I noticed. As a matter-of-fact, to be completely honest, I didn’t even notice him until I realized that Jenny, who was sitting so near to me, was already far away in deep conversation (which, as you can see, is a common habit between the two of us, we are always picking up new friends along the way).
He sparkled in a room that was already filled with electricity. Initially, I could not hear his words but his hand gestures, facial expressions and over all body movement drew me in from afar. He was with friends who he had left behind to engage with Jenny, though they sat right next to him. He called himself Christopher and he was ecstatic to tell his story (so much so that I wondered if he had ever felt heard before). Beside him sat Jenny, eager to hear every word and in Sassy fashion “take him deeper.”
Christopher is in graduate school and has spent time in South Africa on a study abroad program, working on behalf of human rights for trans-gendered people. He is probably in his late 20s, black and (by his own declaration) gay. When he spoke it was more than words he expressed. There seemed to be an urgency about him, a need to spill out all of what he was feeling and desperately trying to understand. He was raw in the experience of not knowing where he belonged. He didn’t particularly believe in labels or fitting into a box, but by not “fitting in” it seemed that he was a far distance away from opportunities to enrich his life experience by being with others who in one way or another shared his commitment to freedom and equity. He explained his isolation from others like this:
As a gay black man if I was to break down in my car on the side of one of these Western MA country roads I better have a cell phone because nobody is going to stop to help me. Just imagine a car drives by and it is occupied with white folks. The driver doesn’t even think about pulling over to help me. They just keep on going, perhaps wondering, “Why is that black guy out here? He looks like he’s up to no good.” Then the second car drives by, all its riders are black, they may pull over and ask if I need help but the moment they realize I’m gay they’re outta there saying something to the tune of, “That just ain’t right.” The third car drives by and this time there is a white lesbian couple in the car. They think: “Is that big black man safe for us to help?” Now people might not come right out and say it but believe me they are thinking it. And me, I’m still standing on the side of the road with a dead car. I’m still waiting for the fourth car to show up, the car with the person who will stop and help me. Who is driving that fourth car? This is what I need to know.
I have spent the better part of the last 6 weeks thinking about Christopher and his quest to find the driver of that fourth car. I have asked myself to be honest, really honest with myself when I ask, am I that driver?
Despite our differences, we came together to listen to Dr. West speak. During his speech he asked the crowd, “What kind of human being are you going to be?” In my fifty years of life there may not be a better time to ask myself this question, nor to ask others to reflect on it as well.
In other words, or perhaps how Christopher would put it:
What does it take for you to be that fourth driver?
Libby Hinze is a Master’s student in Social Work at Smith College in Northampton, M.A. Born and raised in Portland, OR., she has has her B.A. in Human Studies from Marylhurst University and is a certified gerontologist. Currently she is doing her second year internship at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, MA. in the Inpatient Palliative Care and Geriatric Department. She is the single mother of two fabulous young women and the auntie and great-auntie to many more. Her goal after graduation is to return to Oregon and host a gathering where her street is lined right down the middle with a long table where there is room for all to gather and enough food for all.