As a high school senior, senioritis was a real outbreak among my peers, as it is for every class in high school when your collegiate pursuits have been realized and met with acceptance letters and scholarship money.
Long before I could take advantage of the “workplace” slump in Newspaper by dedicating the entire Entertainment section to all things Backstreet Boys (including a fantastic album review of Millenium with an accompanying review of their intimate concert video) in those lingering months of high school, I went to the movie theater with my friends to see a new film based on Florida’s hidden past in 1997 – Rosewood.
I hadn’t gotten acceptance to the University of Florida in Gainesville yet before I saw the film but I knew that it would be my college of choice as a junior. I had taken Honors and AP classes successfully, played Varsity Volleyball (badly), maintained a competitive GPA and was even a writer for the school’s newspaper – aligning me to receive Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship that would fund 75% of tuition/room and board for four years.
But all of that anticipated success wasn’t really set in stone.
After finishing the bombardment of standardized and college entrance exams, I was the happy-go-lucky teen enjoying the freedom of exploring the city of Miami by Metrorail after school with my clique of friends.
I also loved seeing my cultural rites of passage being reflected back at me in teen films like Clueless, Spice World, Wish Upon A Star, Susie Q, Romeo + Juliet, The Craft, Fear, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream and Scream 2, and Inventing the Abbotts.
But none of the films I watched and enjoyed before could have prepared me for my viewing of John Singleton’s intense dramatization of the 1923 racist lynch mob attack in an African American community in northern Florida.
I remember feeling very uncomfortable and uneasy in my seat at the theater.
The imagery of Sylvester’s pain when his mother was murdered in front of him haunted me.
The selfless bravery of Ving Rhames’ Mann character leading the women and children out of their town into the swamps for safety from the lynch mob filled me with pride I didn’t know I had to muster.
The clouded ingenuity of the white store owner John who helped Sylvester and Man get a train to take Rosewood survivors to Gainesville, played exquisitely by Jon Voight, challenged my concept of what a hero could look like in a crisis.
And then after the end credits rolled, I looked at my friends sitting next to me and saw them in the same carefree and lighthearted vibe they were in when they FIRST got in the theater.
That was when I knew that “something had changed within me” to borrow from Elphaba from Broadway’s Wicked protagonist.
Maybe it was the childhood innocence that was shattered where I previously was protected by in my vanilla and academically successful suburban life.
That had happened to me before when I was in middle school and I was called an “Oreo” by my classmates of color from black communities like Opa Locka, Miami Gardens and Overtown. And then again at 5 in ballet school, when I was called “Blacky” by a Latina classmate.
What emerged was a mixture of rage, frustration, empathy and a resounding self-awareness of my place in the African American experience.
I was accepted at a college that the Rosewood survivors were trying to reach for safety.
I would be traveling down I-95 through the area where Rosewood WAS and where people that looked like me were lynched by people that looked like most people I encounter daily.
There I felt a responsibility.
Rosewood was a town settled by emancipated slaves and thriving business owners of color after the Civil War who owned land, worked, lived and raised their families.
Teachers, doctors, lawyers, store owners, carpenters all lived and worked in Rosewood with college degrees or at a minimum a high school diploma.
Like Harlem in its Renaissance, Rosewood showed me that being a self-sustaining community was more than just a possibility – it was a reality that could be replicated anywhere.
So the responsibility I felt came from seeing all of that in one film.
Seeing my state ancestors do so much with so little and be cut down too soon over a lie broke my heart and then opened it up again.
I learned that my college acceptance was more than just a success in my family and even in my academic life of high school, it was “the hope and dream of the slave” to borrow from Dr. Maya Angelou.
I was legacy being fulfilled.
So I knew I couldn’t make light of this revelation as the millennial generation with roots from rural North Carolina.
The lives of the dead seemed to rise up to meet me with this message – Mary Mcleod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hamer, Lorraine Hansberry, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, A. Phillip Randolph, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes.
So I carried that with me to Gainesville where I took consciousness-raising classes like African American Literature, Black Women Writers, Feminist Literature, The Study of The Goddess and African Women Writers taught by Artist-in-Residence Ntozake Shange, award-winning playwright of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
But the transformative course I took in college was my very first class during my summer classes – Decadence Literature.
It was taught by a graduate student with a Masters (sound familiar) and the curriculum spanned two centuries from Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret and this little known Michael Stipe-produced project that was released in 1998.
It was The Velvet Goldmine starring the beautiful (really, just look at him) Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Toni Collette, and Ewan McGregor. My instructor explained that it was a tribute to the 70’s glam rock era in England that moved to the United States, honoring the legends of Ziggy Stardust and Iggy Pop.
Seeing this hidden time period on film for a college class was revolutionary to all that I knew about education at the time. I would WATCH a movie and WRITE a critique about it based on its literary and cultural background??
I would WATCH a movie and WRITE a critique about it based on its literary and cultural background??
Aren’t only FILM CRITICS the only ones who can do that??
But I wasn’t in Film Studies or in film school like the upperclassmen were on campus?
Like Julia Roberts’ character in Mona Lisa Smile, my instructor opened my mind to a whole new world of cultural discourse and malleable quality of teaching material.
Fast forward to now where I have gotten a Masters of Arts in English Education from Columbia University, taught Literature and Composition college classes for 10 years, taught Secondary Education in Miami-Dade County Public Schools for six years.