By Faydra Richardson
MDC Autry Fellow
I think a lot about the bookends of my college experience. I came into adulthood amid tragedy and chaos. In four short years, I have moved hundreds of miles from my home (twice) and experienced food insecurity; eviction and near homelessness; neo-fascism; international sexual assault and harassment, as well as the #MeToo Movement; horrific Black death; a global pandemic; and what looks like the beginning of a nationwide economic recession.
And that’s just the cute stuff I can put into writing.
I was 18 when I left for college. It was 2016. In the next few months, I would break my arm, an entire dorm would burn down at my school (leaving many students homeless and without cherished possessions), a huge sexual harassment case would be opened against three professors, and a few towns over, a black boy was “jokingly” faux-lynched.
And, oh yeah, Donald Trump was elected president.
Then, four years later, in March 2020, more catastrophe hit. There was this new word swirling around campus: coronavirus. Some people were scared; some thought it was made up. I had no idea what everyone was talking about.
There had been rumors about this “coronavirus.” Because of “coronavirus,” the college might decide to postpone spring term. They might extend spring break. I hoarded food from the dining halls because we didn’t know if the college was still going to pay for our meals over spring break. I didn’t want me or any of my friends to starve. Turns out, I wouldn’t get to eat most of that food.
We were kicked off campus by the end of the month.
At first, we were told we’d be in remote learning for only the first five weeks of class. By the end of the week, the administration told us that, not only were we not going to have in-person classes, we were to leave campus immediately. We were in the middle of spring break when the news was announced. We had no way of knowing that we had already said goodbye to some of our friends and classmates forever. The campus was silent—in a state of shock. I don’t remember it ever being that quiet, except for the day after the 2016 presidential election. It was scary and somber.
We didn’t all have homes to retreat to. Some of us had elderly family we couldn’t risk infecting; others couldn’t leave the country and be guaranteed return. Many of us didn’t have safe home lives we could happily or easily return to. College had been our escape. We were being kicked out of our safe haven. I remember looking around, realizing we were barely in our twenties, and life was falling apart.
We petitioned for days on end, day and night, to stay. We were told to fill out forms, to send emails, to call numbers, to tell our stories tirelessly so that we could have a place to sleep, and for continued scholarships so we could eat every day. Most of us were still forced to leave. After deciding to go home to Florida, I got the coveted email from a college administrator permitting me to stay on campus. I was the only one of my friends to be given this stay of execution. I was also one of the only ones who didn’t need it. But the school had decided that I was healthy enough to stay, poor enough to continue to house and feed, and just worthy enough that they wouldn’t call campus police to forcibly remove me. I didn’t stay. My parents wanted me home and the idea of being on campus without interacting with a single soul did not appeal to me.
In the days leading to my departure, I watched friend after friend leave campus, forever, and I knew that for many of them, it was the last time I would see them. A lot of people cried on my shoulders those two weeks. (I cried alone. In my room.) We had parties. Lots of them. In one week, we celebrated the milestones that we had naively believed we’d get to experience during our final term as college students. We celebrated Green Key, the school’s annual music festival, by bringing an inflatable pool into the basement and having a pool party. We did many, many shots of alcohol in those weeks. More than I can count. Every night was a new farewell party, and every morning we would get up and escort the departing friend to the bus. We were a mournful little group, clad in pajama bottoms and the smell of yesterday’s booze. Each day the group got smaller. I was one of the last four. My friends Alex, Iliana, and Lainy helped carry my luggage. They all remained on campus after I left. After petitioning for days, they were finally allowed to stay.
I finished my last quarter of college in my house in Tallahassee, Fla. I watched a global pandemic break out from the comfort of my rickety, half-collapsed childhood bed. I want to describe the feeling of being yanked out of college, back in a home I thought I’d never live in—at least long term—again, taking my final three college courses over Zoom, wondering if I’d pass them and actually graduate, fighting with my siblings, preparing to move to another state for a job I accepted weeks before the entire world fell apart, worrying if the hiring freeze that was scaring all my friends would reach me and I’d be fired before I even began.
I want to describe what it was like thinking about what I’d do if the borders closed between states and I wasn’t allowed to physically leave, learning how to buy my first car without coming within six feet of the car salesman, debating whether I should visit my 92-year-old grandmother while we still lived in the same state or if I, fresh from New Hampshire, should avoid her for her own safety. I want to tell people about taking graduation photos in a park with my cousin and sister in a mask, wondering how I was finally going to date in a new city and a freaking pandemic if I couldn’t even go out to restaurants when I moved, etc. etc. etc.
I cannot describe it.
I have tried.
Instead, let me step back and set the scene a little more.
On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery died. He was shot while jogging. I was still on my college campus.
Breonna Taylor was murdered on March 13th. It was the day after I was formally kicked out of my dorm.
George Floyd, May 25th. I still hadn’t graduated at that point. I don’t even think I was in finals period.
I am a Black Studies Major. And a Black woman. The perfume of Black death is a stench I know well. Trayvon Martin was dead before I even left high school. So were Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Mya Hall, Rekia Boyd, Aiyanna Jones, and Emmett Till. Philando Castille was killed while I was still in college. Jacob Blake was shot before I finished my first three months at my new job. (Go ahead, ask me how many of the killers were convicted.) Like I said, I am very, very used to Black death. And yet, it is a bruise that still aches, a sore that continually oozes and spits pus.
I thought I could write about that bruise here. I was wrong.
I don’t know any words for genocide. I don’t know how to paint the picture well enough to conceitedly tell my story of being a woman and Black and 22 and in a pandemic and in a race war and in an economic slump and in the days before the earth kills or ejects us all. I do not have any more words for that.
All I can say is that I am scared. I am tired. I am so hotly angry and screwed up. I am trying to fit a lifetime of experiences into months, just in case we run out of time. Just in case I’m too Black to live. I’m even thinking about skydiving for my birthday in December. It’s funny; now that the world is ending, I am feeling fearless. I think, if we survive this apocalypse, psychologists are going to study people my age and talk about this generation’s psychoses like they talk about the Lost Generation after World War I.
I am writing this because some of my coworkers were interested in a “young” person’s perspective of the times we’re all living in. In several meetings, I have described this as “the apocalypse.” The old heads laugh and are intrigued and worry that the “new” generation is imbibed with a sense of pessimism that, not only is completely unearned, but that is fundamentally naïve. Because human history has been awful before. In fact, it will probably be much, much more awful in the future.
But what they don’t understand is that I don’t just call this the apocalypse because it is a terrible and horrific time, and because I am scared, and I am tired, and everything feels hopeless and dark. I call this the apocalypse because this better be the big bad evil of not only my lifetime, but of many, many lifetimes. In the movies, the apocalypse is the absolute worst that can happen. And, after that, either we all die, or it gets better. Well, I’m not going to lie and say that I believe it will all get better. Frankly, I don’t think we deserve for it to get better. What I will say is that this better be a spectacularly bad time. For everyone. So bad, in fact, that we all declare this to be the end of the world. Because, if all this misery, all this death, is just a year of sadness, an incredibly small blip in humanity’s cosmic … whatever… if we minimize and collectively decide that this stuff is just routine, human history…
I cannot. I truly cannot.
Faydra Richardson is MDC’s 2020-2021 Autry Fellow. She was born and raised in Tallahassee, Fla., and graduated from Dartmouth College with her Bachelor of Arts degree in 2020, where she majored in African and African American Studies (AAAS) and studied conceptions of race in the United States and while abroad in France.