A private college in Boston was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Along with being criticized for its lack of racial diversity, one of its black faculty had filed a discrimination lawsuit, and another had complained to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. A third had quit. It was rumored that the president, under whose watch these troubles festered, was being forced to resign. And so when I saw their ad for a professor of creative writing, with a specific appeal for applicants of color, I could not believe my good fortune. The college, it seemed to me, like a flowering boll of cotton beneath the hot Georgia sun, was ripe for the picking.
A flowering boll of cotton would have been too much to ask for, but I could have used some hot Georgia sun. My complexion was its usual mid-New-England-winter pale, and I feared that competitors for the job with darker skin, even if only by a shade or two, would have a psychological edge with the search committee. I had first seen this sort of thing as a child; on basketball courts, as players were being divvied up teams, the darker your skin, the greater assumption that you were a baller. I was routinely chosen near the end, or left on the sidelines entirely, being that I am closer in hue to a banana than a plum. As I grew older I noticed that this assumption extended to other areas of life, such as the ability to dance, to fight, and to copulate with great skill and endurance; surely it had reached a private college in dire need of some Negroes.
Morally speaking, I am not a perfect person—who is?—so I considered getting a tan. There was a salon next door to the Starbucks I frequented and sometimes, before getting out of my car to grab a cappuccino, I would see ghostly Caucasians enter its doors and their dazzlingly bronzed counterparts exit. I imagined going inside and how the clerk, after initially being confused by my presence in the lobby, would open the cash register and dump its contents on the counter, right after pressing the silent alarm. But that could work in my favor; there are few things more balling than a black man’s false arrest. “Traffic into Boston was slow going,” I could tell the hiring committee, “but I’d rather be sitting on I-95 than in a jail cell, as I was last week.” If only life were that simple. Any gains to my balling quotient would be lost once I combined in a sentence the words “lobby” and “Tanorama.” The sad state of my complexion would have to remain.
My attire, however, was definitely in play, like O.J. Simpson’s had been during his trial for murder. I remembered how he would come to court wearing kente-cloth ties and earth-toned suits, which for O.J., who had long ago rejected all things related to black culture, were the equivalent of dashikis and boubous. I think he even occasionally wore a pin of Africa on his lapel. Just as I had begun to wonder if he would don a fez, it was rendered unnecessary by the testimony of Mark Furman. As it turned out, the college where I currently worked had its fair share of Mark Furmans; that, however, was not why I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave because private colleges pay considerably more than state colleges. If winning the job meant putting one or two of my Mark Furmans on the stand, I would not hesitate to do so.
The ad called for the standard fare: evidence of good teaching, experience working on committees, and a strong record of publication, including a book. Of these, the book was most important, and mine was forthcoming. It was a memoir about my experiences as a college student, husband, father, and academic, but it included many anecdotes from my teenage years in a ghetto, which meant I was golden. I simply had to play up the ghetto parts, as had the publisher, who adorned the cover with prostitutes, hoodlums, and a driverless Cadillac—its owner, presumably, bound and gagged in the trunk. Now I was grateful that my objections to these images were not heeded. I was grateful, too, that there had been no enthusiasm for my working title, The Mechanics of Being. “It’s a nod to my mentor James Alan McPherson,” I explained, “who urged black writers to move beyond complaining about racism to addressing the universality of the human condition.” “Too Zen,” the publisher replied. Zen, she noted, was the very opposite of African American. She changed the title to Street Shadows and planned to release the book in February to coincide with Black History Month, which, as fate would have it, coincided with the deadline for the job applications. All stars were aligning in my favor.
But first things first: I needed a strong cover letter. Academic positions can be won or lost in their opening paragraph, nay, with their very salutation, which is why I deleted “As-Salaam-Alaikum” as soon as I typed it, as it could be seen as pandering. “Dear Search Committee,” I wrote instead. “As an African American with experience teaching African American literature—including slave narratives, Native Son, and Toni Morrison—and whose memoir, Street Shadows, chronicles my experiences as a black teen in a Chicago ghetto, I believe I am particularly well-suited to meet your college’s needs.” I read it to my wife Brenda.
“Are you trying not to get the job?” she asked.
“Quite the contrary.”
“Then I suggest you stop pandering.”
I snorted. “This isn’t pandering. Pandering would be greeting the committee with, say, As-Salaam-Alaikum.”
“No one’s dumb enough to do that,” she said. “But you are pandering.”
“Actually,” I explained, “I’m balling.”
I told her about being picked last at hoops.
“Maybe you just weren’t any good.”
It was true that my crossover needed work, as well as my defensive skills and rebounding. I had a decent mid-range jump shot, though, given the right opponent, like Little Tommy Jones, or his baby sister. But I did not argue the point. The key to balling was improvisation, after all, having the agility to perform whatever act a specific moment required; for now the shrewder move might be merely to identify rather than emphasize my race. What I emphasized were my awards for teaching and service, my two terminal degrees, a comprehensive list of the intellectual and creative strengths I felt I could bring to the institution, and my publications and forthcoming book. I doubted the wisdom of this approach for the month it took the search committee to call. My interview was scheduled for March.
That gave me two months—more than enough time to buy the books of the creative writing faculty, though not enough time to read them. So I merely skimmed their contents and memorized the author bios. I memorized the author’s faces too, one of which came easily, a black female writer-in-residence. At first she struck fear into my heart, as it dawned on me that the search was a farce designed to promote her to the tenure track, but ultimately I decided she was one of the plaintiffs; there was just something about her coy smile that signaled she had the institution, if not the world, by the balls. It was, I’d bet, a practiced expression.
I practiced my expressions too, avoiding the coy one, so as not to tip my hand. And I shied away from ones that made me look overly friendly, like the Sambos in antebellum movies, or Bill Cosby before he had to switch to sad and confused. Which brought to mind another possibility; maybe I should not smile at all. I could scowl, in the manner of Kanye West, to show I meant business. There was a risk in that, though, since in the eyes of many the business of a scowling black man was assault or murder. The image I wanted to project was of a black man who was proud but not angry, kind but not buffoonish, streetwise yet cosmopolitan, someone who could gracefully diversify cocktail parties as the host’s only black friend. By the time the interview arrived, I had watched every YouTube interview of Will Smith I could find.
The interview was a daylong affair. First I met with the search committee, which consisted of two white males and thickly accented woman I identified as Latina, though I later learned she was Greek. There was a Latina in the department, however, as well as a Latino, both of whom attended my presentation, along with a dozen other faculty. Two more faculty interviewed me over lunch; another interviewed me during a campus tour. And then some students, the staff, the chair, and the dean interviewed me in quick succession. None of these interviewers was black, which I found both astonishing and fortuitous. They definitely had a race problem, and I believed I was making a strong case to help solve it. My answers to their questions were rock solid. I was witty and charming. I spoke compellingly about my work. And I responded with genuine enthusiasm whenever someone boasted of the college’s attributes, which were plentiful. It truly is a fine institution, so it must have been humiliating to have its reputation marred by the public airing of its racial discord, while most colleges and universities manage to keep theirs under wraps. No one I had spoken with broached this subject; however, nor had I.
But was that the best strategy? I had wondered about it constantly in the weeks leading up to the interview. Inquiring about their race problems could show I was candid and mature enough to discuss such a sensitive topic. On the other hand, it could come across as crass and tactless, maybe even accusatory. By the time I was led to the office of the Vice President for the final interview, I still was not sure what to do.
The first fifteen minutes were formal as she peppered me with questions, occasionally interjecting positive references to my résumé, or describing hypothetical courses I would be asked to develop. And then conversation turned informal, touching on current events, sports, and even fashion, as she noted her admiration of my kente-cloth tie. But as the interview wound to an end, her demeanor suddenly tensed. “We’ve had some problems with diversity,” she said, as she leaned back in her chair. “Perhaps you’ve heard?”
“Yes,” I replied. “As a matter of fact, I have.”
“I hope that hasn’t dampened your opinion of us. We’re not a bad institution,” she stressed. “We’re just experiencing some growing pains. Maybe your college is as well?”
She was seeking to establish a kinship, I knew, one based on the difficulties of navigating matters of race; that was my cue to call my Mark Fuhrmans to the stand. “These kinds of growing pains,” I said instead, “are hallmarks of the universality of the human condition, and all institutions, like all individuals, must undergo them as we improve as a society.” Her face softened into a smile, and I knew the job was won. How could it not be? I had just hit her with a sweet crossover, after all, one so deft that she never saw it coming.
Jerald Walker is the author of The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult and Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, recipient of the 2011 PEN New England Award for Nonfiction. He has published in magazines such as Creative Nonfiction, The Harvard Review, The MIssouri Review, River Teeth, Mother Jones, The Iowa Review, and The Oxford American, and he has been widely anthologized, including four times in The Best American Essays. His next book, Once More to the Ghetto and Other Essays, will be published in 2019. He teaches creative writing at Emerson College in Boston.
Balling has recently published in The Normal School's most recent print edition, Volume 11, Issue 2).