The Importance of Being (John) Ernest

Prof. John Ernest with me and Kristin at our college graduation

Prof. John Ernest with me and Kristin at our college graduation

I went to college with a mission: I wanted to learn more about Being Black. Problem was, $10,000 of my scholarship money for New York University had fallen through on the day of my high school graduation. I wouldn’t be attending school in the diverse Mecca-lekka-hiney-bro Melting Pot known as NYC.

Nope. The University of New Hampshire would be hosting my education in Being Black. It was as unlikely a place as one could find for increasing cultural awareness. There were 78 Black students out of 13,000. If you were counting me, there were only 77.5 Black students. We do what we can with what we have, though, and what I had was a course catalogue listing a 500-level course for Introduction to African-American Literature.

Any time I’ve ever wanted to understand anything, I’ve turned to books. From cooking to interior design to tarot card reading, if there was anything I’ve wanted to understand, I just buried myself in every chapter and verse I could get my hands on. I thought if I could read about other Black people, their history, what they had been through . . . maybe I would understand a little bit more about myself.

The first day of class was a Tuesday during my sophomore year. The classroom was small. The desks were set up in a circle. I was excited. I was finally brave enough to publicly acknowledge that I hadn’t the foggiest idea what I was doing telling people I was half Black.

The truth was, I was 100 percent White. My parents broke up when I was six and I haven’t seen my father since. I was raised by a bunch of rowdy Italians and it literally took me years to figure out what to do with my hair. When I was growing up in Florida, the Black kids put me down because I didn’t talk Black or dress Black. The White kids didn’t know what the fuck I was. When they asked me, I answered to the best of my ability. I told them, “I’m tan.” Duh.

As I sat at my desk in Hamilton-Smith Hall in September 1998, I was still wondering what I was and if I needed to be anything different. I just wanted to understand what all the fuss was about. I was earnest to begin some sort of inner transformation.

Therefore, it was a little disconcerting to discover that my mentor in Blackness was to be a lanky white gentleman with balding hair and black-rimmed glasses. I was expecting something different. Maybe a member of the Black Panthers. Panther Power! Or something.

It turned out that John Ernest was something different.

The first thing he asked the class to do was make a list of our five favorite CDs and to tell the class why we enjoyed the music we did. Secondly, he was a Scorpio. I don’t care what the fuck you think about astrology – I dare you to find me a Scorpio who doesnt have an affinity for Black culture. It’s like all Scorpios are Black on the inside and they’re looking for a connection with an old cotton picker’s soul or something.

But here’s what Prof. Ernest did: he broke me open and then made me more whole. I had experienced two sexual assaults and my first relationship right before I became his student. He didn’t know that at first, but he allowed me to connect my own struggles with what I was learning through him and develop a more organic understanding of the word “plight.”

I dated a Black classmate I met in Prof. Ernest’s class. If anything revealed how little I knew about Being Black, it was dating Big Al. It was the first time I felt like I was having an interracial relationship. His CD collection went beyond my familiarity with Biggie, Jay-Z and the rest of the Puff Daddy family. His enormous lips enveloped mine when we kissed, and he made fun of my ass-less ass. (It’s sad, really. I’ve always wanted a Bonita Apple Bum.) While Al played the gentleman, he did get a little annoyed when I told him if he was going to act like a typical Black guy and refuse to go down on me, I was going to act like a Black girl and refuse to go down on him (which kind of sucked – no pun intended – because we weren’t sleeping together, either).

I read W.E.B DuBois, Langston Hughes and “Celia; A Slave.” I went on to take a more advanced African-American Lit. class with Prof. Ernest and that class led to an independent study with him and my close friend, Kristin. (She’s another Scorpio, by the way. She minored in Black people.) I wish I could find the paper I wrote on Toni Morrison’s”Beloved.” I just remember crying from exhaustion when I was done with it.

At the end of it all, Prof. Ernest became a friend. He and I talked about my confusion over my racial identity, about relationships, about poetry, about our relatives with mental illness. He was the sort of professor who looked beyond students’ day-to-day problems like juggling two times the course load I should have taken and the general laziness that set in after too many nights partying.

Funny that it took a lanky white guy in a staff office the size of a toaster oven and covered with pictures of jackalopes to teach me how to be Black. If Being Black for me means I’m just Emily with a killer tan and a small ass, so be it.

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