A Kid Grows up with Dinner Parties

By Jared Bowser

unnamedLights out! Another power outage in Haiti. A voice pierces the sweltering air in the dark room.

“Damn! It’s been two years. Rebuild, you broke black bastards!”

The words shot out of Hector’s mouth like the smoke from a bullet. There were five guys in the hotel room at the time. The others chuckled while I was in shock. I had met them all, including Hector, a Dominican peer, months ago while training for our one-month cultural immersion adventure to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. We had experienced power outages in the Dominican Republic, but no one had complained in an offensive way.

Beyond my shock, I did not get angry or emotional. Instead, a puzzling question ran through my mind: What leads people to such casual, racially offensive behavior? The question took me back to the discourse of the dinner parties that shaped my youth.

I am 11, shivering and waiting to see who would answer the door. Mom rings the doorbell at Aunt Jeanne’s brownstone. Aunt Sydney answers this timea tall black woman with long dreads down to her back. We enter to  warm hugs and kisses and follow the smell of collard greens to the dinner table.

My Aunt Jeanne has been hosting monthly dinners in her home since I was born. She loves to cook for people, and her dinner guests love to talk politics. I am often, by far, the youngest there. From Iraq to Obama, I am  invited to join the conversation with questions. The table always seems impressed by my answers or are good enough actors to make me feel comfortable with my opinions. They acknowledge  my views. Soon after their infatuation with the youngster fades, I humbly return to the conversation as an equal. The table teaches me to question from a place of thoughtfulness rather than resort to emotional anger.  

Having been adopted by a single woman, I grew up around my mom’s friends, women in their forties and fifties who would eagerly discuss President Obama, the War in Iraq or the recession. In middle school, my inquisitiveness and connection to adults translated into a fondness for teachers and for knowledge. I spent free time discussing current events and becoming a teacher’s pet.

My trip to Haiti the summer after my freshman year was the turning point. Days after Hector’s  comment, I thought about my silence in the hotel room and failure to go beyond the analysis of my mind to respond with action. Why was it easy for me to analyze why he would make such a comment, but so difficult to discuss race with a peer? I certainly would have been comfortable discussing the comment with an adult,  whether it be  a teacher or someone at Aunt Jeanne’s table.

When I returned to school, I  pushed myself to connect with  my generation and encouraged discussion of current events with peers. The big opportunity came during a casual conversation  in the quad about the civil rights movement after a class discussion during Black History Month. A white friend called the Black Panthers “the black Ku Klux Klan.” I explained that the Panthers  weren’t a terrorist group and in fact  provided sustenance for thousands through their breakfast programs, created safe places to convene after school, led non-lethal self-defense training, and acted as a deterrent to the type of police brutality we now only see because of the ubiquitous presence of cameras today.

“Wow, I didn’t know that.”

My classmates had absorbed what they read  from President Nixon’s descriptions of the Panthers in skewed history textbooks – a falsified revisionist history. I was happy to be the wipers to their windshields.  By the end of the year, I made more friends  with diverse  perspectives who enjoyed discussing  current events as much as the adults at Aunt Jeanne’s dinners.

Jared Bowser, a 2016 graduate of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, is a freshman at Bard College.