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Essay of the Week: A Home Beyond Labels

Essay of the Week: A Home Beyond Labels

By Danielle Black

“You’re a token black friend too.”

My chuckle cannot kill the awkwardness after Chris shocks me with that comment. Who expects to hear something like that at a multicultural forum for private school students? His remark is a small recognition of something that makes us ostensibly similar –both of us black students at predominantly white independent schools; both of us having friends of different races. Yet his words irk me. Or more specifically, the word “token” bothers me long after the occurrence at that snack bar.

Labels have never been my friend; neither have people who conform to them. Enter my room. I am bobbing my head to the beats of “HiiiPower”- a Kendrick Lamar song with lyrics that expose truths more provocative than the repetitive lines of Top 40 hits. In this song Lamar narrates his experiences  as a black male growing up in Compton during the 1990s, the pinnacle of modern hip-hop culture. The three “i”s in the song title stand for heart, honor, and respect. I was so eager to share my new discovery that my fingers were flying across my phone screen, “Guys, Kendrick Lamar’s latest album is amazing.” No responses? Maybe everyone was just busy. The next day my friends, all white, ostracized me for being “fake” for supporting something that was not commonplace for our social group.

It was more than a ‘Mean Girl’ experience. In hindsight, the group’s dismissal was a moment of personal liberation. If I had agreed with my friends about Lamar, I would have succumbed to Chris’ assumption of the “token black friend.” Admittedly, I was confined by the fear that my white friends would pigeonhole me through racial stereotypes if I embraced a lifestyle, yet unfamiliar to us, so akin to my African-American culture. Perhaps Lamar was my breaking point.

I have been a girl of many neighborhoods which I’ve grown to see mirror my versatility. I lived in downtown New York until my parents divorced in eighth grade when I moved to the Upper East Side with my Mom, further entrenched in a predominantly white neighborhood close to my school. The move catalyzed my hunger to explore beyond my zip code. Then last year, Dad cheered “Strivers Row!” referring to his new neighborhood of homes once owned by famous names of the Harlem Renaissance. Living in Harlem crystallized my ability to see that I could be valued without being one textbook definition of race and place.

During my first summer as a Harlemite, I walked down the steps of the Brownstone eager to explore my weekend neighborhood. I scanned the people outside on lawn chairs, turned the corner onto 145th street, and stumbled upon a table of CDs for sale. I recognized artists my parents played when I was younger like Earth, Wind & Fire, The Temptations, Fugees, and Prince, all artists whose lyrics I could sing on command.

The air grew hot and sticky with the bustle of people flowing down the sidewalk. A vestige of a past time came to mind: a bumbling crowd entering and exiting my Upper East Side train stop. As the sun started to set into a Harlem night, the faces around me lit up in return. There was something spellbinding about this moment, variables that were lacking in my other neighborhoods, yet elements so familiar. People of all races and cultures bringing life to Harlem. An organic similarity pulled me into the sea of people, inciting a connection I had never recognized.

Like Harlem, I am an amalgam of experiences and cannot be reduced to a label. I did not expect to walk into such a recognition when I left home that day.  Similar to the fluidity of my homes, I orbit beyond the limited contours of labels. I belong in each place but neither define me — street numbers nor music tastes — and I am certainly not a token.


Danielle Black, a graduate of The Dalton School, will be a freshman at Dartmouth in the fall.

The Unlikely Poet

The Unlikely Poet

By Holden Harris

unnamedIf someone ever told me I would become a poet, I would have laughed at that improbable suggestion. However my strict path to create machines and robots detoured a bit when I attended the LEAD Computer Science summer program. My teacher saw something in me I hadn’t recognized. Her head tilted and she raised her eyebrows at the sight of my coding in a programing assignment.

“Is there something wrong?” I asked


“Why do you have that look on your face?”

“I’m trying to understand…”

“Is it too complicated? Did I leave out any detail?”

“Calm down. Nothing is wrong with your code. You went about this differently than everyone else. Yours is actually shorter.”

“So did I do the programming wrong?”

“No, I just never thought of writing it this way. This is really good. Good job.”

She not only saw my code; she saw me–that unique me. I so often reflected my creative side through technology. However a moment came when I couldn’t recognize myself in the mirror. The stresses of junior year burdened me–falling in love with the wrong person, and later, dating someone I didn’t like. I couldn’t see the difference between true and fake friends. On weekends, I isolated myself in my room, avoiding the outside world. Then I found something that re-sparked my energetic self: poetry.

Buddy Wakefield changed my perception of poetry. I watched a video of his performance in a literature class. Wakefield’s poetry inspired me. I wanted to start writing. I felt thrusted into his moment. I felt the weight of his arms, his voice vibrated in my throat, and his smile made my lips crack. I was in his shoes. He inspired me to write.

My journal became my portable memory bank. I stopped carrying my anxieties and put them on paper. I found hope, writing every day. A friend invited me to join the  “Independent Writers Coalition,” a group of kids at school sharing written work. This scared me. Was I even an “independent writer?” I had only been writing for a week. But ultimately, I reasoned that going couldn’t hurt.

In my first session, we read poems and discussed them. It’s astonishing how an activity so simple can be so revealing. I explored my own mind through this process. From that point, my dedication to the club was permanent.

The club’s advisor approached me about a poetry reading. This literally, not figuratively, made my heart stop for a couple seconds. The encouragement of club members gave me the courage to face my fears. I accepted the offer.

On the big day– rocks in my stomach, pain in my heart, and sweat down my back; the seconds ticked, poets read, and it was finally my turn. The walk to the podium was endless; my knees shook so much I sat down before reading. I took a final breath and began:

As you’re walking on the muddy road carrying the weight of your emotions, personal objects, and relationships, you begin to sink into the mud. You’re carrying too much. There is a choice to be made. Drop some objects or be consumed, suffocating in its deathly thickness. Some Things weigh more than others and are harder to let go. In order to escape the dark, cold, unwelcoming, things need to be dropped, even if they are close to your heart. Drop it and you will rise again, withering the pain, but be prepared to do it again when the time comes.

I had feared people would judge me, hate me, and reject me. At this moment, the crowd accepted me for who I was. I smiled hard and long, making my face muscles burn with pain. So this is how it feels to be an “independent writer.” Now I am on the path for a future in technology and poetry. Miss Miller, my technology teacher, was definitely onto something.

Holden Harris, a 2016 graduate of Grace Church School, is a freshman at Dartmouth.

Singing in the Snow: Storms Produce Strength

by Margarita Ren


Titanium poles and I stand on a deserted Manhattan street corner. My parents, neighbors, even taxi-drivers, are inside, freezing despite roaring generators, as they wait for the blizzard to pass. Outside, I am wet, quivering as winds whip through triple-layered socks. I’ve forgotten circulation. The sixteen-inch snow, illuminated by street-lamp glow, forges an aurulent midnight sky. Here, I am at my warmest. Though quivering in the cold, my senses are forced open to the vibrancy around me. I am galvanized and secured by the adrenaline of the unique discovery: in vulnerability lies strength.

I find similar comfort in my volunteer work in Mount Sinai’s in-patient Recreational Therapy, for the hospital is a constant storm. I’m struck with the building’s vibrato in the white walls and constantly-moving wheelchairs and stretchers. The doctors stride through collected, inspired, but the patients only wait for everything to pass.

One of them is Jamie. When we first met, she was applying fuchsia lipgloss through tired eyes. A loud pink teddy-bear sat on her windowsill exhibiting her successful entrepreneurship while the hospital’s Billboard Top Ten playlist cycled carelessly in the background.

“Last Friday Night” plays as I wheel Jamie into her room.

“Should I call your nurse?”

“I can get into bed myself.” She tries to push herself up, but falls back into the seat, crying.

“Let me find help.”

“You know, I don’t have it that bad,” she mutters. “There’s metal in my legs from the crash–just–God, this place!”

She looks up. In her amber eyes, I see despondency, not fatigue. Noticing the pink teddy-bear, a symbol of her previous life as a prosperous businesswoman, perceiving the thoughtless lyrics around us, I blurt out, “We’re having a concert; you should come.”

 “Music is the universal language,” Chris Shepard, the conductor of the Dessoff Choirs, once reminded us during rehearsal.

I remember the first time I sang solo in public: open auditions for The Voice. Despite waiting six hours for this one decision, I realized that the strength in my voice couldn’t be measured by a baggy-eyed executive’s judgement. I sang, quivering in pride, not fear. Before leaving, a seasoned auditioner stopped me, expressing admiration for my courage and potential. She listened, my music resonating with her in the same way.

Jamie, however, is not listening, because Billboard beats just aren’t her music; she cannot “dance on tabletops,” as such songs say. The hospital shouldn’t be alienating but allow for vulnerability, creating new paths to undiscovered strength. I keep that in mind while organizing the concert for patients.

The day of the performance, Jamie smiles, eyes still unfocused, shoulders draped in a crimson shawl.

I begin with the piano. I can’t stand to fly; I’m not that naive. She blinks.

I sing to Jamie, finding her voice in my notes, “Find a way to lie about a home I’ll never see.” She stares at me, eyes unclouded now. Lyrics in forte place the metal pole that crashed down and her metal femurs before her eyes. Her fuchsia lips quiver in acknowledgement: despite her display of colors, she cannot avoid her physical state.“Even heroes have the right to bleed…”

An hour later, we arrive at the last song.

“They shoot me down, but I won’t fall.”

While singing, I’m reminded of the warmth in discovery; these hospital rooms can swell like frosty street-lamp-lit skies. Being vulnerable allows me to discover this unique perception in my environment. My voice is explicit, unwavering: “I’m bullet-proof, nothing to lose.” Jamie’s vulnerability shows her this strength that is not restricted by physicality. I see Jamie place her hands firmly on the wheelchair armrests. “I am titanium.” She straightens slowly, respiring deeply. “I am titanium.”

“Going back up?”

“Actually, I’ll stick around. Someone’s starting Monopoly, and moping around alone is getting boring,” she laughs.

Walking out the hospital afterwards, I am smiling, hood down, head uncovered to raw, glorious February air.

Margarita Ren, a 2014 graduate of Hunter College High School, will be a freshman at Dartmouth in the fall.