It is 3:00 a.m. on a Saturday in Providence, RI. Dusk has fallen over College Hill—a neighborhood with very low crime rates compared to the rest of Providence. By now, the chatter of students, usually erupting like a volcano, has died down. Brown students march up and down Thayer Street on weekends as if in a procession of some grand, luxurious parade. Whether walking from party to party, from a dorm to a dining hall, or to a library, this place has a beating heart–often described as a “bubble” enclosed from other parts of Providence. But who does this heart beat for?
On a night when everything seemed normal, as the quiet rumble of the parade persisted, two brothers, Allen and Alex Dufort, were snapped out of their utopian state of mind. As roommates, the two siblings frequently spend their late nights engaged in conversation about school, family, and life. The Haitian flag hangs outside of their window, a symbol of their pride for their country and Black identity. Suddenly, the flag began to rustle. “It must be the wind,” Alex told his brother. But when the rustling continued more fervently, they got up to inspect how strong a gust of wind could actually be. When Allen strode to the window, a white man in his 30s was perched outside of their second-story window, tugging on their Haitian flag and trying to tear it down. “Let go of our flag!” The brothers screamed, disgusted and appalled by what was happening on their campus, in their bubble. “Get out of here!” the man yelled back, along with various vulgarities. Eventually, he dropped down from the second-story window and left. The brothers retrieved the flag and made sure it was still intact. They felt “angry” and hurt that someone would try to do this to them but did not once feel ashamed about their culture.
Black students at Brown must confront the dichotomy of fighting for Blackness within the Brown community and outside in Providence. “One thing I was not … is surprised,” said Allen Dufort. “There are so many little moments inside of Brown that make big moments like the flag less surprising.” Microaggressions impact the experience of Black students on campus. He referenced seeing white people get into parties while he waited outside. At Brown, admittance into parties is often based on who you know inside, and the people, according to Allen and Alex, never take the time to get to know people like them. But the Black community at Brown has always shown up for each other.
Black Brown students in the Third World Coalition, which is led by Black female students, protested the university in 1992 by occupying University Hall in an attempt to get more Black faculty and students on campus. Because of their fearless efforts, we now have greater Black representation on campus. We still need more. But what is Brown doing to ensure the safety of those students? Brown must create a safe haven for Black students not only inside the walls of the university with policies and programs but a haven from the outer Providence community that taunts Black youth at Brown.
In April, I left my dorm for dinner at a dining hall when a car full of white Providence residents drove past me and yelled, “Stay in a slave’s place. Get out of here!” My world came crashing down and I no longer felt like I lived in a utopia. Yes, College Hill may have a lower crime rate than other parts of the city, but when being Black is criminalized and the punishment is enforced by members of the Providence community in the forms of intimidation, verbal abuse, etc, the neighborhood is not safe for all Brown students.
During my freshman year alone, there were other reports of Black students getting harassed by Providence community members. But these events are never prioritized or brought to light. I am proof of this.
Get out of here. Black students and residents of Providence have had this phrase hurled at them by Brown students and white Providence community members alike from the beginning of Blackness at Brown. Black people arrived in 1765 as captured people, and graduated for the first time from the university in 1877. But Black students are still here–we have been surviving and learning from the establishment of the university. We still learn how to survive–Allen and Alex are proof of that. It takes a village.
Alex and Allen rose above this incident with the support of their community at Brown. Alex and Allen are members of the Harambee community, the program housing on campus for Black students. Harambee housing, where I also live, is a warm and vibrant community of Black students on campus. Sometimes seeing other Black people after being out all day can feel warm and comforting, like a hug. To see that there are others, moving through their days, that share similar experiences, makes a college feel like a home. That home is not going anywhere. Neither is their Haitian flag.
“I secured my flag. I have to keep living life. This is my flag. This is who we are,” the brothers said.
This is not a story about a flag. No, this is not a story about a man, stoic and fearless, who climbed to the second-story window of a dorm to rip down a flag that he absolutely could not bear to see any longer. This is not a story about a man who spat through his teeth at two brothers who exist in a place that was never meant for them. This is a story about a flag that never came down; a life for Black students that continues against the odds, against the impossible; against history and hundreds of years of “get out of here” and “stay in your place.” This is about refusing to leave and making a place for yourself. Black students already have a place. It is’s here.
Alex and Allen both encourage Black students who experience events like this to speak up and seek out help from their community. “The community made me feel so much better … I knew I wasn’t alone,” Alex said. This city has a beating heart. But so do Black students on campus. Our hearts are valuable. These are the stories that Brown needs to tell. And Brown has a responsibility to protect our voices while we tell them. The stories of the resilient siblings; the taking over of buildings; the seizing of the heart of the university. Let’s make it beat for all of us.