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As other players finished their tacos and dutifully presented their Academic Score Cards to the coaches, Wale Forrester got ready for a secret town hall meeting in Dwinelle. That night, he and a hundred other African-American students were to strategize for "The Blackout," a protest to be held the following Wednesday. The plan was to dress all in black, blacken their faces, and wander through classes at Cal passing out leaflets that provide the current admissions and graduation rates for African-American students.
The players filed out of the stadium, chatting about who they were planning to vote for the following day. Forrester climbed into his Lexus and glanced down at his cell phone. "Damn. Fifteen missed calls, seven messages," he griped. "That's a regular day for me." Then he drove two blocks down the street, parked in a structure on campus, and headed into Dwinelle Hall, where he gingerly placed his blue athletic bag beside a seat in the back of the room.
Forrester, who came to Cal on a football scholarship right after graduating from Venice High School in West Los Angeles, concedes that the dumb-jock stereotypes often prevent him from comfortably mingling in the general student population. "Since I'm black and wear sweats to class, people assume right away that I'm on the football team," he said. "I mean, I'm too short for basketball."
When Forrester first arrived at Cal, he had his hopes pinned on the Haas School of Business. But he decided to shift gears once he learned the department's stringent academic requirements. "I realized I was too far behind to compete with the other students, especially in math and science," he said. He described his initial experience as lonely and isolated -- aside from being the only black kid in class, he often had to run straight from practice to class in his warm-ups. Worse yet, the general black population on campus didn't exactly welcome football players with open arms. In his observation, "Athletes don't really support a lot of the black events, and a lot of the black people on campus feel that we kind of took the easy route, because we're here on scholarship. They don't realize we actually have to work for what we have -- they think we're conceited, and we think that they think they're too good for us, because we didn't get here on a 4.0.
"I'm that one kid in class whose skin is darker than everyone else's," he said. "And at some point they're gonna need to address that."
For precisely that reason, Forrester feels compelled to be involved in Berkeley's black activist community. He says the pressure to conform puts people like him in a bind. "They wouldn't like it if they saw me here," he mumbles. "I'm supposed to represent Cal football, but I can't be a sellout to my own race."
In 145 Dwinelle, students stood at the mic and delivered testimonials about how they got into Cal. Some of the stories were meant to pull heartstrings: People talked about mailing in their applications and praying every day until the letters of acceptance arrived. Originally billed as a town-hall-style meeting to mobilize black students around the issue of admissions, it became a night of shaggy-dog stories. The atmosphere alternately veered between that of Sunday morning church services and an episode of Oprah. Most testimonials followed the same template: A long tale of woe established the protagonist as someone who had proved his or her virtue by suffering, followed by a small triumph. Whether each story had a point was less important than the delivery -- many people elicited laughter by interspersing their personal dramas with slapstick, or stirring the crowd up by invoking an easily identifiable hero -- usually Martin Luther King or Jesus Christ.
One woman talked about being in a community college class where she was the only black person, and recalled that, when the class was assigned to do group projects, she couldn't find a group that wanted to let her in. "So I stood in the center of the room and said I'm forming my own group, because that's the kind of person I am," she snapped. "And guess what? We won an award from Hewlett-Packard, and every time the other students saw me walking around campus after that, they'd say 'Ooooh, you the girl who talked so much in class.'" A chorus of laughter rose in the room -- mostly because of the dismissive accent that she used to impersonate her immigrant classmates. "Yeah, she couldn't find a group, but it wasn't because she's black," hissed one wag in the back.
As the night wore on, Forrester looked increasingly annoyed. Finally, he stood up and bellowed: "Well, was anyone here for the 2001 Blackout protest? Was it effective?"
"Uh, that was before my time," said the moderator, "so maybe we could ask the brother Lamont to speak on that. Lamont?"
From the back of the room, Lamont raised his hand. "Well, what the 2001 protest did was provide a sense of cohesion for the black community at Cal." He twaddled on about the emotional rewards of the protest, but was unable to identify any material change.
"Well, do you think it was effective?" Forrester asked.
"Uh, it showed people outside the black community that we are here," Lamont replied.
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