Issue #19 |

Why I Will Not be Asked to Deliver Remarks at Next Year’s Martin Luther King Day Prayer Breakfast

Thank you, Dr. Payne-Walker, both for the kind introduction and the invitation to speak at this distinguished annual ceremony. Thank you also for directions to the chapel. Any spiritual interests disappeared long before I arrived on campus eleven years ago. And, yes, I knew about the other prayer breakfasts held here, as well as the minority student receptions and award dinners, beauty pageants, step shows, and alumni reunions, but the personalized invitations ended after I received tenure and endured from Dr. Payne-Walker’s predecessor a final tirade about my obligation to mentor as many first-generation black males as possible because my safe, suburban and stable upbringing had been so remarkably privileged. “Most don’t even know their father, and yours was a banker” were the last words I heard from Dr. Raheem A. Little before he departed for the private sector. I only wish that gentleman were here to see me now.

Knowing he would have left a stinging assessment of me in the files at the Office of Diversity and International Student Success, frankly, I remain flabbergasted by the invitation to speak today. While I’m sure the three-year hiring freeze has left me as the solitary black employee on campus who has not stood behind this lectern and inspired in the name of MLK, again, Dr. Payne-Walker, I still say thank you.

That said, I think it wise to share with you, my audience, that I believe the high bar surely set by my predecessors might be well out of my reach. As my tablemates can attest, I did not even pretend to know the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” A professor of postcolonial literature, fascinated by such figures as Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri, and Buchie Amacheda, I am unknown to the community leaders, local politicians and state legislators gathered here, along with the junior staffers of our Congressional delegation assembled. In fact, few in this room are as apolitical as I; I only voted for Obama in 2012. Though black fraternities were well represented at my undergraduate institution—indeed Alpha to Omega—none saw me pledge, much to my Kappa father’s disappointment. The church leaders here know neither my name nor my face, despite the offers I have received to enter the countless houses of worship in our town of twenty thousand. Even your Word Aflame Holy Tabernacle, Pastor Weems. Many times. No barber at Sims’s Men’s Styles or Nubreed Kutz knows my needs, as ever since my father drove me thirty minutes of interstate exits and cross streets to Mr. Harold’s, I have always found the black barbershop a tad too noisy. I never cared much for the fortunes of boxers and basketball players, and could not participate in the discussions in the waiting room for either Mr. Harold Sr or Jr’s chair. I started cutting my own hair in high school. Don’t start me talking about how much money I’ve saved, even if I’ve never progressed from this simple close-cropped style.


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Tom Williams has recently published short or flash fiction in New World Writing, Monkeybicycle, Cream City Review, and Five Points, among many others. He is the author of three books of fiction: a novella, The Mimic’s Own Voice (2012); a novel, Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (2014); and a collection of short stories, “Among the Wild …

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