By Hakeem M. Oluseyi and Joshua Horwitz, Ballantine Books, June 15, 2021, 1984819097
Hakeem Oluseyi’s memoir reads like a novel. It’s full of action, heart-break, and triumph. I read it in a few sittings, and finished it by reading late into the night.
I read this on the recommendation of Dan Abell. Dan is a physicist at RadiaSoft, and we are in a social justice group sponsored by the company. RadiaSoft takes Social Justice very seriously. I must say I have my doubts about our ability to change society, but the books that have been recommended to me have been very eye opening. A Quantum Life is an excellent book.
I simultaneously enjoyed and struggled with the book, because Oluseyi went to Stanford, and it brought back a lot of memories of Stanford. But it was different for him. He had to struggle with so many challenges I never had. I have been very fortunate, and he worked his ass off to get to Stanford. I can’t fathom it all, frankly.
[k330] Houston was the first place I got a peek at how white folks lived. My best friend that year was a white boy named Bobby, who lived down the street. I liked to hang at his house because his family would sit down to eat together at dinnertime, and afterward they would sit around and play card games or watch TV. Nobody shouted or hit anyone. At least, not in front of me.
Bobby’s parents taught me how to play bridge, which came easily and naturally to me, even though I was just six.
[k340] Bobby’s parents made a big fuss about my excellence at bridge.
[k342] Since Daddy Robert was gone out to sea most of the time, we were eating out of cans and boxes again. But Bobby’s family used to eat raw vegetables cut up into bite-sized pieces that you dipped in blue cheese dressing.
[k345] I soaked up all the white-folk stuff like it was a secret language from a parallel, but alien, universe that I wasn’t supposed to speak anywhere else.
[k356] Every whipping–like the one she gave me after she came home to find me taking apart her makeup mirror with the fluorescent lights around the edge–came with a scolding she delivered in time with the whipping: “Why is you” (whip) “always” (whip) “breaking shit” (whip)?!
[k362] The other thing that reliably got me a whipping were my experiments.
[k403] That’s how it went with Mama. She was either tired or sad or angry–or else she was full of fun.
[k477] Mama used to tell me and Bridgette, “No matter how bad it gets for us, we ain’t nearly as bad off as some o’ those other folks.” Standing there in Now and Later’s living room, I thought to myself, These are those other folks. Everything about that room and the people in it just cried out “bad” and “sad.”
[k500] When the house was empty of food, we’d put mayo or ketchup on bread and call it a sandwich. Syrup sandwiches were my favorite.
[k502] In a house with ten mouths, being the youngest meant a hunger hole in my belly most of the time.
[k791] I’d sit with the latest Ohio Players double album open on my lap and propped up at just the right angle to let the weed stay in place and the seeds and stems slide down the cardboard.
[k900] But my eyes didn’t tear up until the scene when his owner took away the last thing Kunta still had from his African home to call his own: his name. That made me fighting mad. Being James Plummer Jr. made me feel special, and I didn’t know what I’d do if anyone tried to take that away from me.
[k942] The racial split wasn’t just on the playground. All the white kids sat together with their plastic-wrapped sandwiches in fancy lunch boxes. Boys had either Batman or Spider-Man that year, and the girls were deep into the Partridge Family. We Black kids sat together and ate our free lunch off of plastic trays.
[k949] By the spring of fourth grade I’d worked my way up from the fourth to the first track and was the first to complete all the work. I felt pretty good about that, even though my white teacher put me down by saying, “James, your handwriting looks like chicken scratchin’.” And just in case I was thinking of acting uppity, she pointed to the white kid who finished second and said, “Sarah was more careful and made fewer mistakes.”
[k1381] I felt safer going solo.
So I learned to survive on my own, living by my wits and my fists. I learned that it was best to hit first, hit hard, and to never stop hitting. I learned that if I intimidated the other guy first, he wouldn’t intimidate me.
[k1479] By the end of the summer I was leading adult Bible classes too, even though I was only thirteen.
[k1626] Smoking weed marked the start of my double life, which required a steady supply of Visine and breath mints.
[k1633] Half the time the teachers were teaching stuff wrong. And when I corrected them, they immediately bounced me out of class and sent me to the vice principal’s office.
[k1714] She brought the Datsun to a stop in front of a new brick house.
“We visitin’ someone?” I asked.
“This is our new house, baby. Your stuff’s in back,” she said, motioning toward the trunk. When I gave her a puzzled look, she squealed out loud, “My FHA loan came through, baby. We homeowners now!”
[k1723] Every kid looks forward to moving up from middle to high school. But when I arrived at Heidelberg High, I felt like I’d taken the elevator from the basement to the ground floor.
Back in the 1980s, Mississippi seemed to compete with Alabama to see which state could spend the least amount of money on education, and whose students could score the lowest on standardized tests.
[k1955] I’d won first place in Physics–and a big-ass trophy that proved I could bend spacetime just enough to make Mississippi stop and take notice of my beautiful Black mind.
[k1963] By sophomore year at Heidelberg, Mr. Cross was letting me orchestrate and choreograph our football halftime shows.
[k1973] At the end of band camp, they held an awards banquet. I came in second place for the Students’ Choice Award, which totally shocked me. It was basically a popularity contest, and I had no idea that people beyond my immediate friend group liked me.
[k2004] Faced with my first conversation ever with a white girl, I was too shocked and suspicious to speak. Smiling white girls luring you to your death was exactly the scenario I’d been warned against growing up.
[k2106] Best takeaway: I learned to keep my clothes and gear clean and tidy.
[k2108] The navy also taught me what institutional racism looked like from the inside.
[k2225] The social front wasn’t any more inviting than the lecture hall. I’d never met Black kids like the students at Tougaloo–raised up inside middle-class families with educated parents.
[k2322] As the big brothers explained to us: if we could survive pledge, we could thrive in the world as brothers. Hazing was framed for us as a metaphor for the trial that America’s race-based social hierarchy had in store for us once we graduated into adult life.
[k2557] I couldn’t be a real father to my son. I was ashamed and miserable. I responded the only way I knew how–by self-destructing.
[k2600] Daddy didn’t have to tell us to keep our heat out of sight. We understood you don’t pull a gun out to show it. That just escalates a situation. You only pull it out to shoot, and only if you have to.
[k2694] The most brutal and recurrent feeling in the life of a crack smoker is the moment the rocks run out.
[k2717] “Plummer, you changing, man. You gon’ shoot some strung-out dude over forty dollars? C’mon, now. That’s some fiendish shit. That ain’t you, man.”
[k2760] She may have been a top-twenty student at Natchez High School and done okay at Tougaloo, but now that she was in school outside the Black community, with higher academic expectations, she realized her educational background was sorely lacking. I once saw an essay she’d written, and I was shocked. She wrote at what seemed to me a sixth-grade level.
[k2790] I got an A in calculus that term, and more important, I learned the value of not just working through problems but talking through them with a partner–which would continue to be my best strategy for learning difficult material and solving problems in any subject.
[k2877] “Don’t shrink from this moment. History awaits you. Get your PhD. Apply to the astronaut program. And for God’s sake, keep moving forward. We need you. America needs you. The Black community needs you.”
[k2930] No one had ever shown me that level of trust, whether I’d earned it or not. I’d always been treated–certainly by most white folks in authority–like a suspected criminal. Yet this guy trusted me. And we’d just met!
[k2938] This whole business of trust and autonomy was huge for me.
[k2960] Outside on the streets of Athens people in passing cars might yell out “Nigger!” or throw stuff at my head. But inside Dr. Duncan’s lab, no one was out to get me. I didn’t feel belittled or looked down on. I felt safe, and valued.
[k3137] If learning the truth is the scientist’s goal, then he must make himself an enemy of all that he reads. He should also suspect himself, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency. –Ibn Al-Haytham (1030 ce), mathematician, astronomer, and inventor of the scientific method
[k3174] It was clear that I was the odd man out among my fellow grad students. Every year, the Stanford physics department took in one student like me–a diversity admission who wasn’t at the same level of academic preparation as the rest of the class.
[k3177] I was the exotic and endangered species of wannabe physicist in my class.
[k3201] They definitely considered themselves the smartest dudes in the joint, and it was our job to figure out how to operate on their level. As far as I could see, they saw their job as giving you a chance to watch them be brilliant up close–not to actually teach you the material.
[k3205] At Tougaloo, the professors never assigned the hardest problems. At Stanford, that’s all they assigned.
[k3640] [Art Walker, said “]The Air Force was happy to have me doing research in their weapons lab, but they weren’t handing out leadership positions to men who looked like me. I had to put in my time, and then some, to earn my way up. So don’t think this is going to get easier anytime soon. Physics is difficult to begin with. And it may be hard, or impossible, to convince some of the faculty you belong here. But you’re a smart guy. That’s why we wanted you in our program. I believe in you. I believe you can put this behind you and make it through.”
[k3715] The only other crack user in the group was a normal-ass-looking white woman. That’s the first thing I learned in rehab: addiction wasn’t a Black thing.
[k3717] The second thing I learned was that I couldn’t get sober on my own–any more than I could get through my physics coursework without a study group.
[k3759] Paul, Gavin, and I quickly became a power study group. Four nights every week we got together at Paul’s place and worked on the problem sets. Not only was I learning physics at a new level, I discovered that when we worked together, I could stand toe-to-toe with Paul and Gavin.
[k3844] One day when we were sitting courtside, I asked him if he’d decided on an area of research yet. It turned out he’d already teamed up with Professor Robert Wagoner, a theoretical particle physicist and cosmologist whose book Cosmic Horizons had famously reconstructed the chemical makeup of the primordial universe, circa the Big Bang.
[k4262] “Here’s what happened,” [Daveed] explained. “You needed to pass five of the eight parts. You passed four passed four parts straight-out–include the three toughest: the two Quantum plus Stat Mech. You had a high enough score on the fifth section–but then Romani moved the goalposts so you’d fall outside the curve, and fail.”
[k4270] “I don’t care what anyone says,” Marcia said to me. “You did not fail that exam. I was there in the room with the committee. They violated the rules to fail you. But Daveed defended you for passing the hardest sections and I worked out a compromise with Romani. So don’t you worry about it. Art will have your back.”
“What’s he gonna do?”
[k4287] “Understand this. An organization of people is like a bell curve,” said Art, citing a fundamental principle from probability theory. “In the center of the curve are the vast majority of people. They’re indifferent. Apathetic. They’re thinking of themselves. Then there is a small minority of people who will extend a helping hand to you. They will work with you, share resources with you. And there’s another small minority that is going to be hostile to you. Don’t let that small group of doubters derail you.”
[k4293] “Let me ask you a question,” Art said. “How do you think the faculty treats me? Do you think they give me credit for my achievements?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “You are a full professor.”
“And yet many of them still question my intelligence. They can never accept that a Black man is their intellectual equal or that you and I can make an original contribution.”
[k4342] Art wasn’t one of those professors who socialized with his students or invited them over to his house for barbecues.
[k4358] Then one day I ran into Victoria [Art’s wife] at the Safeway and decided to broach the subject. I told her I’d noticed Art wasn’t his usual high-energy self.
[k4362] She must have seen the concern on my face, because she took my hand when she said, “Last month, Art was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.”
[k4411] Having a role model for both manhood and a life in science was huge for me. But it wasn’t the same as becoming a man, or a scientist. To do that, I still had to slay the demons who’d been chasing me since childhood. I had to unlearn my ingrained survival reflex to go tough and self-protective whenever I felt vulnerable or worthless.
[k4416] Back when I was at Tougaloo, I’d read the basic canon of Afrocentric literature. At Stanford, I became determined to discover how my people and I ended up at the bottom of America’s identity hierarchy.
[k4423] When I decided to change my name, it had nothing to do with rejecting the religion I was raised in, or my daddy, or my past.
[k4424] For me, changing my name was about staking a claim to my identity.
[k4426] I decided to change my name as a matter of choice and self-determination.
[k4431] If I could one day make a significant contribution to science, I wanted people to know, just from hearing my name, that I was a Black man, descended from Africa.
[k4443] All my life I’d been told that to be accepted by whites as an equal, a Black man had to prove himself twice as good. That was cutting it way too close, if you asked me.