For Us by Us: The Untold Stories of People of Color on Campus
From the South Side to the East Side
Jasmine Purnell ’20 spoke about her transition to Brandeis in an interview with the Justice. As a child, Purnell lived in Chicago’s East Side with her mother. However, when her mother was diagnosed with cancer, they uprooted their lives to the city’s South Side in the Bronzeville area to live with Purnell’s grandmother. Purnell described her mother — who passed away when Purnell was 7 years old — as someone who was determined to provide her child with the best life and education possible. It was this drive that made her place Purnell in a private school early on.
Arlett Marquez: What was your experience in this private school environment?
Jasmine Purnell: I was so young, I didn’t know what racism was. When I went to my grandmother’s house, my grandmother and cousins would make comments like, “Oh, she’s going to that white school, that’s why she’s acting like this and that.” So I definitely learned from their comments and criticisms. Then, when I had to transfer from the private school to a public school in South Side, I saw that environment and how those kids acted and what they wore, and then I saw where I was coming from [and] was like, “Oh, hell no! This is not what I signed up for.”
AM: What were the new economic and cultural differences that you were exposed to?
JP: I went from having cooked meals every night, not necessarily believing that I was even in a struggle, to living in a house where I had to share a room — a smaller-than-our-dorms type room — with my sister. That happened when I was 9. It was after my mom passed that we actually got the room. Before that I was actually sleeping on a couch. I saw myself change from me having this humongous room to sleeping on a couch; that was my reality. After my mom passed, I never experienced that type of whitewashing again until I came to Brandeis. I went from an all-Black middle school to another all-Black high school. Selective enrollment schools were extremely competitive public schools. For the last month and a half, I was going on the weekends to school to prepare for the enrollment test. I woke up really early in the morning and told my grandmother some lie of where I had to go. My cousin drove me to the testing center to test for the school, and I didn’t tell anyone in my family. By the time it was over, I was so proud of myself for getting this far, and I remember coming home and every single day I would pray saying, “Please God, let me get into one of these schools, I just want to make my mom proud, I can’t just stay here and live this life.” I got into Lindblom Math and Science Academy; it’s on the South Side of Chicago in Englewood. I’m 13 years old, and I had to travel from 47th to 63rd Street. As the numbers increase, the worse the neighborhoods get, essentially. Going 20 blocks away from my house to go to school arguably in the most dangerous part of Chicago. There had been days there where it’s 9 o’clock and I’m waiting at the bus stop, just so afraid. When I go back to the question of “who am I?” I think I’m very fearless, but it’s kind of scary because it’s fearless to an extent of, “I can actually get hurt.” I’m just so determined, even if something wasn’t in the cards for me, I still made it happen.
Shifting from her childhood to today and where her journey at Brandeis has taken her so far, I asked her three questions.
AM: Who are you? How do you want to be perceived? Who do you hope to become?
JP: It’s crazy because I feel like I just entered womanhood. It scares me because I don’t know what that means. I lack so much guidance; everything I’ve learned for the most part, I’ve learned on my own. It’s very scary to think that who I want to be is a place I’ll never reach. I always wanted people to describe me as fun, bubbly, intelligent, happy, just this amazing being. I always want people to perceive me that way. When I’m around people I’m overly excited and overly happy and not that that’s not me, but I’ve learned that that’s how I should act, so that’s what I tend to do. If people could really see the brokenness, if they could see the torment that was inside of me, I would be a completely different Jasmine, and I don’t think anyone would want to be my friend. The person I want people to perceive me as — I want to feel it on the inside. I just really wish I could actually feel that way because that would be so nice to be at peace with myself.
AM: What is your opinion on the pressure and expectations for Black people to choose a major or minor in African and Afro-American Studies or at least take a class?
JP: Whenever you have an oppressed group, and you have people within that oppressed group that are trying to speak out and make things better, there will always be people for whom the trauma is so severe that they are not able to see through the darkness. So I don’t think it should be expected for Black people. I think you should respect AAAS if you are a Black person and do your best to support it academic-wise, but no one should be pressured into it.
AM: What can you tell me about your family history, and how has being African-American shaped your identity?
JP: I can tell you where my people come from in America. In terms of where in Africa? I have no clue, and it eats me up inside probably every other day. It is extremely difficult because it somewhat invalidates who you are. Where your family is from and where you are from gives you balance, something to stand back on, something to be proud of. I am proud of what Black people have done in America, but everything that I know has been diluted to a certain extent by white people. It’s very hard, frustrating and tiring that the essence of who you are is being the opposite of white. I am nothing but the opposite of white, everything that I do is nothing but backlash from being white or trying to be as far away as possible from white. And this is what I’m told and this is who I am, but that’s not an identity — it’s a reflex. Being African-American specifically is like a walking contradiction. How is it that my ancestors built this entire country but I can walk around in any type of space and still feel excluded and still feel like my voice doesn’t matter and that everything I do will not matter? I sit down and think for some time about how white people just screwed an entire world; how have they gotten this power? What if we didn’t have to go through this? What if it was equal? What does that look like? It’s crazy because I just think being African-American comes with pain and suffering but, at the same time, it makes you be so effortless in your everything. Your creative genius and anything that you find pleasure in is amplified by 100 because you just know how rare that is. Being African-American has taught me that I am dynamite.
This is the first installment of “For Us by Us: The Untold Stories of People of Color on Campus.” I wanted to write this piece to highlight people of color on campus. To create a space for our accomplishments, hardships and experiences. To be recognized and acknowledged. To expose ourselves to other cultures, religions and to each other. To realize that we are not alone in our experiences or on this campus. To continue these forms of communication and to hopefully develop new ones.
—Arlett Marquez ’20