Oral history conducted at Oberlin College, Oct. 7, 2007, by Catherine Janis. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted. A huge thanks to Judy Stein for transcribing.
JANIS: I guess the first thing that we should start with is introductions. So my name is Catherine Janis. I’m a senior art history major at Oberlin. And today is October 7, 2007. And I’m sitting at the Student Union in — on Oberlin’s campus, and I’m here to interview —
DIEPIRIYE: I’m Diepiriye Sungumote Kuku-Siemons. And I’m Oberlin College class of ’97, and I’m back here for the Oberlin Lambda Alumni Reunion. And I’m happy to participate in this historical project to bring light to Oberlin’s queer past, present, and future.
JANIS: Well, thank you. And the first sort of question that I had for you is pretty general, just about before you came to Oberlin, why you chose to come here, and some of the things that you expected or thought about the school before you got here.
DIEPIRIYE: Well, I come from Kentucky. I come — I’m not a first-generation college student, so it was a given that I would go to college. And I chose Oberlin — I’d heard of Oberlin in the movie.
There was a movie with Robert Downey, Jr., and I think his name is James Spade [James Wood], or something like that. But they’re lawyers, and they’re defending this Chinese guy who’d been framed by the police in some urban center, maybe Chicago or New York. But there’s — where there was a Chinatown. In the very beginning of the movie, Robert Downey, Jr., mentions that he went to Oberlin. And I loved his character. But it was just in passing, like that. And I started to ask around, and I found out that every educated African-American that I knew had heard of Oberlin, had a very deep respect for Oberlin.
And then I started to hear about how liberal it was. And I went to a school for 11 years. It was much along the lines of what Oberlin talks about, but Oberlin’s much — on a much grander scale. And I applied to here and Brown, and I chose the better of the two.
I also must say that, you know, I mean, the school that I went to, I wasn’t one of the wealthier students. I mean, I guess I come from a working-class or lower-middle-class family. And there were wealthier students in my school who were convinced that they couldn’t afford college, and that they only could go to local or state schools. And they even had better test scores than me. But for some reason, I was driven to come here. And the fact that there was need-blind admissions made me think that I would be taken at my value, and based on my credentials, and not the money that my parents are able to produce.
And that was eliminated my first or second year here at Oberlin. And, of course, it’s a wealthier campus now, wealthier student body. And I don’t think we’ve taken seriously the implications of that. But people like me would haven’t even have applied without that need-blind policy. So —
JANIS: And when you were — I guess when they changed that policy, or when it was removed or altered —
JANIS: –had it — It was completely removed. And when that happened, when you were a senior? OK, how did that affect you as a student, to do —
DIEPIRIYE: We protested. During the time that I was here from ’93 to ’97, and I was in Third World Co-op during its first three years, there was a low-income student association started by — I believe it was started by Carmen Mitchell, also known as D. J. Shakwanda Girl, class of ’95 — or — yes, class of ’95 or ’96.
And just the concept of low-income students, saying it out loud — I come from a family where we just don’t talk about money, or I didn’t realize that we were what I would now consider poor, as an adult. I think we’re — yes, mean, we’re a middle-class family by our values, but by our buying power, I didn’t realize how much I didn’t have, because I didn’t want for anything.
But when I came here, and I started to see just how big those differences are, when you have to work on campus or not, and afterwards, when you have to be concerned about student loans or not, in the decisions that it makes for you, well, people were aware of that.
Fortunately, there were lots of women of color who took leadership to say that this is wrong. And they really rallied around this issue.
And again, it was all women, typical to Oberlin, leadership. And we fought, and in the way that Oberlin people fight, you know, with rallying against the administration, speak-outs on Wilder steps, and that sort of thing. But we were promised by Nancy Dye that it was only — income would only come into account when two students are completely equal in every other way.
And I guess they were, in many ways, like they say, (INAUDIBLE) race, or perhaps even gender. They didn’t — it only comes into account when you have two students who are equivalent in every other way, and all of their credentials and references and test scores and grades and GPA, that sort of thing.
But like I said, you know, I think one of my great motivations to apply was that they had this statement, you know, like how people have clauses about appointments, we don’t discriminate against X, Y, and Z. Well, that was a … nondiscrimination clause, and no need-blind admissions is a nondiscrimination clause, and that’s how it’s taken by students who feel that they could be discriminated against.
And it became clear to me, like I said, I applied to Brown and Oberlin, it became clear to me that Brown was a school for people who didn’t necessarily intend to work, or need to work, in their lives, and that at Oberlin were the people who, no matter what the circumstances, wanted to contribute to the world. And if that happens to be work, then so be it.
So, yes, it changes the face of the school drastically. And I can’t say for — I don’t want to say for better or for worse, but it definitely doesn’t lead me to believe that we are as committed to raising the level, the intellectual level of this society, what John Frederick Oberlin talked about, that we should be able to speak multiple languages, but we should also be able to dig a ditch.
We should be intellectuals. We should also be able to speak to common people. And this is a man who lived in the Alsace region, and this changed hands between France and Germany constantly, and they also have their own language.
But when I went there, I studied on the Strasbourg program, again, you know, something that would have been inconceivable for many low-income students here. I just talked to a student last night that has absolutely no idea how he would study abroad, but he’s determined to do it. And the only advice that I could give him was to look around, because I really think that there are opportunities on this campus for anyone to study abroad in various capacities.
But the fact remains that it is a shift … in one’s mindset when the school says, ‘We will get you here and keep you here no matter what, but we will accept you here, and class won’t be an issue.’ And class is introduced as an issue in, I believe it was my sophomore year. And now I hear that there are students on campus with Hummers.
JANIS: Yes, that’s true, just —
DIEPIRIYE: As their second car!
JANIS: Did you see a difference immediately, as soon as that clause was removed, or was it —
DIEPIRIYE: No, no, no, I — no, not at all.
JANIS: Yes, it was — OK, it was over time.
DIEPIRIYE: I started to see the changes in the student body after coming back years later.
JANIS: Yes, just what happens over time. And I guess in thinking about sort of the values and — that the school holds or the administration or things like that, how did — how were queer issues or issues around gender, I — and — I guess framed in the time when you were here, was sort of organizations, or stuff like that?
DIEPIRIYE: Well, from the beginning, I — my mother and I came here for ‘All Roads Lead to Oberlin’ [the prospective student visiting weekend sponsored by the Office of Admissions]. And we actually drove from the cornfields of Kentucky- the cornfields of Ohio, we don’t have cornfields in Kentucky, we have rolling hills of bluegrass.
And there were queer students groups, there was the LGBU, as it was called at that time, its name had and continues to evolve. And I will never forget, because I had only come out to my mother, I think, about a month earlier. And she was initially uncomfortable with it, come around, and of course now, since we’re very close about this, and she also is very close to my partner and his family. But there was a chalking, like writings one the side walks and sometimes on buildings. And just in front of King or the attached building where the humanities offices are, there was a chalking that said: You can come out after your parents leave.
And I just remember walking down, I think it was in front of King, and we saw this, and there was just this silence, like, Yes! You know, I’ve arrived, you know. And that — it convinced me that, yeah, I’m coming here, this is the right place to be.
And so, when you talk about how gender was framed for me, I was a campus activist, and I chose to be active in antiracist and anti-homophobic struggles, … however they found themselves on campus. So I was involved in LGBU, I was involved in Zami, I was involved in Abusua, I was involved in an organization that later became known as Burnt Siena, because Burnt Siena’s a color that you have to use to paint any skin color.
It came out of antiracist workshops that were held on campus, antiracism, antidiscrimination workshops that were — that people had held. An outside organization had come to conduct these workshops on campus.
And how was gender framed? I mean, in the sense — in that light, I can give you a great example. My freshman year was president, Fred Starr, Fred Starr’s last year, someone spray-painted on the Memorial Arch, the Boxer Arch in the Tappan Square, “Death to All Chinks,” in big, black letters. And on the bottom, “Good Chink Equals Dead Chink.”
Within a week of that incident, someone had put a note on the Muslim Student Union door here in Wilder that said, “Muslim Students Suck Camel Dick.”
Earlier that year, black students organized themselves through the African Heritage House to march on this campus and take over Dodd House, because they were again threatening to close the African Heritage House dining. And I’m sure there were a few other things that I’m leaving out. But it came — things came to a head with the Memorial Arch.
And so there were emergency people-of-color meetings, held initially in Third World House. And it was just phenomenal to see the number of women who were just stepping up. And it wasn’t a kind of, you know, anger, it wasn’t just anger. Of course, everyone was angry.
But these were leaders. And it was just — it blew my mind to see so many women. There were men present, but it was the women, in massive force, who took lead, who organized how we as students would respond, organized — really organized how to organize a protest, or a series — a movement, not just a protest, but a movement on campus.
And so it started with some sort of statement to Fred Starr, and the — you know, in “The Review” and all this stuff. And I’ll never, ever forget, we were sitting in the snack bar downstairs, and Fred Starr had sent out a message to the whole campus. And Isa, who was at that time a junior or senior, she was — she’d gotten the letter. She was one of the leaders in this organization. It was — I mean, this informal gathering of people.
And she came in, and she screamed, “What the fuck!” at this letter, because Fred Starr said to us, if students of color felt terrorized on this campus — felt threatened, I think, was the word he used, and terror was somehow there. This was well before 9/11 — so please understand that America knows terror, and we can give it to- Jim and Jane Crow.
But even here on this campus, people felt threatened. And he’s saying, You should call security.
So what people started doing was, we would pick up the phone and say, I’m a person of color, and I feel threatened. We’d call security and say, I’m a person of color, and I feel threatened.
And again, that’s just anger. But when I talk about how gender was framed for me on campus, there was just such a strong women-of-color presence. I felt that queer — the only other women that I was able to become really close with were women who were somehow involved in these movements, and then in Third World Co-Op, so tended to be queer women, of any race.
But the leadership, in even in Third World Co-Op, was primarily one of color. I think of — I know other white women I can think of — Hilary, for example, that were strong leaders. And when I say leaders, I don’t just mean people who were voted into some office, but people who are unafraid to speak out and speak up.
JANIS: In thinking about all of the different examples that you gave of people being threatened and discriminated against based on race and religion, how was it that people — people of color came together? Was that —
DIEPIRIYE: All you needed to do was put up a poster —
JANIS: –(INAUDIBLE) —
DIEPIRIYE: -“Emergency people-of-color meeting.”
JANIS: And it —
DIEPIRIYE: And of course there was backlash, because how can you have a people-of-color meeting? I mean, could you have a white meeting, you know? But this is Oberlin, and that’s how it went.
And of course we very — we quickly learned that — not just that we need allies, white allies, but that if we are for what we stand for, then we have to have allies and distinguish between a safe space and allying ourselves with people.
So of course there were times when initially where we felt that those meetings needed to be a safe space. It wasn’t that we wanted to exclude white people. But that people really felt threatened, like, what is going on here?
People’s financial aid packages were getting all screwed up. It was a typical thing, you know, like sophomore year, would you be staying here, would you be able to come back because of financial aid?
And all of a sudden, all this money just dropped away. And so student support services was much weaker at that time, but there were strong people in it, and the same people were still there. And if not for them, I wouldn’t have graduated from here. If not for Brenda Grier Miller, you know, allowing me to cry on her shoulder numerous times about financial aid, about any number of things, about studying abroad, about being the only, you know, black male, being one of two black people in the chemistry department, and talking about the different chemistry professors, and why is it that all black chemistry students want [Professor] Fuchsman as their advisor, and specifically not other people — and, you know, all kinds of stuff.
I don’t know if I answered your question. I’m rambling.
But, you know, even — I remember even when I first came here, Deirdre “Dee-Dee” Wells was a few years ahead of me, and she was a chemistry major, and she would just walk up to, you know, queer students, and queer students of color that she’d seen at the LGBU meeting, the open house meeting at the beginning of each semester where there are, like, 50 people, and all the upperclassmen come to check out the fresh meat.
And she just spoke to us individually about Zami, and we came, and Zami was a great organization, because it was just — I mean, you cannot know what it means to be isolated, to not know that there’s someone else like you out there.
Last night, I presented an award on behalf of the Oberlin Lambda Alumni Association to Bill Norris, and also to Clayton Koppes. And I was writing up what to say about them, and I realized that coming from Kentucky, the only queer people that I’d ever seen in the world of work were in retail or cosmetology.
I’d never seen a professional queer man. I think I had one substitute teacher in high school. But again, it was, like, he’s just like a secondary person. And to come to a place where you can see, you can hold onto something tangible, it was like, I can do that.
And so Zami became that kind of support group, like, we’re not alone. We weren’t politically active. And it was always unclear as to whether we should be or could be or what we would do if we were, but just to alleviate this feeling of — I mean, in the racist society and a classist society and a sexist society, it’s not enough to just deal with one issue.
Now, we have this intersectionality. We didn’t have that kind of word back then. And so someone like me, who was determined to be involved in the Black Students Association, the African Students Association, but also, you know, be an out queer man, I was frightened to death. And I — and it still frightens me, because I don’t know, I mean, I think I believed the messages, people think that African-Americans are so homophobic. And I believed it.
But I decided that I wouldn’t let that determine my activities here on campus. And low and behold, it was unpopular to be homophobic. So those who were, you know, did keep it to themselves—kept their mouths shut.
And I know that I don’t have — I didn’t have a lot of black male friends. I had acquaintances. And even the black gay men, we talked about it, I mean, individually. By senior year, we thought, Why aren’t we friends with each other? Why don’t we at least know each other? And we didn’t have anything against one another.
But it’s — when you talk about being terrorized in this nation, and learning an internal homophobia, internal racism, there’s a lot to get over.
And so these safe spaces, like Co-ops, like Baldwin [an all women’s co-op during my time at Oberlin], like — I’m sure that, you know, many spaces are differently safe for different people. I’m sure Harkness is safe for people with certain values and interests, you know.
But it’s an invaluable experience to come to a school like Oberlin and have — just to have people around, see, to know … that what Hollywood sells you, what the boob tube sells you, is not just it. I mean, I’m looking at this poster over there in the corner, and I see John Young class of ’83. And he was a part of the Oberlin Lambda Alumni when I was a student here. And he recruited me to … to join the OLA steering committee when he was leaving.
And this is a man who, you know, has two Ph.D.’s, who — you know, he’s HIV-positive … it’s on the poster, but it’s open, it’s widely known. But he was here — he was a very positive influence. And there are lots of men who are just — I mean, just — you know, he felt as a black man that you just couldn’t be queer on this campus, it wasn’t a black thing to do.
And until someone comes along and challenges that — but a lot of people don’t feel that they can challenge homophobia and — amongst black people, and racism amongst queer people at the same time, as if they’re somehow independent, as if somehow we are separate individuals.
And, you know… for someone like John to take me under his wing, and he would just come to me, and [the OLA steering committee] would descend on campus every few months. And he would just come and just make sure he had a conversation with me every single time he came. … it’s amazing to know that I had role models, and also how badly I needed them.
And I’m under the impression that many of the students who come here come from communities and family circumstances where they develop a sense of agency, where they understand that what they know and what they do and their skills, you know, actually have a meaningful impact.
bell hooks, who taught here for a while and came back a lot, she’s a fellow Kentuckian, and she writes about this a great deal, and it’s in her interview that you can find on YouTube, about how, you know, teaching at Oberlin and Yale and teaching in New York, the only differences that she found were not that the students were any differently abled, but that the students in the lower-income areas, the poor areas in New York, didn’t understand that what they knew amounted to a great deal, that they…basically, they lacked agency.
There was no difference in intelligence and ability to articulate what they knew. Perhaps I remember what she says about that, but that they valued their own skills. And that’s what a lot of people who come here — for me, for example, people who gravitate toward Third World Co-Op, you know, I talked to a student last night, I talked to two guys who were talking about men of color loving themselves. These are not — I don’t think they were not queer students, and I don’t think they meant it in an erotic or romantic way, but in a very real sense that you can learn to hate yourself in this society.
You know, I mean, for me, this word “fag” has always been able to totally debase me, no matter what I’m doing. But just to hear that — and I’ve been called “fag” and “sissy,” just walking down the street or in school or — no, not in my school in particular, but I remember when students from outside would come to our school, and —
I mean, it’s horrible. And so a school like Oberlin is really, really important, and it’s really important that the school exists, because look at how we go out into the world and really change it.
And I left Oberlin, and I moved to Mali in West Africa, I joined the Peace Corps. And people told me that there were no gay people there. And I even met other Peace Corps volunteers who told me that there were no gay people. And I thought, How in the heck is there a nation of 9 million people, this old, and there are no gay people? And with an Islamic tradition to boot?
And of course, in my own little village, I managed to find the gay people. And then in the capital, Bamako, a great deal. But I only believe that these things are possible because I have the source of strength, and that’s knowing that it’s possible to create a society that has different values, I’ll just say different values, like Oberlin.
And so having gone to Oberlin, it’s possible for me to now live in India and be the only black man that I know … to be involved in a queer media collective there, and to assert that people need to know about African-American history. Because, you know, Indian people know a lot about American culture per se, but what they know is very generic, what I call Generica, kind of a generic American culturally available, popularly available culture.
And, wow, when you look at … what they call mental colonization of India, well, Black people in America have undergone and understood and tried to decolonize ourselves from the same kind of mental colonization that says that, you know, the “Mo’ Money value,” that if you have money, if you give money, that we assume that it’s shared by all across gender, race, and caste, that money is more important, that if we just focus on making money, then your gender is unimportant, my race is unimportant, the social class that we come from is unimportant, because ahead of us is the ability to make money.
And so I try to express to people in India that from Black people’s experience, that has never been true, because Black people have for so, so long tried to play by those rules and say that… we’re equal, we want to play, to be a part of this too, in this American dream, and yet it has never come to fruition, it’s never come to pass for us.
And why do I say that? Look at health statistics. Look at the health disparities. Look at income disparities. We sill have a gender income disparity in the modern world. So things are really as not OK as we’d like for them to be, or as we even pretend that they are.
But learning, you know, critical thinking, which is something I think is really basic here at Oberlin, and people learn either in the classroom or outside of the classroom, is an invaluable skill that I’ve since learned is not really taught everywhere, not really valued everywhere.
JANIS: That’s OK. I guess one thing that I was thinking about in listening to you talk about your experience and — was some ways in which that sense of agency was developed for you personally, or more in general, among queer students, among students of color, among queer students of color, and among any other lines of — or identities of students, just maybe how people develop that sense.
DIEPIRIYE: Student organizations. I — it’s again something I’ve learned since leaving America about 10 years ago, … that we have… such low high school math scores, but so many different clubs and organizations is because that’s how we learn democracy, and that’s where we learn agency.
If you can be on a sports team or chess team or a Beta club or French club or whatever, and you can learn how to make decisions with a group of people, that is learning democracy, and it’s practicing democracy. And in the same sense, since coming here to campus, my uniform was a crop-top and Daisy Duke shorts. And I have a group of friends, most of them lived at African Heritage House at that time, and they told me the first day of — What is that period before the first freshman come?
JANIS: Oh, like orientation.
DIEPIRIYE: Orientation, period, yes, orientation week. And they were like, Oh, he’s really cute. And then they took a second look, and they’re, like, Oh, my gosh. And it wasn’t, Oh, my gosh, like, Oh, my gosh, he’s a fag, it was, like, Oh [surprising but ok]!
And — but having the ability to do that, to be safe here on this campus, develops a sense of agency, to have people listen to you, to have things that you say be taken seriously and have an impact on your environment.
So OSCA is the most invaluable experience that people can have on this campus. And yet it’s still perceived as a white upper-middle-class organization. And that’s so screwed up, because it is something that could benefit all students.
And, you know, it’s one thing that I write about now in talking about reproductive health in India, is that if you can have organizations of women, you know, talking about life skills, but also run by consensus, because a lot of people don’t understand that there is a — there’s a process of consensus.
People think that, oh, we sit around and talk for hours and never really come to any resolution. Well, I was in OSCA for three years, and I understand that there actually is a process to consensus-building, and that that process is how you develop an agency.
You know, we talk about women belonging to organizations back in India to learn how to, you know, stand up against domestic violence, which is tacitly accepted in India, and people say even more so in rural India. And through these organizations, you find that women can say, just because they’re not isolated any more, just because they know that, Wait a minute, I have rights. And I’ve seen another woman stand up for her rights, and I’ve seen her meet resistance, but gain support, and then, you know, move on.
And in the same light, student organizations are invaluable for doing that, you know, because as opposed to a classroom, I understand that the classes here aren’t so rigid and hierarchical, where you have an authority at the front of the classroom, and the students, passively sitting by, you know, soaking up all of the lectures that this authority has to give us…Oberlin doesn’t engage the didactic sort of teaching.
But, you know, any one of us [Obies] would tell you, I’m sure you’ve heard this over and over again, that it’s outside of the classroom that we develop this sense of agency. And so it’s radically important that these organizations continue, that they be well funded.
I was also part of Student Senate and Student Finance Committee. I mean, just to meet and know other young leaders, peers, to have upper-class women and men to take me under– to challenge me. I mean, in Third World House, sometimes it was really rough…and where other people might say, Oh, you should really think about, you know, what you’re saying, well in Third World House [older students] would say, You’re a whack motherfucker, and I don’t see how you can say this or that!
But they– at the same time, they would come back … I mean, I remember there were these two guys, Tariq and Tarek, and they were talking about converting me to the first, you know, openly gay Muslim. But these were the same guys who would say to me, That’s a really whack, fucked-up idea, and blah-blah-blah, and, you know, I mean, it was kind of the tough love that a lot of people can’t stand, and… only six of us stayed, first year students, stayed in Third World House. Many people moved out after that first semester.
But, I mean, it’s those kinds of things where you have people to challenge you, but also care for you, to also– to be consistent. And that’s, for me, that’s how it did it for me. Who would have ever thought that I could be president of Abusua [the Black student union] and, you know, some black gay man, and yet here I am. And I think that there are many … many since, from what I can see.
JANIS: And I guess in thinking about the different organizations, I wanted to ask a little bit more about OSCA, because it is, like, the largest organization on campus. It’s predominantly white, predominantly upper class. And many students who don’t fit that mold, I’ve heard of people going to OSCA and then having to leave for, like, two or three weeks, because it– they were really uncomfortable.
And so I guess in– that is something that is continued, that’s– to this day, that’s the way it is. And I was just wondering how Third World Co-Op was a place– or how I– how it started, and how it sort of nurtured itself as its– as a co-op and kept its identity as a co-op in that system that was predominantly white and upper class.
DIEPIRIYE: Well, as you can imagine, Third World Co-op was majority people of color, and radically minded white people. I remember…There was one unsung hero. Her name was Jen. Jennifer, I can’t remember her last name, she was a white woman. She transferred here from Vanderbilt. And she was the most antiracist person I could ever meet. And it wasn’t that she just went around touting her Black friends, and blah-blah-blah, blah-blah-blah, but she was just willing to have the conversation any time, to really face racism, you know, in herself, to ask other people important questions. She was a white person who could say, you know, racism is not an issue that people of color have to solve.
And I think that she on many levels understood that racism also affects white people. Also the fear around race leads white people to make decisions that they perhaps would not otherwise make. And I think in the age of terrorism, we’re beginning to understand what fear can mean and how it can lead you to make some very screwed-up decisions.
So I think that white America, just as much as Black America, has not really healed from slavery. But we just– we don’t want to talk about it, and when we do talk about it, it’s as if Black people are bringing up some, you know, random issue. So here on this campus, you know, in Third World House, we would talk about it all the time. This is lunch and dinner conversation. And sometimes there were screaming matches and people cried, and blah-blah-blah, but we all came back, and they were all– I mean, at that time there were 60-plus people. We were overflowing with people who wanted to join the co-op.
We also had the best food, hands down. At the time, we were a non-veg, we were mostly veg, just because it’s OSCA, but we also had meat. We had wonderful special meals. We would often– you know, the first year or two, we tried to do– we tried to organize special meals around ethnic communities. So we had a Soul food, an African– there was another first-generation African student in the co-op, very few, but I remember, and that particular special meal we had, like, Jolof rice, and fried chicken and greens, and then Y.B. [then in residential life and now the ombudswoman] came and made a– I can’t remember what they were, but some Ethiopian dishes.
And we had Korean students, and Korean-American students made special meals. And I remember when there was a very good friend of mine, Kaho Abe, who’s a Japanese-American. She and several other Japanese-American and perhaps some Japanese students wanted to make a Japanese meal, a traditional Japanese meal, which included Sake. They weren’t allowed to buy Sake with OSCA money, because, of course, OSCA, school money, I think, can’t be used to buy alcohol. But the co-op next door, Kosher Co-op, can, of course, buy alcohol. I was the OSCA Board Rep. It was my sophomore year, the first semester of just us [TWC] existing, and I was the first rep. And someone said in the meeting, and he said it in very plain words, that… the [Jewish] culture was more legitimate.
I had to go back and tell this to my co-op. And in many ways, it resulted in a very serious schism between– and we’re just neighbors, if you look at it, between Talcott and Baldwin- between Kosher Co-op and Third World Co-op, which is unreasonable, because none of us are actually enemies, we’re all really allies here on this campus.
But those kinds of situations– just the process of those discussions really changes people’s lives, changes the way people think.
In the co-op, there were all kinds of people. But just to see– I mean, again, just the process of seeing your LEC be, you know, Indian-American woman. I remember Carla Murthy was one of our first LECs. And they all rotate, you know, you have– and they’re mostly women, just African-American, Chinese-American, Korean-American, blah-blah-blah, blah-blah-blah. Just to be led by different people like that, queers and/or women of all races, just all kinds of people.
I mean, that’s– I cannot understate– I cannot overstate the importance of student organizations, and like OSCA. And I just don’t know how OSCA can become less segregated along race and class, because it is, seriously. I don’t have any answers, I really just don’t know. And it still is, and it just continues, and people don’t want it to be, and everyone claims that it shouldn’t be, but it remains so. And so it means that maybe we’re not asking the right questions. But no one’s asking the questions. I mean, why is it? It’s not just enough, you know, I mean, you can enter the Socratic debate of why is it that OSCA is white upper middle class, why– I mean, just why, why, why, why, why, keep asking and keep answering.
And it’s not enough just to say that any one group of people is responsible. We’re all responsible, it’s just that simple. And an organization like OSCA has the capacity to create change, and yet it hasn’t, and this is very disappointing. I love OSCA still. To do it all over again, I would wholeheartedly be a member of OSCA. I love Iris, I love her [homemade] salsa. But the organization is, you know– we’re just different. Different people have different interests, different values. And, you know, to sit in Third World Co-op and watch all these nude people from Harkness run up and down in the rain didn’t faze us, but it wasn’t what anyone– or most people in Third World Co-op were interested in doing. But fine, they can do it.
JANIS: I guess in– we’ve been talking for a while about student organizations and things that you were part of. And I guess I was wondering how, once you left Oberlin, and some– wondering what you did once you left, after you left, and how those experiences shaped your choices and your outlook on life and in what you did later.
DIEPIRIYE: Well, being out at Oberlin makes it hard to go back into any kind of closet. I understand that there are people who have or will, but for me, you know, and especially being an effeminate man, I just– I’ve had to accept that I’m out of the closet, whether I like it or not.
And so it leads me to look for opportunities where I can safely and comfortably be out of the closet. Now, maybe you would ask why would I go to the edge of the Sahara Desert, why would I plop myself in the middle of Seoul, South Korea, you know, why would I go to the middle of Sri Lanka, or now, you know, go to India…where legally- it’s not illegal to be gay- but sodomy. The… antiquated sodomy laws still exist all over the British Commonwealth.
Why would I do this? But it is because I felt safe here for four years, you know. And it made me able– it gave me– you know, it helped me to develop that agency to go anywhere, to feel that the world is my home, and that it just is, that that’s just fact…I’m here sitting on a couch in Oberlin, Ohio, and tomorrow I’ll be back on my sofa in New Delhi, India. And there– it’s my world. And like I said, I’m the only black man I know– not– I’m not the only black man– let me not say that. I’m one of a handful that I know. But, you know, Delhi is my home right now, Delhi is my city. It’s an extremely classist and racist city, but it’s where I live, and I can live there because I know that this kind of world here at Oberlin is possible.
I know that people have the capacity, and I know that there’s nothing inherently different about any of us. You know, there’s nothing that makes anybody better or worse, despite what a caste system says, despite what white supremacists say, despite, you know, what extremely sexist people would say, both men and women.
Yeah, I mean, I’m convinced, and I’m convinced that we can do it. And that’s what Oberlin has given me, which is why I continue to give back. And I give back– I don’t have a lot of money now, but I do have, like John, John had time, you know, like numerous other people, you know, who’ve come through OAAAA, for example, they had a reunion my senior year [Avery Brook’s delivered a monologue on Paul Robeson in Finney Chapel], and just to see the love that these people have for this school. People love Oberlin. And a lot of people understand that it’s just– you just need to have role models, and we are that for each other, even as fellow students, we’re role models for each other.
And I take every opportunity that I can to thank those– particularly those women who were leaders during that era of dealing with the Arch and a few years afterwards, that– to just thank them. I wouldn’t have made it through here had it not been for them. I wouldn’t have made it through biochemistry had it not been for Farah, Farah Emeka-Woodall, who’s returned here to Oberlin with her husband, who’s also an Obie. They live across the street from Dascomb.
And we were the only two black people in chemistry. And neither of us had … ever known a chemist. And, like, what does a chemist do? What does someone do with a chemistry degree? And perhaps– you know, I know other people, other students who were wealthier and come from very different social circumstances did know what one does with a chemistry degree and opportunities that were available to them. But it’s not even something that the professors would offer to us. It’s not even the kind of knowledge that they would know that we need. And what they needed to do was just ask us what we wanted to do and just to keep asking us. But no one would ask us, you know.
And it’s very disheartening. But then you go to someone like Yolanda Cruz in the Biology Department. And I understand why most of the people of color who were initially chemistry majors switched to biology, because just to see a woman leading and a person of color leading, and who’s willing to tell you about their own lives.
I remember we ate fertilized duck eggs, and she was telling us about how it was a delicacy, a snack that she had on the bus to school that her grandmother would give her back in the Philippines. But just to invite their own lives into the classroom, it’s just– it’s something that I found that none of the people in Kettering did, none of them. And for us as– for as– particularly for first-generation college students, for many people, it’s really important that you bring your personal experience, that you talk about– when you talk about the personal is the political and vice-versa, well, in the very same way, for whatever career path that you will follow, how did you get there? How did you develop that agency? How did you find out about different opportunities? And unless you grew up with it, you may never know. And now I live in a very different economic and social class than I grew up in, and I can see why so many people are stuck. I even see, you know, moneyed black people, who will never be wealthy, simply because they don’t know how to handle money. It’s not that they’re not interested. Even they know wealthy people who will not even tell them.
I have a friend who, you know, who knows Jerry Seinfeld, and his wife’s his best friend. And these people [the Seinfelds] have, you know, I mean, millions and millions of dollars. And yet, this guy is just — you know, he’s almost living paycheck to paycheck. His paychecks are big, they’re huge. But, you know, why don’t his friends teach him, exchange with him, how did we learn this?
And that’s something that here at Oberlin you find that people are willing to share. And in different departments, outside of the Chemistry Department, people can have those conversations with you. You know, I go to the African-American Studies Department, and I find just a load of mentors. And the same — and I was also doing dance with Essence and Dance Diaspora and with Johnny Coleman, I just had a conversation with him.
But just to know, you know, to ask people, How did you arrive here? What is your personal story? And it’s so important. And many people don’t even share that, and don’t realize how important it is, perhaps, they don’t realize that they would need to.
But, you know, all the Harvard heads over there [in the Chemistry Department], it’s not working. It really isn’t working. How do we know? How many women are on the faculty? I think one of my classmates has come back, and she’s on the faculty. How many people of color? I think there’s one. If Mr. Nee hasn’t retired, then there’s Manish. You know, why is it? We can’t just keep saying, Why? Or, maybe they’re not interested.
I think women like science too. I don’t think there’s anything inherent, even though people will tell you that men are better able to envision spatial commodities, and blah-blah-blah, like these models we have of cells. You know, we have a big huge hydrocarbon model made of plastic molecules, I at least learned that much. You know, made of — you know, it’s just a plastic model. And I remember one professor said- while demonstrating with one of these complex models- males are much better able to visualize 3-D images in their heads and turn them around, and all this different stuff.
And OK, fine, well, if you really believe that that’s true, then you need to find a different way to go about science, because this is all about questions. And if you’re excluding 55 percent or 60 percent of the population, then you’re excluding — you’re hindering all of us from what they could bring to it. And the same thing goes with class and with race.
And I’ll give you another example. If you look at that — this– the Mars space — the Mars — that tractor kind of thing that we sent up about–
JANIS: Oh, the Rover?
DIEPIRIYE: That was invented by a Malian man who had immigrated to America many years ago. And I was in Peace Corps at the time, so he was highly celebrated in Mali. And if you go to Mali, as in most parts of West Africa, you’ll see very, very poor kids, who are very happy. They don’t realize how poor they are, and it doesn’t really matter. But we keep saying, You’re poor, and you’re destitute. But if you look a these toys that they make from wire, it’s the Mars Rover. Mars is the terrain of unpaved roads in a West African capital. And you have that kind of creativity in India. They call it “jugart,” the ability to make anything work. You know, and I guess once you introduce duct tape to India, it will just be all over. People will be at the next level of jugart.
But the kind of creativity that you can get, that different people get from…coming from different social conditions. And this is something that all of us can benefit from. And … that Chemistry is doing it the least on this campus is really disheartening.
JANIS: And when you were here, did you — or what was your major? And I’m assuming it was chemistry, but I’m not sure–
JANIS: –and what sort of other classes did you take? And since the chemistry was not the most comfortable space to be in, how did your — the other classes that you took sort of affect you and serve as a source of support and sort of help you as you were a student?
DIEPIRIYE: I ended up majoring in biochemistry and minoring in African-American studies. And most of my African-American studies courses were arts courses, like dance. But I also did — we have — of course you have to do history and that sort of thing.
But if you look, most chemistry majors are double majors. I think it’s the norm now, but it was the norm even then, that — in the sciences in general, that you would have a humanities a second major, if not, at least a minor. I was too distracted to know that I could actually have a second major.
But that’s how we did it, that’s how we balanced it. I didn’t enjoy chemistry at all, but I was determined. That was it. I didn’t do extremely well, but I did — well, I should, you know, have majored in things that I did well in, like African-American studies, French. Like I said, I went on the Strasbourg program. And I had a wonderful Senegalese teacher, Medoun Gaye, teach me here.
And that’s what sustained me, that and the student organizations. So the ability to go and dance and travel, travel around and dance, and to choreograph. And I taught a dance course. And Nancy Dye gave me a small grant to study dance, and so I was accepted to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater School in New York, and I went there, I mean, poor boy from Kentucky.
And these are the things that sustained me. I would literally feel sick going into Kettering and having to spend hours in some lab. But luckily, you know, I mean, Obies are Obies, so no one was, like, This is the most serious thing in the world. I mean, at least the people themselves, including the teachers, I mean, ultimately, they are just human beings, but more so the students, you know. And we were all struggling together. It was not easy for any of us.
And that, I mean, that’s what did it.
I think I missed part of your question.
DIEPIRIYE: The co-op, Third World Co-op
JANIS: Oh, OK, yeah.
DIEPIRIYE: Of course, dating. I didn’t date a lot. Men– queer men on this campus don’t seem to date a lot. I hear that queer women have a much more a active romantic and sex life, but queer men, it seemed pretty dry. And I only found out last night that there was cruising on this campus. I had no idea. And, I mean, I dated a man here for a very long time, or for a year. That was a long time for a 19-year-old. And he was a white man. And we would be walking around holding hands, and … we were the only couple I’ve ever seen, the only male couple on this campus.
And come to think of it, I wonder if there are lots of interracial couples at Oberlin. Hmm. But here I was, with this guy. Supposedly we were the cutest couple on campus. But he left me for a woman, and I left him for a life.
But we were young. I mean, I think — I mean, we’re over it now. I don’t think we’re bitter. I hope he’s not bitter. I’m not bitter. I love you, Jim, you’re a nice guy.
JANIS: Well, I guess in thinking about your — what you studied when you were here, your African-American studies and chemistry, major and minor, and how you used or didn’t use those once you left here?
DIEPIRIYE: Well, I mean, the Peace Corps put me in ‘Small Enterprise Development’ because of my experiences in OSCA. But even now, I’m a Ph.D student in sociology, and of course my MPH, master’s in public health. That analytical thinking from sciences is very valuable, so I don’t want to discount it, even though I haven’t done anything in chemistry afterwards. You know, I did extremely well in epidemiology and biostatistics in grad school. It was a breeze, it was just — it was literally a breeze, I guess, largely because of that analytical thinking that I learned here in chemistry. And even now, the compliment that I get from other researchers is that I’m a really analytical thinker. And it’s an invaluable tool.
JANIS: I guess I was just wondering what you were researching, what your research interests are.
DIEPIRIYE: Queer people… Like I said, I went first went to the Peace Corps, and they said there were no queer people. When I first came out to my father, who comes from Nigeria, he said, “Don’t tell anybody from our village. And there’s no one — there are no gay people in our village.” And I just know that that can’t be true, and I firmly believe that.
And so I want to document that. I really want to document the experience of queer people in different parts of the world, and how queerness comes into existence, and how the behavior goes from a behavior to an identity. And it won’t necessarily all be gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender. I mean, even in India now we have a term called “Hidjra,” or “Aravani” and I was in a newspaper, because I went to an Aravani Festival. And I was referred to as Miss — I mean, I was wearing a Sari. Not a surprise. And I was labeled as an Aravani.
And I don’t know, I mean, I consider myself a gay man. But I see that everywhere in the world that I’ve been, people are really kind of confused about my gender. And in some places, people like it, or … it disarms them, especially men, and men who aren’t so — you know, like in Asia and even in Africa, people just don’t feel so challenged by it like men here in America do, by an effeminate man….
And my research interests, yeah, I mean, it’s that, like, I want to study Vogueing, I want to really write about this — because I call them American Kothi . Kothi is an effeminate male who is assumed to be the female partner and the receptive sexual partner between two men, and Kothi’s partner does not identify as gay or bisexual or queer or anything but is identified as a straight, because usually they’re — it’s more about their gender identity. And this Kothi is a South Asian term, in Southeast– in Thailand it’s called Katoey. But here in America, we have American Kothis, and there are these, you know, these houses, like you’ve seen “Paris Is Burning,” and those are Kothi. And I wanted to do more research on that. So if anybody’s willing to give me a grant, I’m willing to do it. Or I’ll find a way no matter what.
But I’ve seen them in Atlanta and Montgomery and in New Orleans, and of course through that movie “Paris Is Burning,” I know that they exist in other parts of the country. And I have a friend who was actually in a house in D.C. And they’re so parallel in so many ways, in ways that it’s very scary, in all the unhealthy ways as well.
But this kind of expression is so unique to Black gay culture. And as you know, Stonewall, they were Black and Latino, poor working-class drag queens. And we have, you know, low and behold, around the world, you have Christopher Street days and Stonewall all around the world. And we have this movement built on those — you know, those people, who probably now we would — we would just kind of put to the side, because even transgender people are still fighting for acceptance within the queer community, or acknowledgment. Who cares about acceptance? But you have to respect people.
And those are my interests, to really valorize these things that just fascinate me. And I, you know, I could spend the rest of my life writing about that.
JANIS: And I guess I just thought of another question, because you just were mentioning transgender people. And I was wondering, when you were on campus here, if that identity or that language was used by people, and if those people who were gender-variant felt comfortable in queer spaces, in Third World Co-op or in other places on campus.
DIEPIRIYE: There was one member of Third World Co-op. Her name — I think her name was Becky. She was a biracial — initially, I thought she was a woman, but she identifies as transgender. I don’t know if she prefers “he” or “she.” I don’t know. And I haven’t seen her since we left Oberlin. But it was new, it was a very new concept, the idea of transgender. And I think my senior year we actually changed LGBU to LGBTU. So I’m pretty sure we changed it about that time. But we didn’t have a concept. It was a very new idea, transgender, yeah, anything, was just very, very new. Bisexual was new.
Or stigmatized, at least. Not new, but definitely stigmatized. But, yeah, transgender was just, you know, it just wasn’t on the radar. But there were a few people who were starting to talk about it.
JANIS: I think that was pretty much all the questions that I was — had sort of thought about. But I don’t know if you have anything additional that you want to add, maybe, that we didn’t really talk about, or–
DIEPIRIYE: There are many queer men of color now. This is an interesting thing on this campus. I talked a little bit about it earlier. I remember in the Con, in my class year, there was — there were four men that I can think of off the bat, and they were just obviously gay and queer, and only one of them was out. And the rest, the other three, they were just so closeted. And they’d try — and which meant that they often would stay away from Black community organizing and queer community organizing, and just kind of live their lives in the Con. And I just could never understand what was behind this, why they would so strongly want to remain in the closet on this campus.
And I think for all four years, you know, even though I had sex with one of them during Senior Week just before graduation, they were in — they were just closeted. And I think that’s a very serious concern, because, you know, when you talk, when you start talking about secrecy and people start doing things in the closet, then it doesn’t tend to be very safe. And as we know, rates of HIV/AIDS are rising first among poor women of color in this nation. But then you find black men.
And there’s a new identity, the DL [down low] brother. But see, that’s the thing, here in America…this is why I say there’s kind of a colonizing mentality that we have, because there really is something to an identity that is not gay, and the only things that I can find, like DL people, people on the down low, you find it all over Asia, men who negotiate their identities so differently.
But when it’s secret, or when it’s stigmatized, then … that’s when you run into problems. That’s when people make decisions based on fear, have hasty sex that’s unsafe, try to mimic, you know, very rigid hegemonic gender roles, which, of course, still say that men control and own violence and should be violent towards their feminine partner, be that a woman or a feminized man. And it’s frightening.
And so this, I think, is another motivation behind me wanting to document these things. And I think this is something else I’ve learned as a chemist, it’s just how to be a researcher and how to document things and go about that. So it’s been — it’s invaluable, the lessons I’ve learned on this campus, both in and outside of the classroom, to what I do now.
JANIS: OK, well, I think that will bring us to the end, unless there’s anything additional that you wanted to add.
DIEPIRIYE: Oh, MRC, invaluable, invaluable resource. It was just coming into being when I was here, but it is — cannot begin to — I mean, look, we’re here now because of the MRC. We have a face. You know, very simple things like that.
JANIS: OK, great.
DIEPIRIYE: Thank you.
JANIS: You’re welcome.