Search
  • Charles Greene

Post #4 Crabs in a Barrel : My Conversation with Jammil Telfort

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

I have to admit that this has been the most challenging interview I have had to edit so far. The subject, Jammil Telfort, is my former advisee from St. Mark’s School, in Southborough Massachusetts. Even though it has been years since I played any official role in his life, I still feel the familiar desire to guide his way in the world. I had the pleasure of living and working with hundreds of fine young men and women in my decade on the St. Mark’s campus. I was always amazed at these young students’ ability to navigate this time away from their parents with such grace and poise while also managing the teen years’ sturm and drang.


For my advisees of color, like Jammil, I was always doubly concerned and impressed by their ability to handle everything while managing the added pressure of fit, identity, and expectation. As much as I tried to be a helpful, supportive, guide, mentor, and friend, I would secretly spend my time as his advisor, marveling at his combination of optimistic spirit and clear-headed view of the world. I think his peers felt it too, as they would eventually select him as their Head Monitor (think student-body president).


I could have selected any of my Black advisees for this interview. Each would have provided an eloquent and poignant view of the world from a millennial point of view. Given Jammil’s recent graduation from an Ivy League school, I was personally curious about how the 30-year age difference, coupled with his experience as a Haitian immigrant, might differentiate our views of the world. The contrast was not as striking as the similarities. Maybe that is a lesson in all of these interviews. In any case, in this excerpt from our much longer conversation, we cover “The Talk, “ walking while Black, and Jammil’s take on being Black in America today. It is at once optimistic, clear-headed, realistic, and smart, just like Jammil.

Enjoy.


C.L.Greene II ____________________________________________________


Headshot of Jammil Telfort
Jammil Telfort

Interviewee: Jammil Telfort

Age: 22

Place of Birth: Port au Prince, Haiti

Marketing Analyst, Gatorade

Current Location: Chicago, Illinois

Interviewer: Charles L. Greene II Executive Director, The Big Black Man Project.


CLG2: We talked earlier about your optimism and having to reconcile some things about America. I wonder if you could talk about some of the harsh truths you mentioned learning about as you have gotten older.


J Telfort: I think the one that really rings bells with me, especially as a Black man is the racism and police brutality in this country. Especially, just really knowing that at any moment, my brother, my cousin, my closest friends, our lives could be thrown away because of the prejudice or preconceived notion of one bad actor or multiple bad actors.


That's something that can be hard for me to sit with. I am only shooting from my perspective here and just thinking about many of the things that I've been able to do over the course of my life. I've worked hard to get to the point where I'm at today. I'm still working hard. And someone can look at me, know nothing about me or my story, and make very negative judgments about who I am based on my skin color, the texture of my hair, the size of my nose, or my lips. These things, of all things, feel so trivial. And it could be the thing that seals my fate. Do you know what I mean? Someone else's preconceived notion of who I am. And that's not even considering someone whose life experience is unlike mine, and whether that plays a role in whether that person deserves to live or die.


Whether you're a college dropout, didn't finish high school, or whatever else people would consider a bad thing that might make somebody think a life is worth “less,” for lack of a better term, we all deserve a shot at life. We deserve people to get to know us for who we are, know our character, and what we bring to the world, what we hope to bring and do, versus thinking, ‘He’s black. He’s dark-skinned. Look at his hair, his lips.’ It all seems so trivial, and I find it heartbreaking quite honestly.


CLGII: Heartbreaking is the best way to describe it. I know that I move through the world just trying to be a dad, a friend, an advisor, a guy who works and does a job. I'm just doing my thing. And I do most of it pretty well. And to think that there are people who hold a view of me, and people like me and have predetermined that I might not matter is heartbreaking if you spend time dwelling on it.


J Telfort: A thousand percent. Heartbreaking is one thousand percent the right word. I feel like I am just trying to be a good person, a better person than I was the day before. I mean, if I could even be 1% better, I would feel like, ‘That’s great!!’ That would be a win versus some folks who don’t feel the same way.


I’m sure I told you the story. I can't even count the number of times I have told this story now. I think it was sophomore year, and it was me, Damian, and Maposa. We're walking to Quiznos to get a sandwich on a Sunday morning. On our way back, this cop car pulled us over to the side of the road. What I've heard is that this was the only Black officer in Southborough. Honestly, to this day, I will say we couldn’t have been any luckier than it being this officer.

Jammil and friends from St. Mark's School.

He starts asking us, “What are you doing? Where are you going?” and we respond that we go to St. Mark’s School, and we are walking back from Quiznos where we got some food. He tells us that he had received a call about us and that we were supposedly making a lot of noise and throwing things in dumpsters. We looked at each other and thought none of that happened. The only thing I can think of was putting my empty cup on top of the receptacles they had for cigarette smokers. Maposa took my cup and threw it in a trash dumpster instead. I guess we didn't see that they had trash cans set up elsewhere.


The cop then tells us that he knew it would be some bullshit when he got the call. He told us that we have to be careful walking out here because people will see us and make all these assumptions and feel some way just because of our looks. That was, for me, a real eye-opening moment. Even with St. Mark's gear on, even with all of this stuff, these people, whoever they are, wherever they were, wherever they were calling from, they saw us and felt threatened. People are threatened enough to call the police on three 15-year-old kids just trying to get a sandwich. It's scary because if it had been a different cop, you never know. You never know what would have happened.


It’s crazy because you think it's something that only happens in the deep south, in stereotypically and historically racist places. You wouldn't expect it in a wealthy, New England kind of town. At least, up until that point, I wouldn't have expected it. But you know that experience, and others like that one, open your eyes. This is our country.


CLG2: So I’m curious. Having come from Haiti and possibly growing up with a different experience of blackness, I wondered if you got “The Talk.”


J Telfort: Yeah, so I did. And it was coupled with some other things. I can speak to my experience, particularly as a Caribbean immigrant. It’s interesting because when I was younger, my mom would tell my brother and me that sort of thing all the time. ‘You are Black in this country, and you’ve got to be really careful. You can't just be walking around looking any kind of way.’ She was privy to what's going on. She knew the world wouldn’t stop to make the distinction of Black American versus Haitian versus Jamaican. They see you and say, “That's a Black person.”. Hence, you have to carry yourself in a way that would, at the very least, make people want to treat you with a little bit more respect, especially given that they're going to be looking for any way to discredit you or disrespect you because of the color of your skin. We talked about it.


I was very fortunate to have my mom talk about that. She was very, very clear about that. The idea that I would challenge my family on was the distinction between how Black immigrants think of themselves in relation to Black Americans. Statements like, ”These Black people, they've been in this country with all these resources for so many years, and they're still at the bottom of the totem pole. What are they doing with it?” That is the kind of rhetoric you would hear. When I was young, I ignored it. I didn't buy into the idea that Black Americans are worse because I had all of these Black American, African and Caribbean people around me. As I got older, especially in college, I studied systemic, institutionalized

Jammil with his mother and brother.

racism and learned about this country’s history and Black people’s history within it. This past summer, I was having a conversation with my mom, and she started to say something. I had to stop her and say, “Listen, at the end of the day, you and the rest of my aunts and uncles decided that coming to the US was going to be a good idea for us to chase the American dream, to get a shot at a better life, correct?” Coming to America wouldn't have even been a thought in their minds if it wasn't for Black Americans, if it wasn't for all the work that Black Americans have been doing, since the Emancipation Proclamation, since Jim Crow, since the civil rights movement, and everything in between, before and after. We are here on the backs of Black Americans. The US would not be a country we could think of coming to if it wasn't for them. Second, we're coming from a place on the outside, where having the opportunity to come here alone fills us with a sense of hope. Even though we came here poor, we sense that there is a trajectory, and we are buying into the American dream. We haven't lived in America for generations, unlike Black Americans who have been here for generations and have seen and felt the weight of institutionalized racism and oppression. It affects your sense of reality. My grandparents and great grandparents never had to drink out of colored only water fountains, nor were they denied loans for housing or had their schools continually and systematically underfunded merely because of their skin color.


I don’t want to speak on behalf of all Black Americans, but I have learned that it has a long-lasting effect on the Black community’s opportunities and psyche. Generations of being told no or being denied opportunities affect your ability to see what else is out there. I hear people use the analogy of crabs in a barrel. People mention issues like Black on Black crime, how we are tearing each other down, and how we are acting like crabs in a barrel. Nobody ever talks about who the hell put them into the barrel.


Nobody’s ever asking the question, “Why does this barrel exist? Who chose to pack them in this barrel? Why is this wrong?” What would crabs do if they were not in these barrels? Pardon my language, but they would just be doing crab shit, living their lives. You can’t put people in these incredibly restrictive conditions and only look at what their actions are within those conditions.

Jammil and friends at UPenn.


498 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All