I first heard of Big D almost fifteen years ago. He had won a grant from the city’s police department to write its history. I had never met or even seen him, and thought that this person who had won the grant was someone else with a similar name but with a much different physique and a much different approach to the history of policing. In the fall of that year, I saw Big D for the first time. He was pacing the halls before taking the comprehensive exam. Around and around he paced, passing by the t.a. office over and over, for nearly an hour. “That’s Big D,” one of the other t.a.s told me, with a tinge of awe and a touch of resentment. Big D later told me that most white people reacted to him that way.
I didn’t meet Big D until the spring. I was sitting out on the balcony, which was more of an outdoor hallway, and reading for my own comprehensive exams. Big D showed up and sat down to do some of his own reading for his next class. He told me later that he took one look at me in my Laura Ashley knock-off and thought “what’s this little china doll doing here.” He laughed, “you were all in that frilly dress and I thought ‘she must have a petticoat on up under there.’” Actually, I did. Chantal, another graduate student and the much-younger wife of one of the adjunct professors showed up. She and Big D knew each other and began to talk about graduate school and some of the problems in the department. I had my own issues and opinions on the subject, so I chimed in. Big D said my attitude did not match my looks.
Big D and I did not become friends until the following fall. That was the semester of the Groovy T.A.s., which included Babu, the Brown-Nosed Reindeer, the Pet Wolf, the Cave Boy, and Cheetos, among others. For the first time since I had entered graduate school, I felt a camaraderie with the other students. Big D was not a t.a., but he would stop by our office and hang out. I really don’t remember exactly at what point I went from being the “neurotic little white girl” to being his first white friend; but I did. I don’t know when he went from being Big D, our big brother, to Big D, the person who could talk me off of the ledge (and my first black friend); but he did. And very quickly.
Big D stayed away from departmental politics; but, being a large black man who studied Civil Rights at a southern university, the politics often found him. His intelligence and right to be in the department were questioned on sight. The old guard went out of their way to portray him as an affirmative action "welfare" case for the department, depsite the fact that he was seldom in their classes and never applied for any financial assistance or asked for any preferential treatment. He knew that this was bullshit, and tried to find ways to walk around it rather than confront it. Confrontation would cast him as the "angry black man."
He, in fact, is never confrontational. He believes in the power of persuasion, in defusing clashes. He believes in the importance of rational mediation. He also absolutely refuses to be treated as anything less than an intelligent human being.
So, he found the professors who had something to teach him about history, and who would teach him with respect; and he learned from them. Then, he turned around and helped any other student who asked, graduate or otherwise. "We are the only ones who are going to get ourselves through this process," he would say. "Our work will speak for us and silence our opponents."
These days, when students from our old graduate school meet him, they approach him with awe, but with no resentment. They think of him as a star, and are sometimes too intimidated to approach him. That amuses him. "These crazy little white kids," he says, "if they would just sit down and talk to me, they would realize I'm just regular people." When they do talk to him, he gives them whatever advice or help that they want or need.
Today, Big D went into the hospital for surgery. He has an atrial fibrillation, which will be treated with radiofrequency ablation. This is supposed to be a common and safe treatment, and will prevent him from having a stroke or more radical and invasive surgery later in his life. Whereas, earlier this year, I feared my mother's death in her double knee replacement surgery, I find that I cannot comprehend Big D's death. I love my mother, but something in me always sees her as soft and weak, although she has proven herself otherwise on many occasions. Big D, on the other hand, is tough and strong, both in body and in will. The thought that anything could happen to him seems incomprehensible. The most reality that I can muster is the recognition of the irony that someone with as big a heart as his could be felled by it.
The sense of irony is a cold observation; and it is the only buffer that I have between myself and the raw fear of the emptiness of a world without Big D.