Writer’s long road to ‘genius’
Updated: November 26, 2012 6:57AM
During his first day as a Fenwick High School freshman, Dinaw Mengestu broke from the class tour and vomited in a nearby bathroom.
While his orientation nausea abated, there remained a gut-level discomfort that persisted. Its primary cause: race.
“To some people I wasn’t considered African-American enough or black enough,” the 34-year-old Ethiopian-born author and recent MacArthur Fellowship ‘‘Genius’’ grant recipient sid of his days at Fenwick, where he graduated in 1996.
“And then, of course, there were some white students who just saw me as a n-----.
“Most of my freshman year I had students sitting next to me calling me ‘n-----’ in class,” he remembered. “I had students walking down the hallway who yelled, ‘That n----- smells!’”
Quiwana Bell, a classmate at the Dominican-run Catholic institution whose alums include Pulitzer Prize winners and an astronaut, knew Mengestu only casually, but she felt his pain acutely.
“It was isolating, it was lonely,” said Bell, who is black and was raised in an all-black Chicago neighborhood. “It must have been especially difficult for him, because he was black but he wasn’t black American.”
Mengestu’s fiction – “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” “How to Read the Air” – owes a debt to those days. Race and economics are central concerns in all of his books, he noted.
Jerry Lordan, who taught Mengestu world history and western civilization at Fenwick, said he never witnessed Mengestu’s racial strife. What he did see was “a young man who was extremely introverted. Very shy, very private.”
And very angry. Occasionally, his anger manifested itself physically. In one instance, Mengestu said, a brawl between him and another boy was broken up by police.
Having been torn from the “marvelously eclectic” group of pals he’d grown up with in Forest Park, these occasional violent outbursts were at first the only way Mengestu knew of to vent his mounting frustration.
Among Mengestu’s closest pals as a first-generation Muslim kid named Aamer Madhani. According to Madhani, their friendship was cemented during a trip to obtain fake I.D.s at a flea market just over the Indiana border.
Like Mengestu, Madhani ran cross-country. Like Mengestu, he wasn’t Catholic. And like Mengestu, he felt the weight of other-ness upon his shoulders.
“They would have rallies for football. And the swim teams were really good back then,” said Madhani, White House correspondent for USA Today. “And almost inevitably, most of the black kids there were recruited to play one sport or another. And there was a whole group of them, through at least three of my four years, who [sat] in the front row during the rallies and wouldn’t stand up. That was sort of their silent protest [against] the way things were and the way you were treated by teachers for the most part.”
Fenwick president Rev. Richard Peddicord, a theology teacher there from 1986 to 1990, said the school now has a “diversity committee” on its board of trustees, an annual diversity-training program for faculty and staff as well as an annual assembly program for students “on issues particularly of racial sensitivity.” For the classes of 2014 through 2016, he added, minority enrollment is up “significantly” to 22 percent.
During their respective tenures, both Madhani and Mengestu said, overt bigotry among teachers wasn’t a universal problem and Lordan in particular went above and beyond to help them navigate often-choppy waters.