That which Upholds a Society and Founds a Community: The Visible and the Unnoticed

Societies need people to function and communities need something in common around which to coalesce. These needs are met in different ways by and for different people.

While we acknowledge the importance of doctors and lawyers, teachers and professors—what might be called the upper-class workers—we tend not to notice the people who have the greatest effect on our day to day lives. Yes, the upper-class workers are important, preforming specialized task or providing specific help in our times of need, but how often do we pass by the people who found our sense of normalcy. I’m speaking of the janitors, the grounds keepers, the bus drivers, the servers at functions—a group of people who, in my experience thus far, tend to be immigrants, or at least people of non-Western European descent.

In my brief time in country, I’ve had people thank me for engaging them in conversation and listening to them. For asking questions about their experience and showing genuine interest. I had a worker at the train station give me a croissant one morning. All I did was say what’s up to him as he sat on the stairs eating his breakfast, rather than walking around him as the other commuters did. In short, I’ve had people show genuine appreciation because I treated them like people. I’ve only really encountered those kinds of reactions in the states when I talk to homeless people. So, it makes me wonder how those people I’ve encountered here who react in that manner feel about their situation.

When I walk around Leuven, I can’t help but notice how well maintained the city is. But neither can I help but notice who is doing the maintenance nor the stares I receive. It can be disheartening, but it has led to some humorous incidents. Case in point, as I was walking through the streets one evening, a man was so focused on me that he failed to see the signpost in front of him. He eventually noticed it, however, when he walked straight into it. I got a laugh, and maybe he got a lesson in expanded situational awareness. But it made me wonder, what about me drew his attention so completely? As I’ve said, you can’t move through this city without encountering other people of color. But I guess they seem more in place, and thus go unnoticed.

However, that’s not to say that the entirety of my experience here has been a downer. I have found a community of sorts.

That which is common around which communities coalesces can be some shared interest, goal, hope, or aspiration. But it can also be some shared difficulty. This is the foundation of a community of solidarity.

I haven’t met any other Black Americans, not that I really expected to, and I’ve only really met two other Americans not associated with the Fulbright program. I’m sure there are others here, but they blend in. Be that as it may, that doesn’t mean I’ve been alone and isolated. I’ve amassed a social group of fellow international students, some from Eastern Europe, others from Latin America, the Middle East region, and the African Continent. We all share the experience of a feeling of not belonging, but together, we keep each other from being isolated. Granted, we bounded over stories of being, or at least feeling, slighted on a regular basis in our daily lives in town. But our friendship has move beyond co-misery at unfairness. When I want to hangout, they’re who I turn to. When I have questions about locating things, they’re who I ask. They’re my misfit community that makes me feel like a fit in.

Belonging is the sense of having a place.

The title of my blog post is applicable as the title and caption of the picture I submitted to accompany it. To me, the picture is emblematic of my experience, so far, in a way a group selfie could never be.

In the picture, we see headless bronze figures, presumable people from the region of Central Africa, holding up the walls of the Africa Museum. The sculpture reveals, what upholds not only the museum itself, but some of the wealth and architecture of Belgium in general. Leopold II was known as the Builder King, and the wealth for his construction projects was extracted from his Central African colonial holdings. After all, I’ve never seen a diamond mine in Antwerp.

But the sculpture also allow a Camusian interpretation, there’s a bit of “The Myth of Sisyphus” to the figures. Sisyphus is a figure from Greek mythology, condemned to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity. But just as he nears the top, the boulder rolls back down to the foot of the hill and he must begin his task again. Camus say one must imagine Sisyphus happy, that the struggle itself fills his heart. And while we don’t necessarily have to imagine these figures as happy, we can see them united in their struggle, each helping the other in the task. But not only do they hold up the edifice, they push against it, they repel its totalizing dominance. That the figures are headless has a dual effect. It may, on the one hand, remove any sense of definite identity, but, on the other, it allows anyone who feels a kinship with the figures, with all the bittersweeteness that entails, to see themselves, and maybe, belong.

The recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Belgium, West Poindexter will spend the 2019-2020 academic year completing a Master of Philosophy at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State