It was a grey day in the Atlanta University Center. I was a freshman at Morehouse College headed back to my LLC dorm room between my morning and afternoon classes. As I made my way, there was chatter on the yard of an airplane crashing into the World Trade Center in New York City. I said to myself, “man that’s awful” writing it off as one of the rare occasions something goes terribly wrong on a plane causing the pilot to lose control and accidentally crash. It wasn’t until I returned to my dorm to learn that what had gone terribly wrong was not an accident at all, but quite an intentional act of terror against our country. We were under attack on our own soil.
I didn’t have a TV in my room, but one of my dorm-mates did, so I went down the hall to find him glued to the news of yet another plane crashing into the other tower or the World Trade Center, as well as a plane into the Pentagon. He was speechless – his hand strangling the life out of his cell phone. He looked over his shoulder at me and said solemnly, “My mother works in the Pentagon.” He was from Maryland and was unable to reach his mom because all the phone lines were down.*
While all of this was very horrible to me, I was shamefully more concerned about the embarrassing haircut I’d given myself the night before that was forcing me to wear a hat everywhere. After doing a quick assessment of who within my immediate circle of family and friends could have been affected by this tragedy, I had given myself permission to be desensitized once I’d come up with nothing – or no one, rather. That nothingness allowed me to be empathetic for those affected while preserving my own personal comfort. Back then, being vulnerable was synonymous with being weak to me, so my defense mechanism against vulnerability was to completely detach from things personally. I know, stupid.
However, seeing my brother sitting on his knees in front of the TV like a helpless child nervously trying to reach his mother, made this personal for me. A plane might as well have crashed into our dorm room. But even while this was happening hundreds of miles away, on the campus of Morehouse College, we still had class to attend. There’s a saying that “rain can’t stop The House…Nobody stops The House!” This time was no different. As schools were closing all over the country for fear of where the next potential attack might be, we were business as usual at Morehouse.
I made my way to my 1 o’clock Calculus II class with Dr. McLaughlin, a cheeky white fellow with glasses who always wore bowties with penny loafers. Even more so than his dress, Dr. McLaughlin was known for his sarcastic, rigid, unsympathetic attitude. This act of terrorism however had altered his natural state just as it had affected me. It was personal. Needless to say no Calculus was taught or learned that day and Dr. McLaughlin dismissed class for those who wanted to leave, allowing those who wanted to stay and talk about what was happening, the option to do so. No one left. Here was a middle-aged white male Calculus professor and a classroom full of young black men at an HBCU in solidarity with one another. It didn’t matter what our race, age, or background was in that moment, it only mattered that we were American.
September 11, 2001 American security was breached. American sovereignty was fractured. But American citizens were united. More than 3000 lives were lost, and even more lives changed – some for the better. But America, America was united. As we find ourselves divided over so many things today be it race, gender, faith, sexuality, or class; let us never forget that in all of its loss and sacrifice, the greatest act of terror on American soil united us as one people. Let us honor those who made such great sacrifices on that day, by never forgetting that we still have a reason to unite as one on this day, and days to come. Never forget.
*My dorm-mate eventually was able to reach his mother to learn that she was not harmed in the attack.