Eye Contact, A Head Nod, and a Show of Support: Encountering Black Men in A Public Space

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Over the last few weeks I rediscovered the library on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary.  I used to spend quite a bit of time in this library when I was a student at Palmer Theological Seminary, and truly I missed the scholarly environment and the feeling of learning that can only be found when a person is surrounded by a collection of books, manuscripts and other documents.

The library is often filled with people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. For instance, it is not unusual for me to see Korean, white or Indian students when I walk into the building or make my way down a corridor. Yet, I can’t help but notice that there aren’t many blacks on campus and rarely do I bump into black men.  When I do see a brotha we usually make brief eye contact and then go on about our business.  Nevertheless, these encounters significant as I feel like I am on the same wavelength with the men in part because we are black and male and face similar challenges in academia and society.

Psychologists and others have studied what happens when strangers encounter each other in public places for some time and there is plenty of evidence, which suggests that who you look at and how long you look at that person means something.  It also means something when we notice a person and then quickly look away.  The late social scientist, Erving Goffman, referred to this process as “civil inattention” and argued that brief eye contact sends the message that I while I “see” you, a conversation or social interaction is not needed or desired.

The library on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, NJ

It is impossible to determine what someone is thinking, but I can certainly understand facial expressions and non-verbal cues.  On one occasion when I was in the library I encountered a black man who was sitting in a study room.  It was easy for me to see him there behind the floor to ceiling glass windows, and as we made eye contact I got the feeling that he was someone surprised to see another black man.  The look on his face was one of respect – it was almost as his face conveyed the message that “If you are here you most likely came to study, read or perhaps work on a paper and I respect you for that.”  Ironically, I felt the same way when I looked at him.  He had books and papers spread across the desk and I could not help but wonder if he was working on his masters, doctorate or some other degree.  And since he was in the seminary library I wondered if he was a minister and working on a sermon.  At any rate, I felt connected to the man in part because we were both men of color and on that day we shared the same public space.

On another occasion I encountered an older black man or what we in the black church call a “seasoned” saint.  The lines on his face and the gray in his hair gave me the impression that he had been around for a while and had probably seen some things.  Like the previous man I mentioned, this fella was also sitting in the study room.  He looked up from his books, our eyes locked and again the look on his face was one of respect.  The only difference was that this time without provocation he closed his eyes, bowed his head gently, and then looked up at me again.  Within that instant he conveyed the message that “I see what you are doing and if you are here you are trying to advance yourself – carry on young man.”  And with that I found a large table, sat down and opened my laptop and began to get down to business.

My encounter with the second man was more significant because he added a head nod and a slight bow, which I took as a show of support.  I am struggling to complete my PhD and he will never know how that gesture gave me a little boost.

I still travel to the library on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary, in fact I am on campus now working on this blog.  I only saw one black man today, but he was unaware of my presence.  I will continue to come here and hopefully I will encounter more brothas on campus.


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