The emotional weight of Professor Marc Orbe’s virtual living memorial presentation for late Western Michigan University student, Jamal Williams was palpable— many attendees, even those who hadn’t known Jamal, were in tears.
Faculty and students joined Orbe on September 9 for his #ScholarStrike presentation entitled, “The Socially Constructed Assault on Black Men: A living Memorial for Jamal Williams.” Williams, a Black man, was killed by security guards at Munster Community Hospital in mid-June while seeking treatment for anxiety. National unrest over the death of George Floyd, police brutality, and ongoing systemic racism had muddied Williams’s mental and emotional health.
“There was a point there, I think it was in late May where we figured out Jamal wasn’t Jamal,” Head Football Coach Tim Lester said. “He wasn’t smiling and that smile gave a lot away.”
Lester recruited and coached Williams during his time at WMU.
“I talked to his mom, and I remember we got him checked in and I remember thinking this is the first night I’m going to rock to sleep and not worry about it,” Lester explained. “That was the night.”
Orbe first met Williams in one of his 2019 communication classes. Williams was seated at the back of the lecture hall with his teammates but Orbe called him out and encouraged the group to sit closer to the front and be “active learners.” Students of Orbe’s know he routinely does this to engage all the students in his lecture classes.
“After that first exam… all three of them ended up doing really well,” Orbe explained as he choked back tears. “And my memory is just how much fun they were having in the class, how much they were learning, and how Jamal’s smile lit up the room.”
After the class ended, Orbe lost track of Williams until Williams named Orbe his most valuable professor at graduation.
“We didn’t have many interactions but then I realized the power of teaching and the power of seeing people for who they are,” Orbe said.
Orbe went on to explain how the media reinforces a generalized fear of Black men in an effort to explain and contextualize why unarmed Black men are seen as a threat. This understanding is influenced by race; a socio-political construct people have given meaning to.
“Think about the descriptions of Black male athletes,” Orbe implored. “Broadcasters often describe their brute power, their natural abilities rather than their intelligence, their work ethic, their nuanced understanding of the game.”
The concept of race is a child of racism, Orbe explained. He referenced the ‘manifest destiny’ doctrine used to justify American expansion. Practitioners of this philosophy saw native people as savages who needed to be civilized.
“Racism is so ingrained in America that when people condemn racism others think that they’re anti-American,” Orbe emphasized.
Williams’ father shared with Orbe something Williams said before he passed: “the same people who cheer me on on the field hate me.”
“Black men are viewed as a threat regardless of how they dress, what they’re doing or not doing, how they communicate,” Orbe said. “Black bodies, we’ve been socialized to see them as aggressive.”
The profitability of racism in terms of unpaid and underpaid labor, private prisons, and police funding is why these societal constructs are so everlasting, Orbe explained.
“Some say the system is broken and needs to be fixed, others would argue that the system is working exactly as it was designed to work,” he said.
Orbe, a person of color, went on to explain how his white friends sometimes write off concerns he has over the safety of his Black children.
WMU student Shekinah Lee, one of Williams’ friends, explained how she feels she had a special understanding of Williams because they grew up in the same area.
“It was easier for me to understand the trauma that may have been behind his situation,” she explained. “Not a lot of people who come from the city that we come from will understand.”
Two days before Williams left, he was teaching WMU Football’s Defensive Coordinator, Lou Esposito’s, four-year-old twins how to play chess.
“One of my twins, Anthony, he said ‘dad, Jamal’s dead, why?’”
“I don’t have an answer for that,” Esposito said.
His voice cracked as he continued.
“Me being a coach, my job is to give people answers and I don’t have them,” Esposito said. “It’s hard for me. I’ve been good but talking about Jamal brings up memories and frustration, anger, sadness and compassion.”
WMU student Ken Aguirre described him and Williams as “blood brothers.” The two were similar in just about every way imaginable, down to a shared birthday.
“I’ve been thinking about him every day, just going through it,” Aguirre said. “The other day I just wanted to call him and I woke up, I had a dream bout him and— I couldn’t even— the whole day, I was just telling my girlfriend, ‘I can’t believe Jamal’s gone.’”