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South Carolina Honors College

Great Expectations

by Yana Johnson

Disappointment is a chronic condition when you are Black in South Carolina. It is to walk on eggshells over a minefield, unsure when you’ll find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong moment and end up as vaporized mist dispersed through the atmosphere. It’s the natural toll taken in exchange for attempting to find joy in a society meant to surround and suffocate you with thinly veiled malice and hurtful assumptions. Despite your pain and resentment, you will sit and take it when others’ laughter always comes at your expense, and you will never, ever complain. Quickly, you will learn that your peers can stone you with a thousand insults coated in “comedy,” but you can never call them out on their behavior. 

You will never want to make a situation uncomfortable, so you will swim in a sea of disappointment until you find the safety of the shore. You will wait for the time when another wave inevitably comes and quietly, you’ll be swept deep into anguish once again. 

My first significant experience as disappointment’s casualty was from a boy named Evan, my elementary first love. Where most other boys in my class would eventually make a color, animal, or otherwise crude joke at solely my expense, Evan’s jokes seemed tailored to make me laugh. He was generally liked by almost everyone, but to me, Evan was supernatural. He existed on a plane above the rest of humanity, and I swore there was no greater possible achievement than to be invited up there with him. In the most all-consuming way possible for a nine-year-old, I was utterly, entirely enamored of him.  

Until, of course, he told me that I would be buried in a slave graveyard.  

While on a third-grade field trip to a historic plantation, Evan nudged me with his elbow and pointed at a wooden plaque stuck into the earth. The ground was muddy and unceremoniously peppered with little crosses. Turning to me, Evan whispered, grinning, “That’s where you’ll be buried.” 

Disappointment matches the force of your set expectations. So from an early age, I learned to expect very little from my peers and authorities. They don’t know any better was the mantra I repeated for every adult who complimented my “impressive” articulation and to every classmate who asked if the school’s Jamaican janitor was my dad. Feeling sorry for them, for their sad mental inflexibility, allowed me to level-set expectations when they inevitably broke the low bar set for them. 

The force of the disappointment I felt towards Evan was nuclear. Every mosquito in that green, boggish swamp could have stung my very organs themselves and it would’ve been a paper cut compared to what Evan had caused me. 

I looked into his eyes, blue as lapis, for any tinge of regret. I stared at his alabaster skin, imagining some semblance of apology forming on his face. He only appeared regretful that I didn’t find the joke as funny as he had. Despite shattering my perception of himself, Evan felt no shame, no guilt, no remorse for his mortifyingly ugly attempt at humor. He shrugged off my reaction like a fallen pine needle off his jacket. 

Evan never knew the disappointment I harbored for him from that day on. Again, I knew that he didn’t know any better, and though I couldn’t truly fault him for that, I could resent it. I resented his blasé attitude and his complacency in being so insultingly ignorant. More than anything, I resented that I couldn’t correct him without draining our relationship of any and all “fun.” I would have just been the humorless Black girl who couldn’t take a joke, a bigger bog than the swamp grounds we meandered through. I would have been hated for breaking the cardinal rule to never, ever make it uncomfortable. 

South Carolina is not a state of difficult, critical introspection. We are a culture of sweet tea, palmetto shade, and hospitality. We are a state of fellowship and tailgating, of sunshine, and above all, comfort. What South Carolina must learn to be is uncomfortable. South Carolina must realize that discomfort is not a terminal ailment. It is tough, and often painful, but it is the lone remedy to the pain and isolation stemming from lifelong disappointment in your peers, your society, and yourself. Without the necessary reflection brought on by welcoming uncomfortable, self-critical conversations, South Carolina will cycle through the same motions of casual, complacent cruelty with no end in sight. 

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.