What does it mean to be black in America?

Vice President of Student Affairs Willie Banks says ‘there is no barometer on being black.’ He uses his experiences of the world, his loving family and encounters with intolerance to make the campus a better place for Sycamores.

The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is a death sentence for most whose bodies it invades.

When Willie Banks Jr.’s father was diagnosed in April of 2008, however, the son treated it as an opportunity to learn about life.

The days he spent by his father’s side were filled with stories about his travels and lessons he had learned along the way.

For Willie Banks Sr., a young black man growing up in the segregated Deep South in the 1940s, equality and having the same basic opportunities as whites was a fool’s dream. Yet, this ambitious man saw past the limitations his country placed upon him and enlisted himself in the military at 17 — and spent the next 26 years there.

“Willie! Where’s my old bag?” his father asked as he lay in the hospital bed waiting to receive treatment.

“What are you talking about? Your bag is right here, Dad,” Willie said.

At that moment, Willie’s mother walked through the door.

“There’s my old bag,” Willie Sr. said.

Willie Sr. and Prasai Banks pose for a portrait.

Prasai Banks was the love of his life. She was only 18 years old when she met Willie Sr. in Ubon, Thailand. According to Thai tradition, she should have married much earlier. As the oldest of her eight siblings, Prasai was expected to marry first before the others could.

Similarly, Willie Sr.’s family had given up on the thought of the then 32-year-old bachelor settling down.

Willie Sr. and Prasai had a two-year courtship before they married on June 8, 1968. At the height of the Vietnam War and in a society where interracial marriage was considered taboo, both of their families were just happy they had found one another. The next year, their first child, Barbara, was born.

“My worldview is really shaped by the experiences of my father and mother as two different people from two different backgrounds coming together to form this family,” Willie Jr. said.

At age 6, having traveled the world with his family, Willie knew more about different cultures and traditions than most adults. But he didn’t feel his own otherness until he moved to the same rural town in Southwest Georgia where his father had grown up.

It was the mid-1970s when his family moved from Naples, Italy to Moultrie, Ga. Interracial marriage was legalized not even a decade earlier, and segregation was illegal but the division between races in the South was still glaring. Willie’s mother was the only Asian woman within a 70-mile radius.

“I don’t think this is where we are supposed to be, Mom. Can we go back home to Italy?” young Willie Jr. asked Prasai.

Willie Banks Jr., far right, poses for a photograph with his parents, Willie Sr. and Prasai.

Naples was home for Willie. He could remember the hospital that was shaped like a horse shoe where his younger brother was born. He remembered going to the market with his mother and pinching mozzarella cheese off of the block. He missed the different people and cultures and the food. All he knew was Georgia did not feel like home.

“It was hard to grow up in a small town and being different,” Willie said. “If you don’t see anyone who looks like you then you think that you are really the only person in the world that exists.”

From first grade through high school, Willie was always one of two kids of color in his classrooms. He was teased and called “Oreo” by other students for the way he talked.

“That was the impetus for me that I wanted to go to college,” Willie said. “I knew there had to be something beyond the walls of a small South Georgia town.”

Willie attended Mercer University in Macon, also known as “the Heart of Georgia,” where he pursued a bachelor’s in communication and theater arts. He became the president of the university’s programming board, involved in student government, and worked in admissions for four years.

“My life was transformed through my collegiate experience,” Willie said. “I found comfort in college. I decided that I wanted to create those environments for others students so they could find comfort too, especially if they are different in any sort of way because it’s hard trying to find community.”

It was in August 1994, the summer before Willie’s second year of graduate school at the University of Georgia in Athens, when he came out as gay to his old college roommate. Willie was 22.

“I knew I was gay for a long time but I was finally coming to terms with it and speaking it into existence was very hard,” Willie said. “I didn’t have many role models when I came out in the early ’90s.”

There were no advances in the gay community at this time. The AIDS/HIV epidemic had hit its peak and sparked a fear across the nation. Later on in the decade, Ellen DeGeneres would come out as gay and the sitcom “Will & Grace” would transform how some people viewed the LGBT community. But for a black man in the south in the ’90s, being gay was as taboo as interracial marriage was in the days of Jim Crow.

“I don’t think my mom expected it,” Willie said. “I just dropped it on her. Her natural reaction wasn’t the greatest. Surprisingly, my father took it much better.”

Willie expected his father, a career military, Southern black man, would have the same reaction as his mother. Instead, Willie Sr. hugged his son.

“Son, you won’t be the first and you won’t be the last and I still love you,” Willie Sr. said. “You’re still a good person.”

That day, Willie Jr. realized everything he is was because his parents paved the way.

“I don’t know if I would have been able to speak my truth if I didn’t realize what my parents had done — to be in an interracial marriage, raising three bi-racial children in the south. What they had instilled in me had come into fruition at that moment,” Willie Jr. said. “They taught me to love who you love.”

Willie Banks, Sr. died Feb. 21, 2009 of pancreatic cancer.

“My father was the epitome of grace and open-mindedness,” Willie said. “He taught me to be proud of myself and that education was an important key to being successful in life. He’s the one who told me that I needed to expand my horizons.”

“He taught me to not be defined by other people.”

Before his death, Willie Sr. was able to vote for the first black president — a day he thought would never come.

As the nation’s first black president, President Barack Obama challenged society’s notions of race and what it means to be black in America.

He was a symbol for hope and change for many, but his ascent to the most powerful elected position in the world could not conquer the racial divide that was clear by those who challenged his competence and ethnicity.

During his term there was an increase of police brutality cases against unarmed black men and women — reminding many that nothing had really changed at all.

Willie Banks Jr.

“At the end of the day, I am looked at as a 6’5” black man who may be a threat to someone,” Willie said. “A person who hates black people will only see color. There needs to be acknowledgement that we are human beings and that we are all different. Being black is not just one thing for me. There is an intersection of not only my race, but also gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status and class. I would like people to understand that being these other things does not negate my blackness. There is no barometer on being black.”

When the 2016 presidential election revealed that Donald Trump would be Obama’s successor after he led a campaign filled with divisive rhetoric, Willie was disappointed. He was also afraid.

On his way to work on Nov. 10 — two days after the election — Willie was paralyzed when he looked into his car’s rearview mirror and saw a huge Trump-Pence flag. It was swaying in the back of a pick-up truck behind him.

Suddenly, he was that 6-year-old boy in southwest Georgia again — overwhelmed with the same anxiety.

That day, he attended a university administration meeting to talk about the aftermath and realities of the recent election results. Willie felt compelled to share his own reality.

“As a queer man of color, I am fearful,” Willie said.

It was like coming out all over again.

“To speak that into existence and say it aloud is very powerful, but I had to be vulnerable,” Willie said. “For the first time in my life, as a person who has multiple identities, I was at the table to really shape the conversation as far as moving forward and what we are doing as a university response.”

As the vice president of student affairs at Indiana State University, Willie uses his experience with managing his multiple cultural identities as a guiding force to establish safe spaces for students.

“People need to find community,” Willie said. “For those college students who are going to persist and graduate, a large part of it is really finding that support system. I want to help create that.”

Over his two years at Indiana State, Willie Banks, Ph.D., has helped to establish the Multicultural Services and Programs Office, introduced the Lavender Graduation to recognize LGBTQ students, and expanded the Charles E. Brown African American Cultural Center — all of which are necessary for students who identify in different ways.

While being different in our society may present challenges, our varied and unique experiences give us the motivation to create change.

“You struggle until the day you die,” Willie said. “As a person with multiple identities, it will always be a struggle. It’s not a bad thing because I think as long as you’re learning about yourself and the world and you are able to articulate that in a meaningful way then it could be really powerful for other people.”

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