It was 2001 and my final year at Oxford Brookes University. I applied to do an exchange at the University of Rhode Island. If you’re wondering, the tiny State of Rhode Island is on the North East coast of America, part of New England. I was excited about visiting nearby New York and Boston and witnessing the kaleidoscope beauty of the gold and reds of Fall there. Helen had just finished her degree and needed a rest. I arranged a direct payment to cover the costs of her being my helper/note taker. As I had nowhere to live, Oxford Brookes agreed to store my stuff. URI was a ‘dry’ campus and quite remote, I had time to get the most out of my classes. I was fascinated to see how Black Power Politics, The Holocaust, Soviet History and Cultural Anthropology were taught in America.
However, the most profound lesson came just days after we arrived. On a Tuesday morning, some 176 miles from us, two airliners hit the World Trade Centre Towers in New York. As we left the dining hall after breakfast through the unusually silent kitchen, the staff had gathered around a small TV. “There’s going to be a war,” predicted one as we passed. Sensing the atmosphere, we didn’t interrupt to ask why. As we watched the TV coverage in our common room through the morning, the footage repeated, and then mixed with new material, it became difficult to follow exactly what had happened or if this was only the beginning. Understandably, everything seemed to change overnight and flags appeared everywhere. Suddenly, I felt very aware that I wasn’t an American. We were asked to stay on the campus while the FBI examined the records of foreign students studying politics, I assumed this included mine. As all planes were grounded and war loomed, it was the furthest from home I’d ever felt. I was so grateful that Helen was there with me.
There were two professors who I am particularly grateful to have learned so much from. Professor Robert G Weisbord was my teacher for Holocaust Studies. A 67-year-old Jewish New Yorker, a snappy dresser and an excellent storyteller. He was a Civil Rights pioneer himself, he was the first to teach a class on Afro-American Studies in a New England University in 1967. When reading the register, he called the other students by their surname, but always called me ‘Richard’. He would often colour his stories with personal anecdotes and obscure Yiddish words and end his thorough answers to questions with: “Well, we just don’t know”. To this day, I think of him and smile. Like all good teachers, he left a profound mark on me. His class refocussed Nazi oppression as Racism and sought to understand how ordinary people enabled the regime. His stories were funny. I remember one he told about a friend who was bitter that he never won anything on the lottery. After further inquiries, it emerged that the friend never bought a lottery ticket. I can still hear Professor Weisbord whisper: “You gotta buy a ticket Richard, you gotta buy a ticket”. Don’t set yourself up to be miserable, you have to make good things happen. This is wisdom I try to live by.
Professor Joseph taught the class on Black Power. Today he is a Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the History Department in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also the founding director of the LBJ School’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. He encouraged my understanding of the similarities between Race and Disability and their links to poverty and struggle for equality. I had studied the relationship between Empire and slavery in Britain, but never comprehended the struggle for Black Dignity that had been raging in America for the last 400 years. I read hungrily about amazing people I’d never encountered before: Stokely Carmichael, Robert F Williams, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Harriet Tubman and Fred Hampton. One of the proudest moments of my life came when Professor Joseph handed back an essay I had written, looked me in the eye and said “Richard, you’re with the program.” Brimming with confidence for the first time in my life, I wrote a prize-winning essay about the strengths of Equality and Diversity and as a visiting representative of students with disabilities in the UK, gave a stirring speech to the URI Students’ Union about living with disability.
New York was still in shock and we were due to spend a day there a few days after the attacks. We still went, unsure if we were going as mourners or tourists, we drifted our way down Manhattan Island. It was preternaturally quiet, the ground was still covered in black acrid dust, which soon covered my wheels and hands. As we neared ‘ground zero’, the smoke became unbearable and we were given face-masks to wear. We often passed firehouses with a board outside, hopefully displaying photographs of the brave men and women who had not made it back.
Our parents came to visit us, braving a transatlantic flight just weeks later. Helen’s Dad, John, hired and drove a minivan across New England, stopping in Boston where my (metric) wheelchair broke dramatically and had to be repaired by my Dad with hastily purchased (imperial) parts and tools. Back in New York, we tried again to be tourists. We visited Central Park, John Lennon’s Dakota Building, the Guggenheim Art Museum and even went to a Broadway show. There were stark reminders of the attacks everywhere. When we looked down on the city lights from atop the Empire State building, the wreckage of ground zero was still smouldering. On a cruise around the harbour, the chill sea air still carried the sickly smell of burning that we recognised from our previous trip. Our hotel (like every other in New York) was full of fire-fighters from all over America.This mixture of grief, guilt and admiration intensified as our elevator to breakfast or the lobby stopped at each floor and gradually filled up with firefighters in their dress uniforms, on their way to a memorial service.
The attacks had shown me that life is very precious. Helen and I had been together five years and she was the one I wanted to be with forever. Just like Professor Weisbord said, I ‘bought a ticket’ and proposed on a weekend trip to Canada. I tried to find somewhere appropriate for such an important moment. On entering a salubrious looking Chinese restaurant and asking for a table, we were hastily taken to a noisy, buffet room with metal benches. It was full of multi-generational Chinese families having lunch. There were no waiters or menus, just a jug of tap-water on each table. I went ahead with the proposal. I had very little to offer, but just like in this restaurant, Helen knew she wouldn’t be getting the best table in a life with me, but it would never be ordinary either. (She said yes!)
We enjoyed our final visit to New York, taking the subway over the Brooklyn Bridge to Coney Island and spending the unusually sunny Winter afternoon walking along the boardwalk and visiting the aquarium. The run-down funfair felt so familiar, just as we had seen in so many films. We felt that New York had finally welcomed us.
Just before we were due to come back, we hired a car to do some last-minute sight-seeing and to say goodbye to some friends who had already gone home for the Holidays. On our road-trip, we had a low-speed collision with traffic waiting to turn right. The police arrived, and in our confused states, Helen rode in the front of the squad-car with the officer, while I rolled around on the hard plastic back seat. At the station, one of the officers called the hire company to tell them the car we had been driving had been written off. He hung up and shook his head. “It was only two weeks old”, we heard him tell a colleague. Because we had followed John’s sage advice and paid extra for full insurance, the whole incident had cost us about £50.
I will feel connected to all of the people we met and the places we explored forever. I learned to see disability as part of a much wider struggle for equality, felt the chilling fear of being an outsider, found new confidence in my beliefs and my writing and learned to value the wisdom of elders. We only spent four months at URI, but had so many adventures. I hadn’t realised quite how much it had changed me.
Richard Brown MBE