Brown track & field standout John Spooney is a two-time Ivy League champion, winning the 100m and 200m at the 2012 Ivy League Heptagonal Outdoor Track & Field Championships. He has also spent some time on the Bears' junior varsity football team as a running back.
1. When you think of the history and accomplishments of
African Americans in our country, what jumps out in your
Spooney: The beginning of the mass movement for civil rights is a point in history that sticks out in my mind. The decision of the Brown vs. Board of Education followed closely by the Montgomery bus boycott was just the beginning of the signal that it was time for the whole nation to listen to the most marginalized voice in America. While there were always small instances of black resistance against a prejudiced, racist nation before the mass movement; a majority of them did not reach a national scope.
The mass movement gave black people a voice in America. It showed our competence, intellect, and most importantly our humanity during a time where we were antagonized by bigotry and hate. We were the demonstrators of humanity, when base instincts were tempted to show themselves. I am very appreciative of the patience and perseverance and hard work put forth by my ancestors
2. What do you enjoy and what are the challenges in your current experiences as an African-American student-athlete on an Ivy League campus?
Spooney: As an African-American at an Ivy League institute I enjoy being a viable representative a great race of people. As a student and an athlete, I have the opportunity to display what each individual in our race can achieve at an elite level. Many of our children do not have the opportunity, absent regard to intelligence and talent, to realize their full potential. It is a true blessing to be able to attend Brown University and to also participate in a sport at the Division 1 level, especially as a black person.
Participating at a high level in academics and athletics presents a challenge along with the blessing. Often I have come across people who attend an Ivy League school and they are open minded, yet naïve about black people in the United States. On one hand this moment gives a chance for me to present what black people can do, on the other hand it places me and other black athletes and students under a microscope. In my experience, I find it easier to relax and let my guard down around black people; paradoxically around other people I feel a need to conduct myself in such a manner as to display my “best behavior”, showing intelligence and composure. My "best behavior" is in response to the perceived heightened scrutiny due to the lack of numbers and underrepresentation we have at higher education institutions, especially Ivy League schools.
3. As you reflect on Black History month, talk about one person who has influenced your life and why?
Spooney: Dr. Benjamin Carson has influenced my life because of the challenges presented and his response to them. Coming out of the inner city of Detroit is not an easy task, but with the help of a strong mother he excelled in an otherwise detrimental environment. Though at first his intelligence was questioned and he often displayed a poor affinity towards academics until middle school, his mother, as a strong black woman, pushed him to become the best student he could be. She was the main influence behind a man who was to become a neurosurgeon out of inner city Detroit. The best student that Dr. Carson could be became one of the best students that the medical world has seen. Presently, he is regarded as one of the best neurosurgeons in the world.
As a black person concentrating in Neuroscience at an Ivy League school, he has become a role model for me to look at when classes get tough or when I feel overwhelmed. I remember the Dr. Carson’s story as he had to work through college and deal with difficult existential circumstances. I remember that he became a leading doctor in the world through all the arduous obstacles in which he operated. His story of persevering through racism, poverty, anger, and dangerous outside influences gives me the strength to continue on with my path.
4. What do you feel is your role in being a leader or role model as African-American student-athlete on your campus and in your communities both at school and at home?
Spooney: On campus, a solidarity amongst black students acts to bring us together as role models to black people in our communities. Our black community on campus has many programs set up mentor children from around Providence who are primarily minorities. I feel that our role in the providence community is to expose children to the possibilities that lie ahead of them, that they live in the same city as one the leading institutes in the country, and that the talent and intelligence to excel at a high level is within them.
At home, I live in a predominantly white, yet transitioning, community. Many black students have gone on to college from my high school but there still exist many who do not go on to college. I believe that it is partly my responsibility to educate the black student there and around my area about the “hidden” prejudices in our country and that college, if they can attend, is a viable way to help break down the racial barriers put up by our society. Also it is important to warn them about the distractions and how easily things of the world can stray them from a successful path. While the young black student from my area consistently have better opportunities than most other African-American students, they are still under numerous social pressures and need guidance sometimes.
5. Projecting forward, what is one thing you would like to achieve or be part of once you graduate to advance the African-American ideal for future generations?
Spooney: While many people say that racism and prejudice in our American institutions are gone, especially with President Barack Obama in office, it is evident that the existence of prejudice is deeply seated in our policies and institutions. Many of the “colorblind” policies implemented today can have detrimental effects on the black community. These policies usually ignore the history of our country and do not incorporate the tools to fill the holes dug in by the policies that allowed for racism in the past. Instead of the corporate and government policies fixing the holes, they simply cover them up and expect everyone to dig themselves out without a ladder.
In the future I want to be in a position to change the structure of some institution to actually allow for an even playing field for all people. Preferably, I would like to one day become the CEO of a hospital to develop company policies and rules to allow for minorities and the poor in general to gain quality care that rivals even the richest of people who go to the hospital. While the idea may seem ideal at this point, it is an idea that I will strive for in the future.
Alongside the healthcare, I would like to set up education programs in predominantly black neighborhoods to help inform the populace about college and career entry. I want to facilitate the movement of black people into respectable and fruitful careers that will advance our race as a whole.