By All Appearances
Nash was 22 when he became fully conscious of his own blackness. He had graduated from Middlebury and accepted a full scholarship at Boston College Law. Though Middlebury was “basically all white,” and many of his black friends lamented the racial isolation, Nash said he rarely felt out of place; intellectually, he was more at home than he had ever been. Once, while taking a class in international negotiations, Nash decided to buy a used car. “Of course in Vermont, generally if they have a price you either pay or you don’t,” recalled his professor, Russell Leng ’60. “Dwayne felt he had to negotiate. He applied all the rules he learned in class. It went on for weeks, until finally the guy said, ‘Just take it.’ Dwayne got his price and was very pleased.” Middlebury was a safe, sheltered place where things generally went Nash’s way. “I had a rich sense of who I was and where I’d come from,” he said. “It couldn’t be shattered so easily.”
In his first year of law school he met Naomi Shelton from Dorchester, Massachusetts. She was one of four black students in their 75-person cohort and charmed him with her brassy, Boston accent. That fall, Nash convinced Shelton to compete with him in a moot court tournament. They won. Nash saw the results first and ran to tell Naomi, but when they returned to the board, someone had crossed out their names. “We laughed,” recalled Nash. “We said, ‘We must have really kicked some ass, because someone is bitter!’” But when they went to claim their award, they were told they hadn’t won at all. “Naomi thought that this had something to do with our race. She said, ‘We’re in Boston. This happens all the time.’ I wasn’t ready to accept that, and I didn’t. But that moment of seeing the situation through Naomi’s eyes created a consciousness in me.”
Nash never found out what had happened—he didn’t want to press it—but he began to notice some peculiar things. Every night when he left campus, a police officer would follow him home and idle in the street until Nash had parked his car. Then, one day, on a drive to the public library, he pulled onto the roadside to ask directions from a pedestrian. She was a petite, middle-aged woman. “Excuse me, Miss,” he said, getting out of the car. She turned and when she saw him, yelled, “Please, don’t!” A man intervened. “Leave her alone,” he told Nash, “or it will get really ugly.” Nash tried to explain that he was looking for the library. “I had this burning sensation in my stomach. It hit me that maybe Naomi was right. Maybe it was a racist joke that caused us to disappear from the ranking. Maybe it was strange that this officer followed me home every night. And maybe it was strange that I had this encounter. I had a false sense of consciousness, and I realized that put me in danger. It put me in emotional danger, too.”
Through all of this, Nash knew that despite the color of his skin, he had certain advantages: He was well educated, and he placed great value in the fact that his family, unlike most, was still intact. This, too, would change. In 2000, Nash had just returned to New York from Belgium when he called his mother from the airport. She told him that his brother would pick him up, and she wouldn’t be there when he got home. “I said, ‘Oh, where are you?’ She said, ‘It’s a long story.’ Then, ‘I’m leaving your father.’ ” Nash can’t remember what happened next. When he came to, he was at an airport bar. A woman told him that she had to go, but everything would be okay.