Campus Character: Carllee James

By Meredith White

Last Friday, Carllee James ’13 celebrated being 200 days away from the end of a journey she started three years ago as a first-year from New York City with an afro and without any idea of what she wanted to study. But, 200 days definitely gives James some time left at the College. For James, there’s some unfinished dabbling to do.

“It still feels far. I’m also not racing around to find a job or anything. I’m just kind of enjoying my time here, not sad, not excited yet,” said James. If she was sad or excited, her face would be sure to tell.

“I’m pretty reactive,” she explained, “I react first with my face. If something doesn’t sit well with me, I kind of give a stank face, as they say.”

James gives kudos to her dad for both her facial and long-limbed expressiveness. Ten years ago, James had a bicycle cameo on an episode of Sesame Street — thanks to her dad as well.

At that time, Mr. James was writing for Sesame Street and was able to land his daughter this role, as well as a meeting with Kevin Clash, the voice of Elmo.

“I was pretty young when I met him so he did his Elmo voice and I was like, ‘Cool … oh my god … Elmo’s black!’”

Race is a big topic for James. She identifies as biracial. She specifies that her mom is white and her dad is black, feeling that the delineation of half-white and half-black doesn’t do her identity justice.

“I think it’s hard because in the United States the racial system is this binary white-black so there’s no real recognized biraciality yet. I kind of felt like I needed to pick sides at some points,” said James.

Social situations in high school involved some code switching between the ways in which she would interact with black friends and white friends. Middlebury presents a different scenario.

“Because it’s so white here, when someone’s not white they kind of stand out. Really I’m just not white because I look not white or I look exotic and that’s kind of cool to people or something.”

James is working with other students on the JusTalks initiative, which aims to break down the black-white binary of student identities.

The project has been underway for a year and will culminate in an event in January that takes students through a day of activities focusing on different aspects of identity.

James herself, as a tap-dancing, Frisbee playing, theater dabbling, psychology major with an interest in disabilities studies, has proven even the most expansive umbrellas of student identities to be too limiting.

“Probably down the road, I might teach. I always played student and teacher as a kid so I grew up liking that. I just need to learn more before I can teach someone,” she said.

James is already a teacher, though. At the secular Jewish camp James attends every summer she teaches a variety of folk dances to the younger campers, a cohort of kids who are primarily the offspring of radical leftists.

“They’re very simple folk dances and I think the joy of it is at the end of the summer there’s a camp wide dance. That’s when everyone is out on the basketball court dancing,” she said.

After graduation, James plans to study sign language, which James views as a dance in its own way. The limbs-and-face language of sign seems to be a perfect fit for her.

“I went to this sign language immersion program for a few days this past summer and I can remember everyone’s face so well because it’s so much about your facial expression. Yeah, your hands matter, but you’re facial expression has to go with it or else it doesn’t make sense to the viewer,” she said.

You can also find James tearing it up on the frisbee field.

“I probably use the least amount of flair on the team, just because, you know, I like to play in shorts sometimes rather than a tutu.”