During my junior year of high school, my mother sent me on a HBCU college bus tour sponsored by the AKAs. I can't remember all the universities we visited, but Hampton, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, North Carolina A&T, Spelman, Morehouse, Morris Brown & Clark were on the list. (We skipped Howard because it was local.) I was fascinated by... well, the Blackness. I'd gone to white schools ALL my life where I was the exception, not the rule. In seventh grade, I wore a Malcolm X pin on the starched white shirt of my Baptist school uniform (Spike Lee’s X came out a year later.) My history teacher—a middle-aged white man—told me to take it off because Malcolm X fueled hate and violence. I’d read Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X and even then, I wondered why a history teacher didn’t know his history. The following year, I moved to a new, even whiter, school. My white World History teacher skipped the textbook chapter on Africa (btw she was married to an Egyptian) because Africa's history began with white folks getting "slaves" (not people) from the West Coast and bringing them to America at which point Africa and its people became relevant. We moved on to Greece.
At the universities we traveled to on the tour, Blackness wasn't a misinformed footnote in history; it was the whole damn story, front and center and everything else happened around it. The halls of every building on every campus we visited were lined with pictures of prominent Black figures and even lesser known, but still accomplished, Black faces too. The only time previously that I'd been surrounded by all Blackness—people, art, culture— was in my parents’ house (both the churches I attended growing up had large pictures of white Jesus which never sat well with me.) So hold up, my home wasn’t the only place I could feel at home?
Just for a weekend or so, I got a snippet of what life would be like without a filter, or a veil, without wondering "is it cause I'm Black?" when someone said or did something crazy. Sure there were other issues that could arise—color, socio-economic, region, attending private school vs. public —but taking the biggest elephant out of the room left more air for me to breathe. It was enough to notice a difference.
I came back from the HBCU tour raving about Spelman and NC A&T (the men were gorgeous.) I wasn't thrilled about the curfew (at Spelman they lock the gates to keep the men out and the women in. And almost all Black colleges have curfews. Unheard of at most PWIs), but I remembered all those images of Black women everywhere. I remembered the 100-year legacy of accomplished Black women that the professors and students spoke about with such pride. I wanted to be a part of that tradition. I remembered that confident strut that the women had walking across campus. I didn't have one yet. I wanted to go there and get it.
"I wanna go to Spelman!" I blurted out to my parents when they picked me up.
My parents went in on HBCU curfews, the lack of freedom, the lacking resources. (Perhaps that was a valid point. When I entered UMCP and registered over the phone or online, my HU crew was still standing in line to get their classes.) The logic also was that I may be taken less seriously in the work world if I went to an HBCU—even though my Dad went to Jackson State and is wildly successful.
"The world isn't Black," the parents argued in a united front. "It won't benefit you to go live in a fantasy world where you won't know how to exist when you graduate."
Bottomline: I wasn't allowed to go to an HBCU. I don't even think they let me apply. I was told I was going to Maryland and if I didn't like it, I could transfer after my sophomore year.
A girl I'd met on the HBCU tour became a close friend. She stayed out of school until Spring of my freshman year of college, then she went to Howard and lived in the Annex. I practically moved in with her on the weekends.
Ace and Mahogany who'd gone to prep school with me since junior high, graduated from high school after my Freshman year, and both went to HU too. I went to classes at Maryland. And any day the temperature was over 60F, I was on HU's Yard shooting the ish with Mahogany. I didn't go to my own school's Homecoming celebrations every year, but only missed one HU one when I was college. I was living in London and my parents vetoed a seven hour flight back home to attend the festivities.
I tagged along to a couple classes at HU with Mahogany (yes, I skipped my own to attend HU classes). I remember the classrooms were small, they had desks instead of auditoriums and there were lockers like high school in their buildings. Mahogany was taking an "Intro to Literature" class that semester so I sat in with her. I noted that it was all Black Literature but no one had bothered to note that distinction in the class title. Mahogany's professor was teaching The Invisible Man, my favorite book. The professor, and students, were making parallels and deconstructing Ellison's meanings in ways my professor and classmates never had when we'd covered it the previous semester. The students spoke frankly about White and Black and racism without a fear of offending their classmates and they didn't waste time over explaining what they meant because the room just got it. I was blown away. (A year later, I would hunt down this professor when she taught at UMCP my junior year and take her class. If you've read the "about Belle" section of this site, she's the professor that read my essay outloud in her class and I realized then I should probably be a writer.)
When I was doing all that hanging out at HU, I noticed the students there had a different swagger and not just because so many were from New York. I could never put my finger on it.
I adopted many of Ace and Mahogany's friends from HU and when I moved to New York, I fell in with more. I'd noticed by then, that HU grads were the most everyday- I'm-hustlin people I'd ever met. Not on some get-over ('cause they can do that too) but in the sense they're always grind-ing!
They also tended to have this really unique outlook on life that I hadn’t picked up back then. Once when I was feeling horrible about my decision to move to New York, my job, and everything else, I went to an HU alumni gathering with a friend. There was a woman who made a speech about Black people’s blessings and she explained that as a people our creativity was our cultural commodity (Asians have rice, Middle East has oil). That line changed my outlook and put me back on the right path. She was a recent grad. I'd been out for eight years. How the hell did she get so deep, so young?
I figured it out the other day at Spelman. I was very happy to be there as I remembered visiting the school on that college tour. I'd only been back once since then, many years ago when I was in college for a Spelman/Morehouse Homecoming. It was kind of... well, nice to once be a prospective student and to have advanced far enough to be an invited speaker and be referred to as “prestigious.”
So there I was, sitting on the front row like a VIP, 500 beautiful Black freshwomen behind me, for a presentation about Sisterhood. A group of ladies dressed in Black took the stage and began singing the school song, then another young woman recited a poem over their music.
They were so confident and accomplished and way farther along in their speaking and presenting skills and poise than I ever was as that age. And what was coming out of that 19 year old's mouth (a poem she had written) was so deep and so wise. I was just so proud. And then she got to this line about the mission of Spelman women and as grand as it was, she talked about it as if it were as simple as changing a lightbulb. She told the younger women in attendance that their mission was to change the world and she said it with a confidence that there was no doubt that she and they too, would get it done.
I boo-hooed so bad (with dignity, I never wailed) that tears rolled down both my cheeks and I had to take off my glasses to wipe my face and dig in my Louis for a tissue. (My executive editor leaned over and asked, "are you, are you... crying?" I do NOT cry.) No one ever told me that. I got 'you can do it' and 'you are smart' and I was very encouraged by my parents and many of my professors. But I never got “you have the power to change it.” I cried because I was so happy that these women, this class of 2013, were told at 18 what I didn't figure out until late in life (even as a writer, I would hear a good story and think, "someone should write about that. *blank stare.*) I spent most of my 20s being passive and waiting on the world to change rather than just doing something. Those young, accomplished, beautiful women will go so much farther and so much faster and I was am humbled to be found worthy by them and to be among them. My heart smiled. And I wondered if this is what my HU friends were told as well to give them that go-getter spirit.
By the end of the program, surrounded by all those smart, strong, and proud Black women, I knew I and my parents had made a mistake. I loved UMCP. Met some amazing people (who I would have met at some point anyway. That's just how life works.) But really? I still wish I'd gone to an HBCU.*