Thursday, November 12, 2015

#BlackOnCampus: Mizzou, PWIs, HBCUs & The Black Experience

This week we've learned several lessons from the students on the campus of the University of Missouri, Columbia. These key lessons are that 1. Racism is still alive. 2. Black people are still threatened by white people when seeking a better education and future for themselves. 3. Money talks and bull$#!& walks.

The events at Mizzou last week and this week that culminated with the University President and Chancellor resigning their posts have raised many debates about race in America. One in particular has pitted Black scholars against one another. Why do Black students go to PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions) when they can go to an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) instead. Scrolling through my Facebook timeline this afternoon I came across this post:

"Lemme get this straight, black students go to PWI. They're discriminated against and deal with racism. They boycott and protest to enrich and be accepted in white space, meanwhile it's an HBCU down the road struggling to stay open because the lack of black students enrolling... go where you are celebrated. Not tolerated."

I understand this logic but I also find it problematic, not only because I attended a PWI further south than Mizzou, but also because the world is not a place where self-segregation works to the advantage of Black people.

It wasn't until I arrived on the campus of The Florida State University in Tallahassee that I in all my dark skinned, natural hair glory was ever called out of my name by someone who did not mean the racial slurs in a re-appropriated greeting of love. It was walking down a dark campus sidewalk that two young white men in a pick up truck screamed at me "Fuck you nigger bitch" for no other purpose than they could. I remember what I was wearing when the verbal assault happened. I remember the feeling of complete and utter helplessness as the men drove off into the warm Florida night in their pick up truck, and I was left alone yelling a slew of "What the Fucks" at a vehicle of men who might as well have been mythical masked marauders I'd only been told half-truth stories about in my high school history classes. Even the roommate whom I was on the phone with at the time of my assaulting could do nothing to comfort me besides tell me to hurry up and get to my car so I could get back to the supposed safety of our apartment.

According to the logic of the poster on my Facebook timeline this incident at FSU should have sent me running to the high hills of the nearest HBCU. In Tallahassee that is The Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, otherwise known as FAMU of Marching 100 fame. The HBCU that is home to the green and orange rattlers literally sits on the other side of the railroad tracks from FSU. According to the poster on my Facebook timeline that is where I belonged the entire time, at a University which embraced my unapologetically Blackness and fostered a false sense of incubated security that allowed me to flourish around my own people with little interaction with the racist undertones of the outside world.

HBCUs are one of the cornerstones of Black America's educational system. In the years immediately after slavery they were the institutions that said yes when white America still reeling from the loss of its free labor continuously said no. However, let's not act like the founding of HBCU's were all inclusive to all Blacks. The house nigger vs. field nigger mentality still existed at the beginning of these universities where the paper bag test was deployed to determine entry. Back then, me being the milk chocolate color that I am would have been denied access.

While times have changed at HBCUs in America that storied history still exists. A history I was proudly told about as I toured college campuses in 2002 and 2003 ahead of my matriculation when I graduated from high school in 2004. The school I fell in love with was Fisk University in Memphis, Tennessee. It is a school I still nearly regret not going to. I loved everything about the University that claims to be the first HBCU in these divided states. But as a 15, then 16, then 17 year old high school student bent on double majoring in dance and journalism Fisk had neither presumed major that I thought I wanted to pursue, and I didn't want to go to Howard to fulfill my collegiate dance and writing dreams no matter how many times my mother urged me to follow in the footsteps of the esteemed Debbie Allen.

Touring HBCU and PWI campuses alike I fell hard for FSU. It appeared to be everything I ever thought college could be. In short, it looked like the campus that Zack and Kelly went to when the Saved by the Bell kids got to college. The luscious green lawn in front of the Strozier library where long haired white co-eds played hacky sack and sunbathed looked ripped straight from my childhood television set. Couple that with a strong BSU (Black Student Union) presence and all of the divine nine of NPHC (National Pan Hellenic Council) strolling in their colors oo-ooping, and ski-wiiing, and 1-1-1-9-9-9-0-6ing in the union the week I visited I figured FSU was the best of both worlds. It was a school that had my desired majors, it's Black student body was strong and proud and everywhere, and if times ever got tough I could always hop a bus across the tracks to FAM from some love from my own people.

To FSU I went as a bright eyed, and bushy haired 18 year old where I spent four of some of the best years of my life. The racist experience I described to you earlier in this post was not the norm of my experience at FSU, but it did shape my experience and confirm for me that no matter how much I may think I'm accepted in the "diverse" world of my college campus, there are still people who see me as just another expendable nigger. It was a lesson I think I needed to learn as I headed into an industry where men and women who look like me are visible but only in secondary roles; where men and women who look like me are forced to conform at the highest echelon's of television news in an effort to blend and not stand out.

When I toured college campuses one of the selling points for an HBCU was that they could always give you the real on life in the real world from a Black point of view without mincing words to make co-eds of other ethnicities feel comfortable. What I found at my PWI was that I was thrust into the real world without the safety net or security blanket of having someone in higher education hold my hand while I took my first steps. Armed with only my ideals and my Blackness I navigated my way through a college world that mirrors more of what America is than what it isn't.

I don't look down upon HBCUs or believe that they are worse off than PWIs or vice versa. While my friends and I at FSU used to joke that we chose the esteemed school because our student loan checks arrived on time (which was true) verses the wait many FAMU students endured, it was a flippant answer to a loaded question we at the time were ill-equipped to answer.

My time at FSU taught me many things about the world I may have or may not have learned at an HBCU. 1. Everyday I walk out of my door into the world I am armed with my mind and my Blackness. 2. The majority can claim to be as racially open minded as they like but racism still exists overt and micro-aggressive. 3. The south can be a brutal place to live as a Black person because the pained past of slavery, Jim Crow, and the fight of the Civil Rights Movement (over the marginal success of it) is always ever present. While places like Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, and even where I live in Jacksonville, Florida may be some of the best places for young Black people to live, work, and grow in a stunted economy that no longer builds things, these are also the same places where the comforts of the political correctness of the north (mostly) are not afforded to us.

To some I will always be a nigger bitch who can be fucked faster than Patsy in 12 Years A Slave, and because of this lesson I learned at FSU I am okay with this negative perception some will have of me no matter how high up by the bootstraps I may lift myself. My lesson is a reminder of what the world is and what it is not and it is a lesson I don't think I could have learned in a setting that totally embraced me and sheltered me from the real world.

I don't think I missed out on the experience of "A Different World" I think I just learned how different the world really is.

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