I talked to a friend of mine the other day, and somehow or other, the topic turned to our
college experiences. Both my friend and I attended an HBCU (Historically Black College and
University). As we shared notes about our times in school, it reminded me of the benefits of
As a college student, I remember hanging out in
the square at Stillman College and how all the
happenings at Florida A & M took place on the
set. What is unique about this experience is that
most HBCUs have a similar place in the center of
everything. No one has to tell you that you are
on “the square” or “the set” when you arrive.
You just know. This area is the center of
spectating, catching the latest gossip, and
finding out who “crossed” (“Crossing” means you have met all requirements to be in a
Greek fraternity or sorority).
In my book The Messages We Carry, I mention my own experience as a Black man
navigating a majority white culture. It’s a struggle of always feeling like I have to do better
and be better than my colleagues around me. That struggle was absent when my mostly
Black peers surrounded me during college. Instead, I was able to just feel at home without
continually being reminded of my race every step along the way. I saw Blacks who looked
like me but were fascinating in their own right. They had traditions and culture that were
unique, and each day was a discovery. I saw people dressed to the nines, and I saw people
just rolling out of bed. But these people offered me the same thing: acceptance as a person
of color. I always felt pride and a sense of belonging at my college and university.
After my conversation with my friend, I wanted to
break down what, exactly, it was about the HBCU
experience that had made me feel so welcomed.
And now, I’m going to share with you the
messages I received going to an HBCU:
Being myself was encouraged and valued. So often, Black men and women living in the majority culture experience pressure to code switch and hide who we are in this dominant culture, whether that’s changing the way we talk, dress, or even how we carry ourselves.
Instead of being perceived as threatening, I was allowed just to be. It’s common in the United States (and elsewhere) for Black men to erroneously be perceived as more threatening, even when we’re not doing anything out of the ordinary. Consider the recent story of a white woman accusing a young 14-year-old Black boy of stealing her phone and tackling him with no evidence.
Merit was rewarded. Growing up with my background, having been subjected to so much overt and subtle racism throughout the years, can make it hard to know when someone is acting a certain way due to my race. Did my less qualified colleague get promoted before me because he was a white man and I’m Black? At an HBCU, I was free from that worry and saw merit in action being rewarded for the first time. I remember the joy I felt at winning the Alpha Phi Alpha talent show. At Stillman, you would be booed off stage without a thought. If you lasted throughout the performance and then won, you had to have the skill and real talent. These are the merits that are some of the most meaningful to me.
Even if you’ve never attended an HBCU, consider when, if ever, you received these same messages in your life. What events transpired to make you feel at home within yourself?