Panama Jackson and Damon Young at the Black Solidarity Conference
Stephanie Eason

This past weekend, Damon Young and I had the pleasure of speaking at Yale University as part of its 21st annual Black Solidarity Conference.

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Since it was a conference dedicated to issues surrounding blackness, I’m going to share a few things that stood out to me:

1. HBCUs and PWIs, HBCUs vs. PWIs, everybody hates everybody.

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When I got a chance to check out the schedule of panels, one in particular jumped out at me: “HBCUs vs PWIs: Let’s Talk About It.”

While I was excited to be part of the conference, what I really wanted to do was attend this talk. See, I knew that this was going to be a room full of largely elite PWI black students. Nearly every conversation I’ve had about HBCUs vs. PWIs happens amid a bunch of HBCU grads who all attended PWIs for grad school. Full disclosure: Nearly my entire crew from Morehouse or Spelman have graduate degrees from predominantly white institutions. But I’ve never been in the room with “the other side,” so to speak. What I know (based on debates that have occurred at VSB and on Twitter) is that this topic is highly contentious, and not for a good reason but because everybody thinks the other side is s—tting on them.

The devil is a busy mofo.

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Look, there are a lot of very strong feelings on both sides. That much became apparent when a comment intended to speak to confidence got turned into an attack on PWIs and the apparent elitism of HBCU students, an irony that wasn’t lost on me, considering that the room was full of Ivy league students. To wit, a gentleman who brought a contingent of students from Seton Hall University made the remark that going to an HBCU made it possible for him to be not just a high school teacher but a college professor.

As an HBCU alum, I got what he was getting at. But it turned on the faucet for PWI tears, since the comment was somehow interpreted to mean that going to an HBCU allows a black person to shoot for the stars and a PWI doesn’t. It was even suggested that he was somehow s—tting on high school teachers.

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PWI tears are a real thing.

See, what I didn’t know was happening amid the HBCU-vs.-PWI convo (this talk was a result of all the Mizzou happenings where the divisive convo reached its Mount Olympus-like heights via Twitter) was that a lot of PWI students were being told that they were sellouts for getting their education at their über-selective admission schools.

I’ve heard people s—t on HBCUs, but I can’t say I’d heard people s—t on PWIs. Not that I didn’t think it happened—it just seemed like more of the “Folks made fun of me for being smart” thing that people say happens but I’ve never personally seen or heard. Nearly all convos I’ve been a part of have involved HBCU students defending why our schools aren’t second-tier and do manage to prepare us for the world. I’d never seen the part where PWI students felt maligned by HBCUs. Apparently this is a thing. Well, shut my mouth wide open.

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Basically, those PWI students really wanted us to know that they have feelings that aren’t shielded by the resources, networks or names on their college sweatshirts. Maybe they go to Harvard but it hurts when somebody from Wiley College thinks they aren’t black enough.

We all need hugs.

Speaking of hugs …

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2. Blacks in STEM.

While at the bar Friday night, I ran into a friend of mine from Atlanta who just so happened to be there to speak on a panel about blacks in science, technology, engineering and math. Now, quite a few of my close friends are actively involved in STEM fields, either as practitioners or professors (sometimes both), so I’ve heard a lot about what I expected to hear at the panel.

Apparently it’s a very lonely field, especially for people of color. But what I heard from one of the students floored me: She said that my friend and the other two panelists were the first black scientists she’d seen in her entire life, and it moved her to tears.

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Tears.

It was one of the most interesting and saddest things I’ve seen to this point in my life. Interesting because, as an HBCU grad, one thing I’ve both seen and known plenty of is black scientists of various stripes. I know a black physicist—a few, actually. I know black mathematicians and chemists and engineers and biomedical engineers and biologists, etc. It’s something I apparently take for granted.

I realize that going from the black haven of undergrad to grad school is where many of my own friends found some loneliness, but at least they had their network to fall back on. It’s a whole different beast to have somebody never look like you or be a person you can reach out and touch personally at any point.

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Again, I apparently take my experience for granted.

I realize that her experience is not an anomaly (maybe her reaction is) and that there are lots of students at PWIs struggling with being the only black student in their major and all of their classes, and it does suck. It’s why we keep reading articles from students demanding black faculty in the sciences at these schools, which is great in theory, but you can’t just manufacture faculty.

It saddens me that so many of our best and brightest minds are winning on paper but struggling on the mental or social end of things, for whatever reason. That brought actual sadness to me. I realize that doesn’t pertain to everybody. Some students of color couldn’t care less, but I’m guessing that the majority realize the disadvantage that comes with not having a person to confide in or advocate for you.

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And we still all need hugs.

3. Damon and I talked about VSB. We could have called our talk, “How to Make It With a Super Black Voice In America.”

You know what I realized while Damon and I were answering questions about our ride here at VSB? We’re pretty lucky.

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Our talk was well-attended, and the students seemed engaged and asked good questions. One of those was about what we say to people who told us we wouldn’t make it. And for the life of me, I can’t remember a single individual who ever told me I wouldn’t make it. Then I realized that maybe a lot of people do get told that they won’t make it in certain areas. And that sucks. So we’re lucky in that regard, but we’re also lucky in another, and it’s something I brought up while I was talking.

I don’t ever remember thinking I couldn’t do something. At no point in my life have I ever felt limited by my blackness. I went to high school in Alabama; if it was going to happen, it was going to happen there. Now, obviously I’m very aware that I’m a black man. But while I know it creates various limitations, I’ve never personally felt stifled by them.

Even with VSB, I don’t ever remember thinking that there was something we couldn’t do. I had no idea where we were heading, but I also never saw a ceiling, and I did think that being black helped. I don’t know where this healthy self-esteem came from, but I’m damn sure glad that I have it, because from some of the conversations I had with students and things I heard at panels, it is not a guarantee. I saw a bunch of students excited to be around black people doing things, as if that wasn’t just life.

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My whole life is full of black folks doing important things, and I not only got used to it, I expected it. Just an observation, but one that made me think and inspired a lot of conversation after the talks.

It was a great trip for various reasons, many of which were reminding me that “making it” comes with its own set of struggles. Blackness looks very different depending on where you’re sitting. It’s good to be reminded of that sometimes because it adds perspective and context to my own life. We are doing great as a people, and there were hundreds of black faces that showed this.

And yet, we still all need hugs.

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Panama Jackson is the co-founder and senior editor of VerySmartBrothas.com. He lives in Washington, D.C., and believes the children are our future.