Never mind the genius of George Washington Carver, the linguistic stylings of Langston Hughes, the ingenuity of Granville T. Woods. Forget how much Rosa Parks’ feet hurt. Harriet’s, too, for that matter. To some people, Black History Month will always mean an opportunity to mock the less, um, upstanding members of black America, as opposed to a cause for celebrating our nation’s best and brightest.
Such was the case at the University of California San Diego last month, when several still-unidentified students threw a “Compton Cookout” party as a mockery of the annual observance that Carter G. Woodson worked so hard to establish.
Instead of asking revelers to dress as if they were going out for a swanky evening at the Savoy, or even asking them to sport kente cloth and black medallions, they were instructed to wear “cheap, baggy clothing” and gold chains. Instead of a potluck that called for traditional dishes like sweet potato pie and baked macaroni and cheese, guests were invited to partake in plenty of purple drank, fried chicken and, of course, watermelon.
There’s nothing wrong with watermelon, as far as fruits go. But the plans for the stereotypical soiree proved to be a shocking reminder that even among coeds, America’s not nearly as post-racial as many of us had hoped.
So what to do? Students of color at UCSD tearfully demanded apologies as well as the support of the administration. Some expressed sincere and justifiable outrage. And they got the attention they wanted. But just a few weeks later, a noose was found hanging in the library, only serving to incite more fear. Fed up, the students took over the chancellor’s office for a few hours.
The person responsible for the noose posted an anonymous “confession” on the campus newspaper Web site, claiming that it was not a racial act and that she is “a minority.” But whether or not the act was intentional, it helped to feed the perception that students of color aren’t the least bit welcome at UCSD.
Incidents like these have been taking place for quite some time across America's college campuses. They were the kind that prompted me to apply to Spelman College, in an effort to find refuge from racial hostility. Coming from a predominantly white high school, I purposefully chose not to attend an HWCU (historically white college or university) because I wanted to enjoy my college experience in an environment where racism wasn’t an issue. At an HBCU, the threat of white supremacy is never really an issue because black people make up most of the people there. I didn’t feel like I was limiting myself from developing a perspective of what the “real world” was like. I wanted a different world, so off I went.
But there is no escaping reality. By the end of my sophomore year, I was forced to realize that attending an HBCU only offers a brief refuge. The year ended with the news that four members of the L.A.P.D. had been acquitted for beating and nearly killing a black man by the name of Rodney King. In response, I, along with hundreds of my peers, marched from the Atlanta University Center to Atlanta’s City Hall, chanting, “No justice, no peace!” When we arrived, we kept chanting until the late mayor Maynard Jackson appeared. Cheeks flushed, he stared at us with our braids and twists and Guatemalan backpacks—looking like the love children of Marcus Garvey and Minnie Riperton—and simply asked: “What is it you want me to do?”
We weren’t really sure. So we vociferously asked him to make a statement about how the city of Atlanta was against the verdict. Then, instead of walking, most of us took public transportation back to campus because at that point, non-university folk had started to loot, and we didn’t want to get blamed for it. Plus, our feet hurt.
When I got back to my dorm, I called my parents to let them know I was OK. After all, this was a national incident—surely they would have heard by now that students from the Atlanta University Center were involved in some sort of response to the King verdict. Forget the riots taking place in Los Angeles.
When I finally got them on the phone, my dad, who stays glued to the television news, didn’t know anything about our AUC response. I explained the “march” to him in detail, attempting to gain some sympathy from this man who was the first person to teach me that “race” did not always mean a competition to see how fast you can run. His response was not even remotely what I was looking for.
“I understand that you’re upset, dear,” he said stoically, “but you need to remember why your mother and I sent you college in the first place.”
My mind raced for a few seconds. They didn’t send me for my Mrs. degree, that I knew. They sent me to become a leader, and I was leading, wasn’t I? OK, I, technically, was following a crowd, but there were people marching behind me—that counts as leading, right?
“You’re there,” daddy said slowly, “to get an education. You stay on that campus, and keep your mind on your studies.”
Before I could muster a retort, he’d hung up the phone—which was probably a good thing. I wasn’t ready to accept the fact that graduating on time, cum laude, would be the first step in doing my little part to make the world a better place. I also wasn't ready to admit that secretly, I welcomed the emotionally charged distraction from finals week. (Who wouldn't?) That night, our college president Johnnetta B. Cole held a town-hall-style meeting, urging my Spelman sisters to stay behind the campus’ iron gates and focus on finals week. After all, she said, it was what we were there for.
When you’re a fresh-faced college student, you don’t think you can change the world. You know you can. Even better, you’re away from home for the very first time, without a curfew or parents to answer to. But whether you go to parties in black face—or just happen to be black—without an education, real power is little more than make-believe. It's not until later that you realize your perceived power is actually quite limited. That your only chance at creating lasting change in this world begins after you turn your tassel to the other side.
Meera Bowman-Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root who plans to send her daughters to Spelman College.