I was the black girl at the lunch table full of Asian and white girls. The “uppity” one, some black folks said, “too good” to sit with the few other black students in the cafeteria. The only black girl in an Advanced Placement class. The quiet band nerd, one of a few marching black dots on a football field of 300+ horn-tooting musicians.
It was partly these experiences that made me want to go to an HBCU. I wanted to escape what seemed like a never-ending saga of explaining—and trying to understand—myself in relation to others, whether black, white, Asian, or Latino. But there was something else at work. Maybe my desire for the HBCU experience stemmed from listening to my favorite TV parents, two professional black folks, wax on about “Hiiillmaann,” their historically black alma mater. Maybe it came from watching Denise Huxtable explore the different world that constituted her college—her black college. Or perhaps it was the result of me imagining myself among a sea of college students cheering on DMX at Howard’s homecoming on a 2001 MTV special. (Hey, DMX was at his peak.) Whatever the case, somewhere in between my school daze and my pop-culture addiction, I felt like I needed to belong somewhere other than in my Baptist church and at family reunions.
During my junior year of high school, I faked a desire to go to University of Texas at Austin. Trying to “fit in” by any means necessary, Texas was my safe school. “Safe” not only because I could get in but “safe” because it didn’t have the exclusionary tag of an HBCU, something I thought my multiculti group of friends wouldn’t understand. Explaining why I wanted to go to a black school, so far away from home, so unlike anything I had ever done in my whole life, seemed like the most daunting task of all. My friends didn’t understand why I—their friend who just happened to be black—would want to go there. Just like they didn’t understand the perm in my hair, how it made my hair straight and not curly, and why I didn’t wash it every day like they did. Assimilation at its finest.
My mother’s and my grandmother’s experiences, of course, were quite different. When my grandmother applied to Prairie View A&M University in the ‘50s, segregation in America’s schools limited her collegiate options. My mother, who grew up in Hamilton Park, an upwardly mobile, all-black neighborhood in North Dallas, attended her neighborhood’s elementary/middle school and then was bused to a new high school, which I would, in turn, graduate from 30 years after she did. When my mother applied to East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University at Commerce) in the early ‘70s, it hadn’t been too long that the predominantly white institution would even look at her application. She went there because it was just far enough from home, it was affordable, and because her mother wouldn’t let her “go down to Houston and go buckwild.”
And I thought my mom would say the same. Surprisingly enough, she encouraged me, thinking it was the lesser of two other evils: Northwestern’s $40,000-a-year price tag and “red-necked Texas A&M University.” So in 2003, I applied to an HBCU because I wanted to, not because I had to, like my grandmother. I applied because I needed that experience, needed to be surrounded by black people who are just as driven and smart as I was. And I had friends who felt the same: students who were National Merit Scholars, got 1500+ on the SATs, students who got into Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Berkeley. But for us, the other side of our brain—the side that knew there was more to black history than our white teachers had told us—had us questioning the world around us.
I was also finally realizing that my priorities were different, that what I needed to learn—outside of the history lessons, life lessons, and moral lessons that my parents had already taught me—couldn’t be learned at another mostly white institution. And although the debate over the relevancy of HBCUs seems to be ever present, post-desegregation, post-rise of the black middle class, post-Obama, the HBCU experience is irreplaceable. From the band director who offered me a scholarship to play in the concert band, to the campus tour guide who showed us the entire campus in 10-degree weather, to the career development adviser who said “I looked like a Howard student” before I even signed my name on the application, I found a bond of fellowship in the HBCU community. They even convinced my mom, too, who—although until recently she didn’t admit it—was skeptical of “her baby” going halfway across the country. But she felt welcomed, too, by the same love she had received from her black neighborhood growing up.
Of course, it’s not all roses, but alumni will be the first to tell you that: the sometimes subpar facilities, the dearth of on-campus housing, the lack of advanced technology, the headaches dealing with college administration … the losing football teams. But that’s all outweighed by the camaraderie, the care from teachers who’re truly invested in your success, the sense of belonging among so many different types of black folks.
My “different world,” one that I would’ve never experienced or appreciated among a sea of other students at the University of Texas, or as just another black dot at the Northwesterns, the Berkeleys, the Yales of the world, would forever shape my desires, demands, and expectations out of life. Going along to get along just wasn’t enough. And I’m so glad that I found safety in that.
Erin Evans is a writer and copy editor for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.