A big blue-and-white sign had been planted on a side of Howard University's quadrangle; its huge letters spelled out "Welcome Home." This was Howard's 75th homecoming, one of the oldest traditions at one of the nation's oldest black universities, a mid-autumn celebration and an opportunity for the backward glance.
Most colleges merely feature a beer-soaked weekend event to entice more alumni dollars, but Howard wears the special garland of a black college's consciousness, and its homecomings have been made to reflect all the contradictions and sometimes the turmoil of the black community it serves.
The homecoming theme, for example, was strictly 1980, and sounded remarkably like a lyric from the latest Earth, Wind, and Fire album. As noted by co-organizer Diane Fabiyi: "This year's theme is 'Spirit Force Regenerates Our Heritage.' It means that homecoming should be a time of regenerating what we had from our heritage, taking our spiritual force of energy, emotion and strength, and rejuvenating . . . our legacy of tradition."
Five years ago, the festivities were celebrated as "Ebony Magic" "Things became more intense that year," said homecoming director Paula Ballard. "The speakers were more revolutionary." But 11 years before that, the year the Civil Rights Act passed a reluctant Congress, Howard students were decorating the campus to match the spirit of that year's theme: "On Broadway."
Twenty years before that, a 1946 editorialist from the campus newspaper, The Hilltop, lamented at length that Howard had ceased to take its football rivalry with Lincoln College as seriously as Harvard did its own rivalry with Yale. On the facing page a small story described a "Negro girl's" lawsuit against the Louisiana State Medical School for its refusal to admit her on grounds of race.
Despite changes in theme, the schedule of events has rarely altered from a week- or two-week-long program including gospel show , queen's pageant, pre-game talent show and post-game concert. But even these traditions have suffered through both heavyhanded and witty attempts to bring them up to date.
Thursday night's "Greek Show," put on by the Greek letter fraternities and sororities, saw the brothers of Kappa Alpha Psi strut some of the steps undoubtedly taught by their brothers before them, but they wore red wrap-around new-wave glasses. Sensitive males are supposed to be the vogue in people this year, but still the Kappas had the obligatory sex objects, two embarrassed women wearing tight leotards and bunny ears, to collect a set of props.
The Tuesday night fashion show, begun on a small scale in the 1940s by the individual sorrorities, featured expensive wool suits and Chinese silks, with a glittering audience to match. Some of the couples had carefully matched their outfits for the show, even though they stylishly sashayed to an auditorium only one block from the cheap chicken joints on Georgia Avenue. a
Contradictions seeped most obviously into the beauty pageant to select Miss Howard, that tug of war of standards which has revealed so much to blacks in the past about self image. Wearing satin evening gowns and relaxed hairstyles, potential Miss Howards stood in front of a stage prop of a woman with a high doomed afro. They shifted uncomfortably in high black heels to give 30-second answers on the strategies of the black leadership, having changed from tight leotards or sarongs to deliver poems on black love. A presentation of contestants described the heroics of African queens, and the only African contestant was booed for her uncertain control of American English.
Howard's homecoming has traditionally celebrated both cloistered middle-class security and pop militance, and it has seized all of the uneasy compromises. It is a mixed bag of values, and accurate reflection, perhaps, of where we are. It's home.