“I painted these walls black, this floor black, helped hang these lights,” said Anthony Anderson, ticking off his long-ago handiwork before settling into a front-row seat in the black box theater space at Howard University, the “Black-ish” star’s soon-to-be alma mater. “Everything that you see here right now is what we did back in 1988.”
1988. That’s when a theater kid from Compton, Calif., flew some 3,000 miles from home to begin his freshman year at “The Mecca,” what Howard students call the historically Black fountainhead of talent. But the actor’s journey to his diploma got sidelined his junior year. Now three decades after Anderson should’ve received his bachelor’s degree, the 51-year-old has returned to the place where it all started to finally hear his name called.
But first there’s all the nostalgia to contend with.
“Yeah,” the TV star said with a deep sigh. “It all comes full-circle now.”
“I didn’t know it would be as emotional as it is. … Walking into this space, walking into this building, seeing faces that were here when I was a young, 18-year-old, bright-eyed dreamer,” he said, slipping into a contemplative mood.
One such face popped into the theater to congratulate him — a professor who taught him back in the ’80s. “Lord have mercy,” Anderson shouted. She hadn’t seen him in decades. Really, not even on TV? “Oh, you know, I don’t usually look at that stuff,” she explained. He promised to stop by her office later and then maybe even come back to the college to teach someday. “That’s always been a dream of mine.”
For most college kids, graduation day isn’t the finish line, it’s the starting block. Eyes are forward with a focus on the future, not the past. But on this rain-soaked Saturday in May, Anderson’s eyes are on everything and everyone all at once.
The threads tying together the actor’s graduation are thick. In an hour, his good friend Taraji P. Henson, who attended Howard alongside Anderson, is giving the commencement address. Veteran actress Phylicia Rashad, best known for her role in “The Cosby Show” — a precursor to Anderson’s own “Black-ish” — is dean of the renamed Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts. Anderson’s son, Nathan, came to Howard four years ago. The plan was for the two of them to walk the stage together.
“Real life got in his way,” said Anderson, who knows that storyline all too well.
When Anderson was a high school senior, Howard was the only school on his radar, the only one he applied to. The halls, he said, were hallowed. His first visit to Washington was for the NAACP’s ACT-SO national competition, which recognizes talented high school students across the country. The kid from Compton accepted the gold medal for acting with a Howard University T-shirt he’d bought from a street vendor draped across his shoulders.
What kind of student was he?
“If I was great then I would have finished in ‘92, when I was supposed to,” Anderson said. “But I didn’t. I was having too much fun.” By sophomore year, he was on academic probation and unable to renew his scholarship.
To pay for school he worked odd jobs, including as a singing mascot for a gourmet dessert delivery company. Yes, there was a costume. Somewhere out there may be a photo of Anderson in black dance tights, a Lone Ranger mask and a pink cape that reads, “If you ever need to be saved, dial 797-CRAVE.” But eventually his money ran out.
“I couldn’t call home and ask my parents for it because I had three brothers and sisters that were still home. So I left after my junior year and I had every intention of coming back to get my degree,” Anderson said. But life. He became a father, got married to his college sweetheart and started working. “And yeah, here we are.”
With the clock ticking, Anderson needed to get his dark-blue graduation gown over his suit. “We pressed it for you,” said Denise Saunders Thompson, a dean in the College of Fine Arts and Anderson’s former classmate. Saunders Thompson was behind the actor’s triumphant return. The university decided his 25 years in the business counted for the 15 credits he was lacking. “I had to write a few papers though,” he added.
“Full-circle,” Anderson said for the umpteenth time as Thompson and his son Nathan helped him into the ceremonial finery.
The deluge outside made a ceremony on Howard’s iconic yard impossible, so Anderson hopped a shuttle to “The Burr,” the university’s gymnasium, with other VIPs including Dean Rashad, at whom he couldn’t stop smiling. Before joining his fellow 2022 graduates, he considered his current “season of change”: “Black-ish” ended last month after eight years on the air, and Anderson moved to New York to reprise his role as Detective Kevin Bernard in the “Law & Order” comeback.
What would he tell the new alum sitting next to him at Burr about the next 30 years?
“Stay the task, never give up and it all happens in time. But more importantly, it happens when it’s supposed to happen,” he said, before making clear that he didn’t mean be passive. “Stay ready. That way you don’t waste time getting ready, because you have no idea how long that window of opportunity will be there.”