Cassandra Jackson is a professor of English and affiliated faculty of African American Studies at the College of New Jersey.
When Beyoncé sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at Coachella, she symbolically took a knee in front of the world. Those of us who attended historically black colleges and universities know this song as our black national anthem. We sang it at sporting events, chapel assemblies and graduations to celebrate black culture, while also acknowledging our historical exclusion from the national anthem’s “land of the free.” Queen Bey was calling us home to places where black resistance is so deeply embedded that it feels effortless.
Although I attended a historically black college, it has only been recently that I decided to encourage my children to do the same. I had not thought they would need this experience as desperately as I did: I attended majority-white K-12 schools in the Deep South in the 1980s. The presence of black children was still resented by many whites, and they had passed white supremacy on to their children like a treasured heirloom.
I should have raced to a black college, but instead I stumbled onto one. I happened to see a brochure for Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta. It pictured black women smiling on a green campus. Although every educated black person over 40 I knew had attended black colleges, my teachers and parents considered them inferior party schools. I did not care: I wanted to sit on a lawn with those girls in the brochure. I persuaded my father to take me to visit. After an hour with the student tour leader, a woman with the wit and self-possession of a young Michelle Obama, he agreed that I should attend Spelman.
College was transforming and daunting. I saw in my peers all kinds of possible selves, black women who were going to be politicians, professors, doctors, scientists, lawyers, investment bankers, diplomats. Some of them came from generations of college-educated black people who I hadn’t known existed. I felt my class difference every time some fashionable girl who used “summer” as a verb called one of the black locals “country” or “ghetto.” I danced at parties wearing green Hammer pants that tied in a bow in back — I was the definition of country meets ghetto. The classes were hard, and my education had not prepared me for the work. Nonetheless, Spelman didn’t just demand my academic excellence; it assumed it. And, eventually, I succumbed to this idea. I set my sights on a PhD.
In 2015, I became a formal mentor to high-achieving students of color at a predominantly white institution in the Northeast. Soon after arriving at college, they had attended a “Welcome Week” party where they were questioned by police who asked for their college IDs and driver’s licenses, although they weren’t driving. They answered questions while their classmates stared. Eventually, a white student told the police he knew them, and they were released. It took just one party for these students to learn their place on the margins of this academic space.
My job was to facilitate weekly meetings where the students could talk freely about their experiences. They spoke of classmates refusing to partner with them for group assignments; dorm mates who pulled doors shut when they tried to enter; a white student casually using the n-word; police called to a pickup basketball game. Many of the women spoke of being considered undesirable — dating, they told me, would have to wait until after college.
At first, I encouraged the students to file complaints and let me make phone calls on their behalf. But they were reluctant to make waves. They feared that if they invested time in resistance, they might prove their inferiority by failing academically. I shifted to trying to get some of them to attend therapy. A few went to campus counseling, but then one student returned to the group saying a white counselor had told her that she needed to leave her urban self in the majority-black city she came from.
Their world was getting smaller instead of bigger. But when they reunited weekly, I saw glimpses of joy — loud laughter and sweet teasing. I asked them how they could expand these moments and create more spaces where they could feel belonging and acceptance. They glanced away as if to say, I am not here to build new institutions. They were right. It was not their job to improve a school that was never intended for them.
Recently, I watched a viral college acceptance video. An African American teen, already dressed in the apparel of a white dream school, sits in front of a laptop, flanked by family and friends. They hold their breaths as the applicant opens the college’s email, and then they explode into cheers. I watched with pride and let their joy enter me. I was about to watch again when fear gripped my stomach. I closed my laptop, but I had already seen the pain that lies ahead.
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