I have attended predominantly white schools from preschool through my doctoral program. I’m used to carving out a black space in a white world. As an undergrad at Georgetown University, I sat at “the black table,” the one cafeteria table where many black students congregated for a fun, raucous dinner and discussion of the day’s news. The black table was not forced upon us — it was a refuge. The girls who wore Ralph Lauren, athletes and poli-sci presidential hopefuls sat at their respective tables, but they didn’t stand out as we did.
As a black student at predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, I focused on my studies without worrying about whether other students assumed that I was a “token minority” or invited me to their study groups. As my hardworking Southern parents reminded me constantly, I was in school to “get my lesson” and not to make friends. Nothing less than my best effort was acceptable to me, to my family and to the many people in my community who didn’t have the same opportunities that I had.
Later, as an academic at a PWI, I put my years of practice as the only black person in the room into being the first black woman to hold my position. I relied on my “make them feel comfortable” bag of tricks — smiling more so as not to be called an “angry black woman,” being extra friendly to be considered a “team player,” keeping my Warren Moon-composure in the face of many microaggressions from students and colleagues.
And then I took a teaching position at Howard University.
The relevance of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, is an ongoing debate. Some HBCU student bodies are no longer majority black. While on average HBCUs accept more low-income and first-generation students and cope with racial disparities in state and federal funding, they have similar retention and graduation rates when compared with PWIs with similar institutional characteristics and student demographics. The debate often reduces both PWIs and HBCUs to broad generalizations. Before coming to Howard, I myself tended to lump HBCUs together, even though they constitute a diverse group of institutions that students attend for a variety of reasons. Morehouse is a small men’s college of 2,100; Howard is a private research university of 10,000 with undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Just as Georgia State is not usually grouped with Agnes Scott, HBCUs are not all peer institutions. And while HBCUs may not face the same types of racial issues that occur at PWIs, they aren’t immune to sexism, classism, colorism, xenophobia, homophobia and other matters that plague our society at large.
But as a black scholar, teaching black students, I have found that Howard helped me connect to my lineage as a black academic and helped me understand that even very bright students of color struggle with notions of inferiority in the classroom.
Teaching at Howard was my first majority black experience outside of church. Nearly all of my faculty colleagues were black. The staff was black. My boss was black. His boss was black. And his boss’s boss was black. Having been a racial minority for my entire life, this experience of widespread blackness was new to me. As a black woman scholar, for once, I wasn’t on the margins seeking to move to the center but rather a part of the group. I no longer thought of myself as an individual scholar engaged in academic bouldering without a harness or equipment. I was part of an institution dedicated to people who looked like me.
It was a dramatic change from teaching at a PWI, where once, during a class at the end of the semester, a white student yelled “Hey, when is our project due?” From his tone, I assumed he was talking to one of his classmates, but he repeated, “Hey, when is our project due?”
As I realized that he was speaking to me, I turned slowly and said in my iciest Dominique Deveraux, “Are you talking to me?” He said he was. I asked him to address me as Dr. Junior or Professor Junior, to which he replied, “Oh, I didn’t know that you were, like, a real professor.”
All semester I had prepped thoroughly, dressed professionally, made handouts, created rubrics, designed Powerpoints, arrived early, stayed late. And somehow this student still didn’t think I was a real professor.
I’m a biblical scholar, and I situate myself within the discipline of academic biblical studies. But now I also see myself as part of history and legacy of black educators with a deep commitment to encouraging and demanding the very best from my students and myself. This rich history was evident to me at my first opening convocation at Howard. While the students assemble together, the faculty gathers separately before processing into the chapel. I slipped into my bright academic regalia and entered a room full of black PhDs wearing their regalia. I wasn’t the first or only black woman. I had never been part of such a group before.
I also had to adjust my teaching style at Howard. In my opinion, I’m a tough but fair professor. On the first day of class, I make clear to my students that I have high standards and let them know that there will be no extra credit. When I taught at PWIs, I said the same thing unapologetically, but I wasn’t prepared for the many ways in which the insidious myth of black inferiority would show up in my Howard classrooms of nearly all black students. Linked to the notion of white supremacy, this myth holds that blacks are not as intelligent, resourceful or capable as whites. Compared to my experiences at other schools, I found that a greater percentage of my Howard students had severe test anxiety and lacked confidence in their academic performance, even though my students were bright, capable, articulate and eager to learn. They did the assigned reading and confidently discussed course material during class. I struggled to find ways to improve their test scores. Soon, I realized that I was combatting years of students having internalized lower expectations and the repeated explicit and implicit messaging they “didn’t test well.”
Even though I myself am black, I had to develop greater cultural competency to assist this group of students. I maintained my academic standards, but I learned strategies to teach the classes in front of me. I started giving practice tests to help students build their confidence. I provided more opportunities for students to lead discussion and to teach each other to develop a supportive learning environment. I gave pre-exam pep talks to remind students that they were excellent students and that I expected everyone to do well. I did more cheerleading because more of them needed it. I cannot state strongly enough that my students were absolutely capable and in no way inferior to any group of students I had taught in the past, but more of them needed more of a push.
After six years, I’m leaving Howard for position at a PWI in Philadelphia. Now I understand the fierce loyalty and protectiveness Howard alumni feel toward their alma mater. Howard provides a haven in which black excellence is modeled and expected. The debate over the relative merits of HBCUs will continue, and I can only say that these institutions matter, for faculty and students. Veritas et utilitas, truth and service, is the motto of Howard. I am proud to have served.