But it was also evident in the huddled masses in the tent encampment constructed just outside the university’s social hub. The students, wearing oversized hoodies and foam Crocs, have been sleeping outdoors for almost two weeks to protest their housing conditions at the most prestigious historically Black university in America.
The pageantry of Howard’s biggest day of the fall — a packed cheering section on the home side of Greene Stadium, the marching band that lived up to its “Showtime!” moniker and a thrilling fourth quarter between the Bison and Norfolk State — illustrated the best of the private institution. It was the front-facing image of a home its alumni affectionately refer to as “The Mecca.”
Still, no matter how loud the brass instruments echoed across the stadium, they could not drown out the discontent from the hundreds of students who couldn’t care less about preserving optics or laying low so Howard could play a football game in peace. And through this dichotomy on a picturesque fall day when the sun played peek-a-boo through the clouds, Howard offered a different demonstration of Black excellence.
It was seen in the fans grooving when Yo Gotti’s “Rake It Up” blasted over the loudspeakers, then later watching in revered silence while the marching band played “Amazing Grace” as a tribute to Colin Powell. It was Howard falling into a 28-3 deficit and a rowdy fan standing, yelling and provoking a few players to turn around and stare, and the same man applauding approvingly when the Bison scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
There can be a duality to Black excellence.
It streamed from the disappointment of freshman Kymora Olmo. She abandoned her dorm room for an air mattress and a camping tent. She has her essentials: a makeshift food pantry, a change of clothes and, naturally, a bullhorn. Her mom in New York City only advised she not drop “F-bombs”; her dad promised bail money if she got arrested for protesting.
“I thought I was going to Black Harvard, essentially. I thought I was going to ‘The Mecca,’ the epicenter of Black excellence, Black higher education. But that’s not really what I got,” Olmo told me. “We’re out here because we want ‘The Mecca’ to be better for us. We want ‘The Mecca’ to live up to its great legacy. We want our school to be what it was supposed to be.”
Because Black excellence can be tough love.
It was Mr. and Ms. Howard — he in a jacket, she in red — and the royal court striding in pairs and smiling and waving on cue anytime a cellphone aimed their way, and Olmo and her friends shouting one of their demands for legal and academic amnesty as spectators streamed from the stadium exits following Howard’s 45-31 loss.
Black excellence, also, can multitask.
Though as a people we are plentiful and diverse, there is a connection in the Black experience. We learn about loyalty at a young age, and what happens between family — any discord or dysfunction — is family business. You don’t broadcast family business, not even to friends next door and especially not to neighbors of a different hue. You work out family business inside your own home.
But the protesters camping outside the Blackburn University Center are airing the dirty laundry, no matter how shameful it makes their beloved family look beyond these iron gates. For Olmo, that meant ripping away the curtain and revealing the mold that she said she found in her dorm bathroom vent and decrying how on the night before classes began at Howard, she said, the school had not sent her class schedule.
It may be messy, but Black excellence doesn’t have to be concerned about what anybody on the outside might think.
“This is a big-name school, and I understand they only want to [uphold] the image,” said Corren Brown, running for D.C. mayor as part of the Statehood Green Party, who visited the tent encampment with her brother and daughter to drop off supplies. “But to keep that image, you have to make sure every student’s voice is heard.”
On Saturday, Howard hosted three-star basketball recruit Darren Buchanan from D.C.’s Wilson High on an official visit. Buchanan played on Kevin Durant’s AAU team and as a 6-foot-7 small forward entertaining offers from a slew of Division I programs, he would be a coup for the HBCU. During the game, Buchanan stood on the sideline, but hopefully head basketball coach Kenneth Blakeney swung him by the tent encampment so he could see all of Black excellence.
Because it has to be more than words. Students cannot journey to a place called “The Mecca” and live in substandard conditions. It isn’t hiding the warts to maintain or provide cover for a reputation people think you have. Excellence is embracing the responsibility and legacy that come with being the university that produced the first Black Supreme Court justice, the first woman elected as U.S. vice president and the actor who transcended a movie role and became a hero.
The members of the homecoming court adorned in their crowns and the protesters wearing sweats — they are the beautiful and the confrontational, and they can both be true and accurate depictions of Black excellence.