Lessons In Blackness From Yale University’s Black Solidarity Conference
(This will be long and yes, that is what she said. There’s a lot to unpack in these words. Grab a seat and come along for the ride. Also, keep in mind, I’m an HBCU graduate so my perspective is rooted in that fact. Perspective is everything.)
This past weekend, Damon and I had the pleasure of speaking at Yale University as part of their 21st Annual Black Solidarity Conference which bring students of color together to speak about issues pertaining to the African diaspora, sponsored by the school’s Afro-American Cultural Center.
You know, I had never heard the word diaspora until I got to college. I wonder if my high school education wasn’t Black enough. No shots fired here, but based on some of the panels I availed myself of this past weekend, it seems I’m not alone in that observation. I want to send a shout out to the students at Yale who put the conference together and invited us up. It was a truly enjoyable experience up in Gun Wavin’ New Haven, CT.
Being as it was a conference dedicated to issues surrounding Blackness, and since it is February, Bey yonce’d, Kendrick went full Lamar, and sharing is caring, I’m going to tell you a bit about our trip, specifically a few things that stood out to me during our time at the conference.
1. HBCUs & PWIs, HBCUs vs PWIs, Everybody Hates Everybody
When I got a chance to check out the schedule of panels, one in particular jumped out at me: HBCUs vs PWIs – Let’s Talk About It.
While I was excited to be part of the conference, what I really wanted to do was attend this talk. See, I knew that this was going to be a room full of largely elite PWI Black students. Nearly every conversation I’ve had about HBCUs vs PWIs happens amidst a bunch of HBCU grads who all attended PWIs for grad school. Full disclosure: nearly my ENTIRE crew from Morehouse/Spelman has graduate degrees from PWIs. So I’ve never been in the room filled with “the other side” so to speak. What I know is that (based on debates that have occurred here at VSB and on Twitter) this topic is highly contentious and not for a good reason but because everybody thinks the other side is shitting on them. It’s like Bloods vs Crips in the late 80s amongst Black people who read for leisure.
The devil is a busy mofo.
Now, the two women leading the discussion had THE best of intentions. In fact, the title of the workshop morphed from HBCUs vs PWIs to HBCUs & PWIs, which is a very important distinction. The two leading the discussion were current students at Hampton University, which to me was a bit of a mis-step on the conference organizers part. To bring two current HBCU students to lead a discussion about differences with a room full of PWI students was almost a set up to fail from jump. But they did their best to lead a discussion about creating solidarity amongst the two groups. But, again, they were going to lose from jump. The initial listing of the workshop as a “versus” talk is why the room was standing room only.
Look, there are a lot of very strong feelings on both sides. That much became apparent when a comment intended to speak to confidence gained at an HBCU got turned into an attack on PWIs and the apparent elitism of HBCU students, an irony that wasn’t lost on me considering the room was full of Ivy league students. To wit, a gentleman who brought a contingent of students from Seton Hall University made the remark that going to an HBCU made it possible for him to not just be a high school teacher but a college professor. As an HBCU alum, I got what he was getting at. It turned on the faucet for PWI tears as the comment was somehow interpreted to be that going to an HBCU allows a Black person to shoot for the stars and that a PWI doesn’t. It was even suggested that he was somehow shitting on high school teachers.
PWI tears are a real thing.
See, what I didn’t know was happening amidst the HBCU vs PWI convo (this talk was a result of all the Mizzou happenings where the divisive ass convo reached its Mt. Olympus-like zenith via Twitter) was that a lot of PWI students were being told they were sell outs for getting their education at their uber-selective admission schools. I’ve heard people shit on HBCUs, but I can’t say I’d heard people shit on PWIs, not that I didn’t think it happened, it just seemed like more of the “folks made fun of me for being smart” thing that people say happens but I’ve never personally seen or heard. Nearly all convos I’ve been a part of have been HBCU students defending why our schools AREN’T second-tier and do manage to prepare us for the world. I’d never seen the part where PWI students felt maligned by HBCUs. Apparently this is a thing. Well shut my mouth wide open.
I’m guessing PWI students just want to go to school in peace and not have people call into question their allegiance to the cause, which, again, turns out is a thing…maybe. It reminds me of the famous Andre 3000 line from “Aquemini”: “…is every nigga with dreads for the cause?/Is every nigga with golds for the falls/naw, so don’t get caught up in appearance…”
Of course, students at HBCUs want to go to school without being accused of being in the 13th grade or only going to class because it’s required to pledge or to hold us over until the next party starts.
But I’m sleep.
I guess that’s hard to address when everybody is so charged. Those two Hamptonians – bless their hearts – became the de facto representative of all HBCU students and their opinions, and they were facing a room full of folks who truly wanted to vent about their side of the debate. Basically, those PWI students really want us to know that they have feelings that aren’t shielded by the resources, networks, or name on their college sweatshirts. Maybe they go to Harvard, but it hurts when somebody from Wiley College thinks they aren’t Black enough.
As it turns out, we all need hugs.
Speaking of hugs…
2. Blacks In STEM
While at the bar on Friday night, I ran into a friend of mine from Atlanta who just so happened to be there to speak on a panel about Blacks in STEM after our VSB talk. Now, quite a few of my close friends are actively involved in the STEM field, either as practitioners or professors (sometimes both), so I’ve heard a lot of what I expected to hear at the panel.
It’s apparently a very lonely field, especially for people of color. But what I heard from one of the students floored me: she said that my friend and the other two panelists were the first Black scientists she’d seen in her entire life and it moved her to tears.
It was one of the most interesting and saddest things I’ve seen to this point in my life. Interesting because as an HBCU grad, one thing I’ve both seen and know plenty of is Black scientists of various stripe. I know a Black physicist, a few actually. I know multiple Black mathematicians and chemists and engineers and biomedical engineers and biologists, etc. It’s something I apparently take for granted. And don’t get me started on Black medical doctors. I realize that going from the Black haven of undergrad to grad school is where many of my own friends found some loneliness, but at least they had their network to fall back on. It’s a whole different beast to operate in a space where nobody looks like you, understands you, or feigns interest in the context of your life. It’s also a life I just don’t know. Again, I apparently take my experience for granted.
I realize that her experience is not an anomaly and there are lots of students at PWIs struggling with being the only Black student in their major and all of their classes and it does suck. It’s why we keep reading articles from students demanding Black faculty in the sciences at these schools which is great in theory, you just can’t manufacture faculty. There’s a dearth of Black STEM graduates and I’m guessing they get swooped up quickly by institutions with long pockets and great resources.
It saddens me that so many of our best and brightest minds are winning on paper but struggling on the mental or social end of things for whatever reason. That brought actual sadness to me. I realize that doesn’t pertain to everybody. Some students of color couldn’t care less, but I’m guessing the majority realize the disadvantage that comes with not having a person to confide in or advocate for you. Though on the flipside, in grad school, I had a Black professor who pointed out that all through his education he made it a point to stay as FAR away from race related study and research as possible as to not get labeled as a race man. Not for nothing, but I definitely didn’t view him as anything more than a professor. My advisor was a very nice white man who cared about making sure I won in life. Point is, your experience is what it is and what you can manage to make of it.
And we still all need hugs.
3. Damon and I talked about VSB and we could have called our talk, “How To Make It With a Super Black Voice In America”
You know what I realized while Damon and I were answering questions about our ride here at VSB? We’re pretty lucky.
Our talk was well attended and the students seemed engaged and asked good questions. One of those was about what we say to people who told us we wouldn’t make it. And I for the life of me can’t remember a single individual who EVER told me I wouldn’t make it. Either it never happened or I just plain don’t remember them, but that question stumped me. Then I realized, maybe a lot of people DO get told that they won’t make it in certain areas. And that sucks. So we’re lucky in that regard, but we’re also lucky in another and its something I brought up while I was talking.
I don’t ever remember thinking I couldn’t do something. At no point in my life have I ever felt limited by my Blackness. I went to high school in Alabama; if it was going to happen, it was going to happen there. Now, obviously I’m very aware that I’m a Black man, but while I know there are institutions intentionally intent on my downfall, I’ve never personally felt stifled by them or maybe I’ve just ignored them wholesale. Even with VSB, I don’t ever remember thinking that there was something we couldn’t do. I had no idea where were heading, but I also never saw a ceiling, and I DID think being Black helped. I love who I am and I’ve never not loved who I am. I don’t know where this #shelfofsteam came from, but in some of the conversations I had with students and things I heard at panels, I’m damn sure glad that I have it because it is not a guarantee. I saw a bunch of students excited to be around Black people doing things as if that wasn’t just life.
My whole life is full of Black folks doing important things and I not only got used to it, I expect it. Just an observation, but one that made me think and inspired a lot of conversation after the talks.
Talking about VSB and our rise and motivations is fun. I enjoy inspiring (such as that’s what happens) and providing motivation and putting a battery in the back of somebody who is at the cusp of giving creativity a shot. I’m all about the arts so it was great to be there to help shine a light on how we make it do what it do while we do it like we’re doing it for TV.
It was a great trip for various reasons, many of which were reminding me that “making it” comes with its own set of struggles. Blackness looks very different depending on where you’re sitting. It’s good to be reminded of that sometimes as it adds perspective and context to my own life. We are doing great as a people and there were hundreds of Black faces that showed this.
And yet, we still all need hugs.