I’ve told you how I ended up at the university I went to, right? No? Well gather ‘round chil’run! It’s an amusing story, best told with brevity.
My mother, as some of you know, was (and I think, still is) a militarized Black woman. She didn’t like White folk, but she learned to get along with them. At some point in her life experience, she decided that her children would not be indoctrinated by White propaganda. So she married a Ghanaian, lived out her days in Africa, and ultimately decided that when it was time for us three to go to school it would be at an appropriate college of our choice: as long as it was an HBCU (Historically Black College/University).
I applied to two schools: Hampton University and Howard University, respectively. They both had decent liberal arts programs – according to the brochures I’d received. I mailed my applications and received an acceptance letter from Hampton a few weeks later. I never heard back from Howard at all. So I packed my palladiums (these black shoes with 3 inch thick soles, made popular by my UK friends), a few skirts, my acceptance letter, and went off to Virginia to begin my college career.
It was hard, but in three years I left Hampton Magna Cum Laude graduate saddled with $35,000 (plus interest) of personal debt. Way to start life as an immigrant in the Great US of A, huh?
Hampton University gave me many things. I found my husband there, got a decent education (although it has yet to provide a noticeable return on investment), and made lifelong friends. It also exposed me to Black Americans; some of the strangest and enigmatic anomalies on the planet. I had many misconceptions about Black Americans, even though my own mother ethnically falls into that group. I thought they were ALL gun toting, do-rag wearing, jean sagging thugs who would sooner shoot and rob you than say hello. These are the images we were fed of Blacks in Africa in the 90’s in movies and music videos. And although I knew better (as I said, my mother is Black American and I visited her family every three to four years), the media images were hard to combat. Plus, I was going to an HBCU. It was going to be like attending Hillman, a la Denise Huxtable. I was excited and frightened by the prospect of meeting my own Mr. Gaines or possibly shot by Ice Cube.
Imagine my surprise when I encountered something very different at my “home by the sea”. There were all kinds of Black people. Androgynous basketball players, Five Percenters swathed in colorful headdress, brown skinned girls with long hair clothed in Express jeans and black boots, and even a few other Africans. Within those sets were several subsets of culture. It was amazing. Each of us learned something about the other either by the pain of conflict or the bonds of friendship. It was a diverse world that I never really appreciated fully until I’d left its magnolia lined walkways.
That’s why this picture pains me so much.
It’s a picture of Hampton University students on a flier demanding
money support from the alumni. I am pained not because of their supplications for my hard earned cash, but because this picture only tells one side of the Hampton experience. I’ve never met a single one of these kids, but I know who they are. They are student government leaders, sorority or fraternity members, children born of wealth and relative affluence. These are always the ones chosen to pictorially represent Hampton. These are OUR Talented Tenth: the ones we submit to the larger culture as our satisfactory cultural heralds.
Conspicuously, or rather not, there isn’t a dark skinned one among them. This hurts me, because many of Hampton’s best and brightest students are of pure African descent. The only reason we were (and still are) is because fierce study habits are ingrained in us from kindergarten. Besides, if your parents paid for your passage from Nigeria/Ghana/Togo you had better be studying, and if your tutelage was being financed by an academic or sports scholarship, the pressure was even greater. What were you going to do if you failed? Where would you go? Who would take you in now that you’ve disgraced yourself and your family? You Ghanaian reading this: you are shaking at the thought, aren’t you!
If this not also the ‘Hampton Experience’? Was one African student not worthy of a slot in this group of six?
And what about my sisters with locs who faithfully wore batik skirts and sandals to class every day? Those individuals who were brave enough to make a political statement about the state of their Black experience in the world through their clothing and refused to assimilate into some cultural ideal? These are the ones who caused me to most angst, for I knew at some point they would be forced into pencil skirt, white cotton blouse purgatory. It was the only way to get ahead in the world. They would survive though. These girls always spoke with deliberate thought and an unwavering glare at their subjects. They were serious, but they were seriously funny as well. While Hampton has its begging bowl out, could they not consider putting a student who looked like my good friend Jahmeela on this flier? Was hers an illegitimate Hamptonian experience?
Let’s not even discuss that none of the girls has natural hair. Lord, please let’s not.
Look at all the men. Is this the singular image of Black male success in this country? Look at all these Hampton Men. Just as pretty as they can be. I bet they live in Pierce Hall, every one of them. Apart from their garb, there is no true diversity amongst this group of three men.
If you have not guessed what my real gripe is by now, it has to do with color. This image defines colorism at its worst, by defining Blackness at its best at this shade light brown and lighter. This is the Hampton we need to keep ‘strong’… essentially, not one that looks like me or the other 80% of students who sacrifice much to attend this institution.
I thought I was overreacting until my husband came home and asked me if I’d seen the flier on the dining room table.
“Yeah,” I said simply. “It came in the mail today.”
“I was really upset! Don’t you think it’s racist??”
“Yeah. Actually, I do.”
Actually, I do.
And hei! Before you even start, I am not bashing the students. They can’t help who they are and what they look like. My axe to grind is alumni affairs and the PR department who clumped them together and approved the photo. I’m not impressed with this effort in the least.