My Black Pride Came From Attending A PWI
In light of the happenings at Mizzou and other college campuses around the U.S., it was ignorantly implied over the last few weeks that the solution would be for the students to “just come on back home.” Or in other words, just attend a Historically Black Campus and University (HBCU). But that suggestion does nothing more than sweep the issues of racism and a lack of campus diversity under the rug, only for things to bubble up and have to be dealt with down the road.
I didn’t attend an HBCU. In fact, I attended a state university, a predominantly White school. I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey where about 50 percent of the population is Black. For all I, and other residents knew, it was just a Black city. Not Haitian, Jamaican or filled with proud cultures–just Black. And the other 50 percent of the city is Hispanic. Not Puerto Rican, Dominican–just Hispanic. You get it.
In Trenton, there is only ONE high school. It’s the same high school my mom went to, as well as my aunts and my uncles. The population of Blacks and Hispanics were about the same in the high school as they were in the city. An even divide of families living well below the poverty line and some fortunate enough to just make it over. This was my whole life.
Growing up in Trenton with little Black kids in elementary school to pre-pubescent Black kids in middle school and adolescent Black kids in high school, to me and my friends, I was just Black, and everyone was just Black or Hispanic. We had adopted the notion that if we saw White people in this urban city, it was for three reasons: either they worked here, they were poor like everyone else, or they sold drugs in the area but didn’t live in it. Trenton just wasn’t that diverse.
So naturally, by the time I made it to my senior year in high school, all of my teachers and some guidance counselors who were Black (and Greeks) tried to persuade me to go to a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). So I applied. I filled out an application for Howard University, Shaw University, and Elizabeth City State University, but none of them were where I really wanted to go because, honestly, with my mindset at that time, I was tired of being surrounded by Black people all day every day. My rationale was that I wanted more diversity in my life. I wanted to experience other cultures and travel abroad like in the stories I’d heard. You know, the stories where high school alumni come back and speak to the graduating seniors and share tales of how they spent their spring break overseas in some place like India or China with a roommate’s family? I decided I wasn’t going to go to an HBCU. My parents didn’t really care since neither of them went to college. And at the end of the day, they just wanted me to go to college, didn’t matter which one as long as we could afford it.
And despite the fact that so many people were advocating for me to attend an HBCU, I found it ironic that I got the most money in financial aid and scholarships from PWIs.
So in August of 2007, I packed my bags and traveled about 60 miles to Rutgers University in Newark. And despite the sea of White faces, it was there where I developed Black pride. I didn’t realize how much western whitewashing had brainwashed me from grades K-12, so I went into this PWI with my white-washed glasses on. I felt bamboozled when I really started to learn the history of my people and the history of others. It was at Rutgers that I learned how to appreciate the different threads of blackness, the different threads of being Hispanic, the different threads of being Asian. I learned that people were more than just what I called them back in Trenton: Black or Hispanic or Asian. There were some serious levels to this sh-t.
There was a Haitian Student Association, a West Indian Student Association, a Black Student Organization, an Organization of African Students, a Filipino Student Association and a South Asian Student Group. The list went on! All organizations meant to teach, embrace culture, and provide a place of comfort amongst people who look the same. I was so in love with it all and I wanted to be a part of it so bad. I wanted to learn more about being Black and all its intricacies. I wanted to learn about everybody. There was a sense of pride and unity that developed amongst the students of the African diaspora and I was a part of creating and nurturing that culture on my campus. I loved attending Rutgers, and I learned so much about myself and others culturally. I don’t believe I would have had such an experience at an HBCU. But that’s just my perspective.
People ask why I chose Rutgers over Shaw or Howard and I think of an interview with James Baldwin in a 1977 issue of the New York Times where he states, “A lot of young American’s white or black, rich or poor, have wanted to get away, as a means of getting closer to themselves.” Ain’t that the truth?
He discussed how he had to leave his people and travel thousands of miles away with nothing but $40 in order to better assess what was happening and why, to better understand. And that’s why I believe that I attended a PWI, and I don’t regret it. Because I couldn’t have felt more pride watching Blacks and all of the diaspora coming together as a unified body on campus in times of crisis, leading a revolution in a place that wasn’t built to understand us. And yet, we MADE them understand us. We made our presence known. We made an impact.