Recent protests led by Black students at American University here in D.C. remind me of my days at the University of Michigan, Emory University and Princeton Theological Seminary where I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees.
During my matriculation at all three of these predominantly-white institutions of higher learning, I experienced multiple forms of racism. Sometimes it was subtle – other times more obvious, even blatant. And it came from a variety of sources – from students and administrators to tenured professors who should have known better or at least been more aware. I recall one professor telling me on the first day of my doctoral studies at Princeton, that I might as well drop his course because there was no way I would pass – given my lack of previous studies related to his discipline. Needless to say, I proved him wrong.
So, with the student unrest now going on at American University, my message to today’s Black coeds remains simple: “Racism Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”
Naturally, I wish I could say something else. Share words that confirm how far we’ve come as a nation. Pontificate on the “new reality” that we are now living in a colorless society and that we have truly and finally “overcome.” But that would be preaching false notions and ignoring the facts.
At every turn, we continue to see the vestiges of racism, prejudice and slavery manifesting themselves in the thoughts, words and deeds of our fellow Americans. That’s why those of us who have already walked the walk and felt the sting of racial hatred must share our stories with each generation.
I remember feeling like a “footnote on the pages of life” when I first arrived on the campus of U of M (that’s Michigan, not Maryland) over 30 years ago. I recall walking into my dorm room and seeing a young white student from Arizona who made it clear that he would not and could not share a room with someone Black. I also remember putting him out – replacing him with one of my high school friends – a brother also from Detroit.
We were a very small group – less than 5 percent on a campus of over 120,000 – but we stuck together. We studied, partied, commiserated, complained and celebrated among ourselves. And we remembered the lessons our parents had taught us – keeping our heads held high, doing our very best academically and making those who loved us proud of our accomplishments.
We realized that “the man” didn’t want us there. But we knew we had a right to be there and we claimed it at every opportunity.
James Brown expressed our sentiments when he shouted “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
So, for the young folks at American University and those at other colleges and universities across this great nation, just remember that while the times may change, intractable attitudes do not – at least not without struggle and sacrifice and a huge spoonful of patience and prayer.
The battle is NOT over.