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My HBCU Baptism

My HBCU Baptism

Happy Celebration Bowl Saturday Beautiful, Brilliant, Bold, Blessed Black Girls!
          I know not everyone that reads this is a Rattler or Bison, and I know not everyone attended an HBCU. Certainly not everyone is a football fan, and many may not even know what this game is or how historic it is.
         But, everyone that we SPEAK for is Black and woman and we have some sisters to support today. Black Girl Shaia Simmons and her family have worked so hard to support Coach Simmons during this season and it has paid off tremendously. Our resident sports journalist and Rattler, Black Girl Tiffany Berry, will not only be a commentator for the game, but is scheduled to interview VP Kamala Harris, a Howard graduate.
         I don’t know what it’s like to not be a graduate of an/THEE HBCU, but it was beautiful to read the experience of one of our sisters who does after she attended an HBCU Homecoming. It gives insight into one woman’s baptism into HBCU culture and it made me all the more grateful that the love of us as a whole surpasses all the differences.
         Thank you Nikki Dillard for sharing your brilliant and heartfelt thoughts about your experience. The next words are all hers.

Author, Nikki Dillard captures a moment near the indelible coiled Rattler sculpture by artist, Brad Cooley, Jr.

Long Post Alert:
           A little note about this before I go into it: I have been a hater when it came to FAMU for the past few years, not because I knew anything about it, but only because so many people around me and in my circle went to FAMU, and they are quite “vocal” about their love for their school. I seem to draw FAMUers around me like I attract Scorpios – I can’t shake them! It’s annoying! So I playfully troll them about their alma mater whenever comedic timing allows for it. So it was quite the ironic twist that I – of all people – would go to FAMU’s Homecoming. But I did. And I get it now.
          They do something interesting with their homecoming – and maybe other schools do this, but I’ve never heard of it – they emphasize the year you come INTO the school as your “class of,” not the year you graduated. That ends up making it more inclusive in a way I never thought of, because it allows you to celebrate with all those folks you started with who transferred or had to leave school for whatever reason before you all could graduate together as well as those who took an extra year or more to finish. And I think that’s amazing, because we all know of folks we lost who dropped by the wayside over the years, and this welcomes everyone back with open arms like “you’re still us.” And I love that. That’s a special choice, to me, to do it that way.

Incoming FAMU Class of ’98 Reunion Mixer

I went back for the 25th anniversary of the class of 1998, invited by someone I love dearly. I knew it was going to be a huge deal for her to be returning, and I very much wanted to see the place and the people who shaped her into the person she is today, so I paused my friendly-troll activities, and I just attended as a curious observer, for I had never been to a homecoming at an HBCU – I went to a PWI. It shouldn’t even be called PW; it should be called IWI for “incredibly white institution.” But I didn’t start out that way.

HBCU Beginnings:

I was in high school at the tail end of A Different World, and watching it not only made me excited for college, it specifically made me want to go to an HBCU. After a childhood where I struggled with my own self image, I wanted to step into my Blackness and learn more about myself and develop more pride in who I was born to be, and I knew college was my chance to do that. I was going to go to a Black school and join a Black sorority – the one my mom had very briefly mentioned years before that she had pledged. So I applied mainly to HBCUs, where I was accepted by all that I applied to (I didn’t know about FAMU, so that wasn’t one). I decided to go to Spelman because a classmate of mine that I was cool with was going there.

I went down for Freshman Orientation Week and had my mind blown by all the beautiful Blackness around me. So many young Black kids, looking like me, smart and excited to get an education, too. And they chose to surround themselves with other Black folks like I did. I just knew my new life was about to begin in the most amazing way – until they told me I had to leave. Non-payment of tuition. You see, I was the first in my family to go to college in the modern era with tuitions (my mother would have gone in the 1950s, and things were very different then), and we didn’t know about costs and about paying for it. We never researched it, because 1. I was a kid and I didn’t know to even do such a thing, and 2. my mom was too busy in survival mode trying to keep us from being homeless to bother with such a thing. So I went off to college never having filled out anything for scholarships or student loans.

        You remember that scene in House Party 2 where Kid goes to sign up for classes, and they’re like “your tuition hasn’t been paid (‘cause Play spent his tuition money), so you’ll have to figure this out or leave?” Kid was me. But unlike Kid, I never had tuition money, and I didn’t know where I was supposed to get it from or how to fix my situation. I felt lost. They called me in the office that Thursday to tell me I couldn’t stay because it hadn’t been “figured out.” Let’s just say that my reaction was so alarming that the school’s counselor put me under watch. I was devastated, and in 17 year old terms, my life was over. Not only was college my ticket to learning about being proud of my Black self, it was my way out of my family’s situation. And all of that was dashed by something I had no idea I was supposed to do. I had no help. My mother had no help. And it was culminating in the loss of my only dream.
        What happened next is something I will always be grateful for, because it did change the trajectory of my life, just not in the way I was expecting. Because the counselor – and I wish so badly I could remember her name – got on the phone with Bill Stewart, who was in charge of our Minority Student Program at the University of Minnesota at Morris. He had been responsible for helping a lot of Black kids from out of state get into school for in-state rates, making it more affordable. In less than 48 hours, they had arranged an acceptance in another school and given me insight on how to pay for it. The counselor didn’t just leave me out there and send me home. Already, Black folks were pulling strings for me, helping me continue down the college path, and I’m eternally grateful to them for that.
To the Isle of White:

Photo credit: https://morrisofcourse.blogspot.com/2012/11/morris-mn-thoughts-while-appreciating.html

I had never been to Minnesota, or heard really anything about it, but I packed up my things, hugged my friends – I had made friends quick as hell at Spelman, something I struggled to do my whole young life – and went off to Minnesota (after a brief stop back home).

        Y’all. It was white as hell up there. I left Spelman in Black ass Atlanta to go to Morris, Minnesota. It was as polar opposite of my HBCU dream as it could be – the only Black folks there were students (and a sprinkle of folks associated with the school some way), and there was no Black Greek life to speak of. But I was happy to be in school, and so I made it work. And our small group of Black students came together to create our own community. I went on to finish school, graduating almost 25 years ago, and I’ve never gone back.
Homecoming:
         Homecoming in Morris was… not a thing. No one cared. Our team sucked. And the homecoming celebration was extremely whitewashed. I didn’t come up in an environment where homecoming was some big thing that folks were excited about, nor were people excited to return to campus once they’d graduated. So the entire concept of FAMU acting as a homing beacon calling the masses back to campus for their homecoming was foreign to me. I had no idea what to expect. What I found was a fascinating exposition – macro and micro – of Black joy.
       I was there for my girl, happily enjoying being a fly on the wall as I observed her big class of ’98 reunion with her friends and classmates. When your campus has, say, 50 Black students, you might only be really tight friends with 10% of them. But when your campus has thousands of Black students, your 10% close friends is a more significant number. Before meeting her crew of friends, I couldn’t fathom being truly close friends with, like, 13 girls in my freshman class alone – I had forgotten that, at Spelman – another HBCU, I had made fast friends with 7 different girls in the span of a week. I got to witness everyone’s laughter and glee and inside jokes and just… absolute joy at being with each other again. It seemed like no time had passed. It was a pleasure for me to be there in the midst of that connection. It was special, and I was happy to document it in some way, taking several photos and videos of the revelry. That kind of magic in human connection to THAT level seemed only possible at an HBCU.
        One of the things that I love and appreciate about HBCUs is the community surrounding them. They’re set up to support the students, directly and indirectly. In Morris, MN, there was no infrastructure set up in the town to support Black students in a white environment. As students, we had to create our own. It felt further isolating, which makes staying in school far from home and family that much harder. No part of the surrounding community felt familiar or welcoming. But in Tallahassee and in Atlanta, there are hair places around, restaurants and food places that affirm your culture, clubs and places to hear your music and see your dances, shops with your clothing styles ready for purchase. And when you step off campus, you see folks living in the town that look like you. You don’t feel so alien, which makes basic survival at school feel much more doable.

Olean’s Café has been a staple and safe have for FAMU students for generations

There’s a place right outside FAMUs campus called Olean’s that is a staple for the students – the owner serves good home cooking for prices the students can afford – even to the detriment of her making a profit. And when her mission of feeding the students almost caused the business to shut down, FAMU alumni from all over donated funds to bring the business back in the black, for the sheer gratitude of what Olean’s meant to them as struggling students during their time there. I didn’t have time to go during this visit, but I hope to in the future.

         We went to the homecoming game, where, again, it was the polar opposite of my Morris experience. Their team was actually good. People were excited to attend the game, and the tickets were hard to come by. Folks from the community and the alumni and the students came to the game and the tailgate event. And the whole thing had flavor to it. There was a palpable pride in the school. A whole campus and surrounding community all showing great love to the university. And a common thread of gratitude running through many alumni stories that FAMU had changed their lives for the better.
        And that’s understandable. From all accounts, the faculty and administrators didn’t play about their students. The school was incredibly generous with scholarships – something that could really have helped 17-year-old me. And they pressed for excellence from the students while giving them all the access needed to achieve it. This was evidenced, for example, by the School of Business and Industry (SBI) teaching their young students the key skill of properly formatting impressive questions to CEOs in interviews, something I didn’t learn until years after college, and I had to teach myself. And the students didn’t just do 1 internship, they had to do 3. Three foot-in-the-door opportunities for young Black people in companies they might not otherwise have a road into. That’s amazing!
The Game:
         I’ve never been to a tailgate before, so I wasn’t sure what that even was. We got VIP tickets to their tailgate event, where great food and drinks were free flowing. They had a photo booth, which was dope, and a fire DJ playing the hits from each incoming class year who was there representing, so I got to watch the groups getting hyped reliving their best memories thru music. It put the music and the songs I love into a different perspective. I may love Cheryl Lynn’s “Encore” from my childhood, but I don’t have it associated with core memories from my first year of college away from my home and my family. I have “Player’s Anthem” and “I’m Bout It, Bout It” for that, and it was really cool to be reminded that there were young college kids getting their start and partying when those older, classic joints came out. I watched folks dance, Black Greeks stroll, and I even did a little jig myself. I also ate good! It was a fabulous time.
         After the tailgate, we went to the game. Spirits were high, and maybe that’s always, but I’m sure it was helped by the fact that the team doled out an ass whoopin. There were fans there from the school FAMU was playing, and we even had a good time with them, ribbing each other. The jokes and jonesing was so nonstop and so Black and so hilarious, I stayed in stitches.
        The friendly ribbing stopped when it came to the band. Band wasn’t a big deal in my high school and was even less a deal in college. But bands in the south are a whole different animal. Bands down here are SERIOUS business. FAMUs band – The Marching 100 – is very well known. They swing when they play. They got soul, they dance and bust moves. An ordinary band can’t hang. They’re super freaking impressive. And they do this really cool thing where the alumni who were in the band come back with their instruments and, while they sit up in the stands, they play along with the band. And they sound just the same! And then they get to come down on the field and march in line with the current band members, and they never even missed a step. It was awesome to watch. And it is one more way that they say to their students, past and present, that once you are one of us, you’re always one of us, and that doesn’t just stop once you graduate. It’s a community-minded thought process that feels unique to Black institutions.
          To witness and be amongst so much joy and laughter in my people on such a large scale, both with the friend group I was a part of and with the surrounding community as a whole, impacted me in a way I wasn’t quite prepared for. I wish I could properly describe how it made me feel. I can only say that it made me happy and warm, and it overwhelmed in some way I can’t explain. My words fail me.
         Something that didn’t hit me until after I’d left Tallahassee was how much I appreciated that we as Black people could be there in such a massive crowd, all in good spirits, celebrating, and we weren’t overly policed, overly regulated and overly monitored. In Morris, Minnesota, there was always a feeling that I was “noticed” since I didn’t look like the majority of students and townsfolk. But there at FAMU, where I look like everyone else, the weight of that watchful gaze was removed. We were free to just be, in all our beautiful Blackness, and I wish I had realized that while I was in it. I might’ve enjoyed myself even more.
        All in all, I would say that my first homecoming experience at an HBCU was a resounding success. 10/10 – would recommend. I had feared that I would stand out like a poser, like the PWI could be smelled on me. But at my core, I am Black. I felt openly welcomed my whole time there, which made complete sense, because Black folks are a communal people. FAMUers are me, and I am them. The community surrounding FAMU are me, and I am them. So it also made sense that, on my first trip down to Tallahassee and FAMU, I felt like I was right at home.
         Once upon a time, I had a dream that was an HBCU. It did not work out for me, but all was not lost. Still, I often think about how my life would’ve turned out if I’d been able to stay. Some key life and career lessons might’ve been taught to me much sooner. Maybe my identity would’ve been changed and shaped in ways I can’t even imagine. I might’ve pledged – no, I’m sure I would have, if not the one my mother had (since I heard they’re not as big a presence here in the south), then somewhere. How might the course of my life have been altered if the school and community around me had been constructed in a way that affirmed me? I don’t know, and I don’t get too lost in thinking about it, because to change my school would be to change – and lose – my amazing friends, the memories of the unique experience our small group of Black students had in Morris from us banding together for our survival, and every other good thing that’s happened to me since.
          But it’s fun to play what-if every once in a while. And maybe one day, I can do some post-grad work, take some classes or something, at an HBCU. And, as I’ve been told numerous times, it’s never too late for me to pledge. Perhaps my dream never truly died, it was just deferred. And my visit to FAMU was a beautiful reminder of what was and still is a real and attainable possibility for me.
By: Black Girl Nikki Dillard
Black Girl Speaks is a collective of Black Girls and womxn who use their voices to amplify the trials, triumphs, and beauty of the daily lives of the Black experience.
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