From PWI to HBCU: Why I fled

College, and threat of expulsion, made my naivete about racism disappear

Shamontiel Vaughn
Jun 29 · 9 min read
Buckingham Fountain in downtown Chicago (Photo credit: Shamontiel L. Vaughn)

In my mother’s words, “The world is made up of more than black people. You need to be exposed to everybody.”

I enjoyed the makeup of my high school, with about a third of African-American students, a third of Hispanic students (mainly Mexican), and the rest were a mix of white and foreign exchange students. But I started getting a glimpse into the prejudice views of traditional education when I tried to take an African-American Literature course. I was told that I was too close to graduating and needed to take an “English” Literature course instead. (Read: A course exclusively dedicated to white writers.) I was bored to tears in a Creative Writing course with an instructor who was obsessed with William Shakespeare and tried to add that man in every single assignment we did.

Doing time at Northern Michigan University

Whenever someone asks me what college I went to, my response is the same: “I did time at NMU. I graduated from Lincoln University in Missouri.” And the reason I say “did time” is because the 18-year-old version of myself felt like it might as well have been jail. There was no African-American history. No African-American literature. No BET. No African-American newspapers.

Even the seagulls in Chicago had better reading material than me. (Photo credit: Shamontiel L. Vaughn)

My brother’s response: “What’d you expect? You chose this all-white school and want to magically make it black?”

In that two-year time frame, I was stunned to meet at least four white people who freely used the word “nigga” because “all my black friends at home don’t care.” I cared. And I had a conversation with two of the four at length about how that wasn’t cool with me. I didn’t give a damn what their “black friends at home” did. Knock it off around me. (The other two people were associates that I had less than a handful of interactions with and barely said more than a few words to.)

One particular American Literature III professor was furious that I went to the Head of the English Department, explaining that the “Harlem Renaissance” was mentioned in the class description. After discussing this with her, she told me, “I throw it in at the end.”

The (lack of) culture at this school was wearing me out. I wrote letters to the head of the English department and met with him twice. I wrote letters and petitions to the newspaper and the history department and even called out the cable company. At some point, a trusted and supportive African-American faculty member wondered how my grades were doing. I spent so much time focused on turning this school into what I wanted it to be, but somehow I still managed to keep passing grades.

My professor asked the entire class to read Mark Twain aloud. And if you’ve read a Mark Twain book before, you know how often the word “nigger” is used.

I stared a hole right through him as he read, and then I stared at Prerogative Professor. By the time the student made eye contact with me, he realized it might be time to not read aloud anymore. So I read that book for the rest of that 50-minute course by myself and hawk-eyed anyone else who looked like they wanted to raise their hands. To my relief and what should’ve been Prerogative Professor’s shame, no one did.

The threat of expulsion that made me throw in the towel

I ended up becoming the enemy of the English Department because of that one professor. But I made a decision that was once again very naive, but I meant well. A Journalism professor had given me a lower grade for turning in an assignment about 10 minutes late. I was hurt, primarily because I really liked this particular professor. And another student, who happened to be on that same oblivious-to-minorities-school-newspaper, was able to turn in his paper equally late.

That was all the revenge the English Department needed to react.

Prerogative Professor had already dropped my grade from an A- to a C+ after failing my final paper with no explanation. Just a big red F. She didn’t even give it to me herself. She sent a teacher’s assistant downstairs to hand it to me in an unmarked white envelope. I wasn’t surprised. I chose to write about my experience in that course and why the literary canon needed to be more diverse. The Head of the English Department did nothing at all about my failing grade, other than asking to see a copy of that paper.

Shamontiel still proud of her HBCU experience 16 years later. (Photo credit: Shamontiel L. Vaughn)
This statue on Lincoln University’s campus dedicated to the soldiers and officers of the 62nd United States Colored Infantry. (Photo credit: Shamontiel L. Vaughn)

Shamontiel Vaughn

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14-year journalist (Tribune/Defender/CBS Chicago); Wag! dog walker; Toastmasters member/3x officer; co-host of Do Not Submit storytelling. Visit Shamontiel.com