It Was Love at First Sight

Image captured by Kwesi Abbensetts Styled by Folayan Xui

The earliest Howard University reference I remember was a clear glass ashtray with a clock tower logo printed on the bottom in classic Bison Blue.

It usually sat in the window of the bathroom in the basement of my parents’ home. My next reference wouldn’t come until I started paying more attention to advertisements and promotions on the radio as a teenager. 93.9 WKYS, 95.5 WPGC, and of course 96.3 WHUR advertised Howard Homecoming weekend every fall.

At the end of my junior year of high school, my father, owner of the ashtray and graduate of the class of ‘69, decided to take our family on a summertime walkabout on Howard’s campus. Even in the lull of the summer when the majority of students had yet to return for the fall semester, there was an undeniable energy that gave me butterflies. I can’t pin down what it was that captured my beating heart or stole my wide-eyed gaze. Let’s just say, I can never say that I haven’t known love at first sight.

Image captured by Kwesi Abbensetts Styled by Folayan Xui

This is the same feeling I have every time I return to The Yard. It’s like breathing fresh air for the first time. Yes, I romanticize Howard University. However, after you fall in love, reality settles in quickly.

To know the A-Building is to know hell.

It’s like finding out the love of your life has a really bad habit. You wonder if you can continue. You wonder if you should leave. You wonder if you can help fix it. You wonder if you can suck it up and stick it out. For some students, dealing with the hassle of securing housing, financial aid, and course enrollment woes — matched by a less-than-welcoming administrative staff — was enough to transfer schools, or maybe even quit all together. It’s a tragic habit of an institution that rests on its laurels. I witnessed a few failed relationships with Howard. I had a few heartbreaking experiences myself, but I stuck it out and graduated in 2006.

But why?

Image captured by Kwesi Abbensetts Styled by Folayan Xui

When I applied to Howard, I was grappling with a much larger demon to which I never made my parents or friends privy.

I was exhausted by the public school system and its Eurocentric focus, so much so that I questioned if I should go to college immediately after graduating from high school, or ever at all.

I attended a high school that once sported the head of a Native American as its mascot. The rival school still bears the name of a Confederate general, as does a nearby major highway. These were institutions in my hometown, so how could I have had hope for institutions outside my county?

I wish I could say that it was the petty yet intensive busy work that was coined as homework that was making me dread higher education. I wish I could say it was the mandatory Toulman Model essays, my struggle with algebra, or pointless group projects and presentations that made me doubt the potential of human collective thought and cooperation. But really it was the repetitive immersion of Euro-solar system lesson plans, year after year, beginning in the first grade. I was practically a scholar of European history, literature, and culture by the time I graduated from high school.

This indoctrination pushed me toward an HBCU (Historically Black College and University) instead of a PWI (Predominately White Institution). This is not to say that PWIs don’t have thriving African and Black studies programs, schools, and communities on campus. However, I often wonder about the broader environment under which they live in their university system and how they are perceived and included. My American life has been, and will always be, in PWI environments — from the hospital I was born in, to the places I would work.

Image captured by Kwesi Abbensetts Styled by Folayan Xui

Most of the buildings and landmarks I would and will ever walk into might have been built by people that looked like me, but they would never be named after people that look like me.

From Frederick Douglass Hall, where his name is carved into the stone above the columns of the class building, to the Harriet Tubman Quadrangle (Baldwin, 3rd floor) where I would sleep, at Howard I could finally be in a space that included me.

Old Dominion, Radford, George Mason, James Madison, UVA, and even the prestigious William & Mary, were all of the PWIs I was told to consider by counselors. Some I applied to. My parents never tried to sway me in one direction or another. I always find it strange that for all the times we have visited family in New Jersey, my father never took us on a walkabout on the campus of Princeton where he earned his master’s degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Domestic and International Affairs. To my knowledge, he has only visited once since he graduated, but never again.

Image captured by Kwesi Abbensetts Styled by Folayan Xui

Would I do it again?

Absolutely. Even with what I know now about the administrative chaos, I would do it again and hopefully do it better. Where else could you see Nelly and Rev. Al Sharpton all in the same week within a 4-block radius? Where else could you get Sunday service from Cornel West or Michael Eric Dyson? Where else could you have Suzanne de Passe volunteer to critique your screenplay pitch, or see Harry Belafonte texting on a flip phone in Screening Room West of the briefly dedicated John H. Johnson School of Communications? It’s called The Mecca for a reason.

Would I send my child to an HBCU?

I have no children. I too forgot to find a husband while at Howard so the idea of creating my own family and sending my clone away for higher education is a bit removed from my mind. However, I would gladly send my future/theoretical child(ren) to an HBCU.

My father told me once that the greatest donation he has and will ever give to Howard University was sending his children there. My future/theoretical child(ren) will have to make their own choices, free from pressure and blatant influence, as I did. If a PWI suits them, so be it. If they find an environment that gives them life, energy, a sense of belonging — and hopefully some funding — then follow the butterflies. Who am I to deny them love at first sight?

Image captured by Kwesi Abbensetts Styled by Folayan Xui

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