It’s 2014 and while I’ve never been one to make new year resolutions, I do engage in deep reflection at the start of a new year. Something that has been on my heart (as they say in the Church), for which I am presently developing the words to convey, is my decision not to teach at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU).
Or rather, my decision to teach at a predominately white institution (PWI).
Because really, I never decided against HBCUs; I decided in favor of PWIs.
I decided in favor of teaching where I would be most effective. In favor of teaching to affect and effect change. In favor of teaching what I knew.
And what I knew was that my life experiences had not prepared me to teach at an HBCU. In fact, they’d prepared me to do the exact opposite: to teach white students. This is not because I do not identify with the black community or because I am uncomfortable around my own people (as I have been accused of). On the contrary, I yearn to be with people who know what an HBCU is. I crave discussion about recently released movies and their depiction of black history. I sometimes dream of not being the only person of color in a meeting, in the department, in a classroom. I fantasize about what it would be like to not have to tout my degree to provide credence to my words. I wonder what it would be like to not have to worry about someone walking away with all my stuff or being perceived as an angry black woman meant to Mammy the students.
But still, I choose to stay at my PWI. Mostly because that is where I am needed. That is where I can help students gain an understanding of the world beyond what is written in the textbook of their lives. That is where I can challenge students to feel emotions they would never have felt if they’d not enrolled in my course. That is where I can draw from my own personal and educational experiences as a skinny middle-class black girl with glasses and braces who fought to move beyond conditional acceptance (read: tolerance) in our white male world, to having a rightful place at the table.
That is where I can teach to liberate.
School freed me from myself. And my family. And my crime ridden neighborhood of North East D.C. School was where I learned that everyone does not start on an equal playing field. School was where I interacted with people whose family structures were different than my own. School was where I received invitations to visit friends whose homes were not 3 bedroom, 2 bath houses with a fenced in yard. School was where I learned that not everyone believes in me the way my parents do. School was where I learned to defend myself, my family and my beliefs from those whose cultural norms countered my black bourgeoisie mindset. School was where I learned to coexist amicably despite cultural differences. School was where I grew.
I decided at age 19 that I wanted to teach. I wanted to teach middle school Language Arts but knew that a 32k salary would not yield the life I envisioned for myself. So I decided to become a professor. During that decision making process I gave little thought to where I would profess. I just wanted to teach. My own experiences in K-12 public schools were automatically juxtaposed with my undergraduate career at a private Ivy League college. These experiences were further complicated when I visited my brother at his large public university. Here again I learned something: everyone is not given equitable access to information.
Throughout graduate school I realized that teaching is easier when you have tools with which to teach, so I decided to teach at a private school to take advantage of all their fancy resources. Still, I did not consider teaching at an HBCU. I did not consider them mostly because HBCUs were not a part of my existence. Yes, I knew all about them. My father works almost exclusively with HBCUs in his small business. I’d even spent a summer at a STEM camp housed on an HBCU campus. My family on my father’s side all attended HBCUs, as did my younger sister. Almost all of my friends in graduate school were enrolled in a PhD or MD program at an HBCU in the same city as my graduate school.
But that had nothing to do with me. I couldn’t see myself there.
It’s hard to explain, but in short, I felt and feel no sense of belonging or purpose at an HBCU. I feel as though there are competent and passionate people already doing what I could do at a school serving predominately African Americans. What would I contribute? I, whose life experiences ran parallel to, but never overlapped with, the black community. Me, who doesn’t always participate in “black culture” (whatever that is) simply because I am not always exposed to it. I, who have always had a friend group comprised of multiple racial and ethnic groups, which sometimes got me labeled a sell-out. Me, who became successful by taking what they had on the other side of the tracks and making it my own. The beauty and tragedy of my journey is that I found what I needed outside of the black community and I will not apologize for that. Because I am not sorry.
I am proud to have carved an entry point into a world from which blacks have been barred. I am amused that I can access the cultural capital they’ve placed under lock and key. Most of all, I am elated to interact with students whose lives have run parallel to, but never overlapped with, marginalized groups. I am in a unique position to give my students information and experiences very few others will have the wherewithal, desire or courage to provide.
I am teaching them the means through which they can liberate themselves from hegemonic culture and become an agent and participant of change.
Education was my passage to freedom. I want it to be theirs as well.