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Black Mecca

In his book, Between the World and Me, Tanehisi Coates describes his experience of being at Howard University. He described it as the black Mecca. Having attended an HBCU myself, I immediately resonated with the statement. HBCU’s are special special places. They are safe-havens for numerous black youth that have been under the assault of tokenism. For black youth that have grown up and gone to school in suburban areas they often find themselves as the only black kids in their classes, on their soccer teams and in their church youth groups. I was one of those youth. I was the only black male in my class for the first half of my high school career. I know the experience of constantly feeling like you have to “represent” for the race. Everything is under a microscope. I was around classmates that had not spent much time around black people and as a result perpetuated ignorant racism. This brand of racism is not a result of hatred, but a result of misinformation or lack of contact. It involves random grabbing of your hair and asking if it’s real or “how does it get into rows like that?” It’s the constant questions about who your favorite rap artist is or the incessant appropriated Ebonic greetings and gestures. It’s the questions of whether or not you’re going to try to hook up with the other black girls in the class.

Most of all, it is the burden of being the standard bearer for all of Black America. You are asked every “black” question on every “black” issue and expected to be an expert. If you are loud and rambunctious, then it is “that’s just how they are”. If you are well read and well-spoken then it is “you don’t talk black...” which is almost always a phrase intended to mean “you don’t sound ignorant”. It is burden of constantly being under the “white gaze”. I have written about this before. The white gaze is a force, a power that encumbers us from the moment we enter life in this country. It is having to be mindful of what you name your children so you do not curse them to be discriminated against on college and job applications. It is the fear experienced when you have a son of having to explain to him how he must behave in order to survive an encounter with the police. It is the awareness that to exit your residence with a hoodie is to invite suspicion and animus on one’s self. The white gaze is a burden that those descendants of the African diaspora that landed in the United States must uniquely bear.

Having traveled to Africa and many parts of the Caribbean it became evident to me that while the effects of colonialism and white supremacy were still manifest in these places, most of the people did not have a concept of racism as we know it here. It was confirmed by my African brothers at seminary as the African-Americans gathered to talk about the racism that was present and pervasive there that they did not know what we were talking about. They had largely led an existence outside of the “white gaze”. They did not yet feel its burden. Indeed, if they spend enough time in this country, they will.

I attended a faith-based HBCU that was a refuge from the tyranny of the “gaze”. It was, as Coates puts it, my “Mecca”. It was our space. We had built it, we had nurtured it, and we gave it life. There were multiple shades and hues. Light brown, tan and caramel complexions mixed with chocolate ranging from milk to dark. There was hair that stood in Afros or were laid down in braids. Dreadlocks, weaves, and the occasional bald heads crowned the heads of these kings and queens. There were people from Jamaica, Trinidad, Antigua, Kenya, Atlanta, New York, California, Tennessee, and Virginia. You name it, it was there. There were your stereotypical jocks, fashionistas, those into manga and anime, your Afrocentric crowd full of poets and artists, your skateboarders and your theologians. A few who identified as goth and emo even peppered the walls.

And yet with all these diverse places and diverse representations we were there united under the banner of our God and our blackness. Coming into this from an environment surrounded by the white gaze, it was a breath of fresh air. No, it was oxygen itself. Finally, I could breathe.

I made my friends among the theologians and the goths, but I found my family with the poetry club. We were all artists and “others” seeking to find our way in a world that had denied us expression. We were misfits in many ways, but it was the poetry that brought us together. The magic of the words formed a community that was unbreakable. This wasn’t just any poetry club; it was a black poetry club. It was performance and spoken word steeped in all the traditions of the black voice and black music. It was call and response, jazz improvisation, hip-hop and neo-soul. It was activism. For what good were our words if they did not awaken our brothers and sisters to the realities of the world they would soon face?

I was finishing up there just as Barak Obama was finishing up his first presidential run. There was much talk about post-racial societies, and the fulfillment of Dr. King’s “Dream”. There was even talk about whether HBCU’s were still relevant. We in the club new better. We were “woke” before it was a thing. We tried to warn them what would happen. We knew that racism was not just about racists but also about the racist systems and structures this country had set in motion, and until those systems and structures were dealt with, we would always need HBCU’s. We would always need our Mecca’s. We would always need our places of refuge where we could be free. Free from the white gaze, albeit just for four years. Free to just be.

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