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Social Studies

Learning to Swim

By Vincent Williams | Posted 5/17/2006

On May 5, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a panel discussing the relevance of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. It’s the type of debate that folks have been going around in circles about pretty much since integration, with the prevailing argument being that, since everything is integrated, there’s no need for separate schools. And, honestly, smarter folks with bigger vocabularies have written much more lucid articles and books than I could churn out both pro and con on the issue. Still, for what it’s worth, I’m very strongly pro-black colleges, and I think the reason why boils down to the swimming lessons my wife talks about.

My wife and I spend a lot of time talking about our college experiences, especially now that we have a little person in here that we need to be planning for. I went to the University of Maryland in College Park and my wife went to the historically black Howard University in Washington, so we have both perspectives covered. When we compare notes, I’m always fascinated and impressed that one of the mandatory classes during her tenure was swimming. Not some kind of sport, not some sort of recreation—swimming.

See, in case you don’t know, one of the stereotypes about black folks is that we can’t swim. And, through a very nonscientific survey of my family, I would say there’s some truth in that. As a rule, my family doesn’t really do water. Of course, the joke is always, well, the last time we all got on a boat, we ended up in a cotton field, so there is that. Still, seeing that the planet is three-fourths water, being able to swim is something that just makes sense. So, I admire the fact that Howard attacked that culturally mandated issue head on. It’s a small thing, but I submit that it says a great deal about what I’ve always seen as the philosophy of HBCUs; to educate in scholastics, yes, but also to educate in survival.

It’s the survival part that I always think about when issues arise such as the incident last month at Hampton University with Susan Taylor. Taylor, the legendary editorial director and public face of Essence magazine decided not to speak at Hampton because of the southeast Virginia school’s master of business administration program’s policy, which states, “Braids, dreadlocks and other unusual hairstyles are not acceptable.” Taylor, whose very public face has always been framed by braids, found the policy insulting and said she wouldn’t speak unless Hampton changed it. Hampton didn’t budge, and neither did Taylor.

Now, if hair issues and black colleges sound familiar, it’s because in 2001 Morgan State University went through a similar brouhaha. Morgan hired public-relations firm Sahara Communications to shoot a series of promotional ads for the Northeast Baltimore school, but when the firm sent out its stipulations for casting, yep, you guessed it, they didn’t want anyone with braids or ’locks. The company, owned by a black Morgan alum by the way, faced criticism and, eventually, changed its tune.

While I don’t necessarily agree with either Hampton’s MBA policy or the thinking behind Sahara’s casting note, I like that these incidents force dialogue. I believe an issue like hair is one that absolutely needs to be addressed, because that’s the kind of racialized issue you deal with as a black college graduate.

Look, I’m certainly not trying to downplay cross burnings or the word “nigger” spray-painted on lockers or any of the traditionally racist practices that we all think about, but frankly, in 2006, I don’t think that’s the type of racism happening on a day to day basis. When I think about my experiences, and the experiences of my peers in graduate/professional school or in corporate America, it has never been about cross burnings. No, it’s things like finding out your classmates have been having study sessions all semester long without you, or getting performance reviews that say you’re “unapproachable and need to smile more,” or learning the hard way that, sometimes, you have to go “out for drinks” after work, because that’s when the real deal-making occurs. It’s learning how to deal with your white counterparts getting internships, fellowships, recommendations, and even jobs because of someone their parents knew, someone they went to school with, or, my personal favorite, an older cat in the company just straight hooks them up because “you remind me of me at your age.” And those same people often turn up their nose at affirmative-action programs because they give people an unfair advantage based on something other than ability.

And, yes, you have to understand how much of an issue your hair can be. In my mind, preparing students for this type of world is what black schools do and have to continue to do, because it truly is treacherous waters out in the work world. Luckily, black schools are making sure their students know how to swim.

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