I wrote down this speech that I had no time to practice so this will be the practicing session. Thank you Alfre, for such an amazing, amazing introduction and celebration of my work. And thank you very much for inviting me to be a part of such an extraordinary community. I am surrounded by people who have inspired me, women in particular whose presence on screen made me feel a little more seen and heard and understood. That it is ESSENCE that holds this event celebrating our professional gains of the year is significant, a beauty magazine that recognizes the beauty that we not just possess but also produce.
I want to take this opportunity to talk about beauty, black beauty, dark beauty. I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: “Dear Lupita,” it reads, “I think you’re really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”
My heart bled a little when I read those words, I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me.
I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I was the day before. I tried to negotiate with God, I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted, I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.
And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no conservation, she’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then … Alek Wek. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me, as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me, when I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty. But around me, the preference for my skin prevailed, to the courters that I thought mattered I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me you can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you and these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be.
And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master, but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even after the beauty of her body has faded away.
And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.
A few weeks ago, I burned through the whole first season of House of Cards as well as a few eps of the latest one. The entire time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of our friends in Scandal-land. Both set in a Washington full of murderous elected officials. Their respective main characters are cynical narcissists. And both Frank and Olivia are orbited by people who are almost implausibly, contemptibly stupid. (I’m talking about Cards’ Lucas and Scandal’s Quinn here. Ugh.) Scandal, though, manages to be as fun as House of Cards while being infinitely less self-important.
When we first started recapping this show during Season 2, I’d never seen an episode. But now, I feel like I know all of its tricks. Liv has to vet Andrew Nichols, Fitz’s former lieutenant governor in California and his pick to replace Sally as veep. As soon as Nichols tells Liv that the reason he never married was because he lost the one great love in his life, I muttered to my friends at my crib that that great lost love was Mellie. Scandal isn’t the kind of show that busies itself with writing in random characters details, so if the writers were sharing this tidbit about ol’ boy, it was because the One Who Got Away was someone we already knew. And since Scandal will always err on the side of DAAAAAAAAAMN!, it had to be Mellie.
Can we talk about Mellie for a hot second? She’s been my favorite character since I started watching; she’s the show’s true tragic figure. She loved (loves?) and believed in Fitz, and she’s endured horrible traumas and kept them quiet in order to make his political career possible. And what does she get for all that? Fitz cheating on her and throwing it in her face, even as Mellie herself tries to cover up the affair that (again) threatens to bring down his presidency that she effectively made possible. It’s remarkable to me that so many people hate Mellie on a show in which she’s surrounded by a literal murderers’ row of venality. (It would be easier at this point to count the people on Scandal who haven’t caught a body at this point.) So yeah. That scene with Mellie and Liv in the restaurant during which Mellie hurled all kinds of darts at an increasingly whiny, annoying Liv, was gold. Mellie is taking it into her own hands to quiet the resurfacing chatter about Liv and Fitz’s affair, and so she decides that the best way to do that is by presenting a public image of a Mellie/Liv friendship. But the whole scene is Mellie gleefully dagger-twisting.
“I’m making a respectable woman out of you, Olivia,” she says to Liv. “My husband could never sleep with you if we’re friends.”
This shit right here is why I’m Team Mellie.
Mellie then hands Liv a list of dudes she’s allowed to date to help throw the public off Olitz’s scent. Liv’s only retort is #lipquiver, because it’s becoming increasingly obvious than Liv is deeply ungully. (I sorta wonder if Liv could retort, though. She doesn’t have any moral high ground in their little dyad; wouldn’t anything Liv say back just underline the callousness of what she and Fitz are doing to Mellie?)
The disaster of Olitz is underscored again when Papa Pope — chilling on a random bench because that’s what gangsters do — hips Olivia to the fact that he’s going to use her to bring down Fitz’s presidency.
At this point, I half-expect fire and operatic music to play behind The Brother From Another Planet whenever he launches into one of his monologues, a la Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. To say Joe Morton chews scenery suggests something more subtle than what Joe Morton actually does in these scenes. That motherfucker is Godzilla, stomping on everything and then roaring bellicosely.
James is surreptitiously feeding info about the shadiness of Sallie’s husband’s death to a reporter — and David Cohen — in order to get back at Cyrus, which reminds us that Liv and Fitz might not have the most fucked-up relationship on this show.
And there’s the Quinn storyline, which I could care less about. She’s kidnapping children now, which makes her pointless AND evil, while Harrison is now screwing some woman who is his supposed enemy. It’s taken him 2.5 seasons to get even this sliver of character shading or a B-plot, so you take what you can get, I guess.
Notes on a Scandal
At first I couldn’t place Nazanin Boniandi, the (fine-ass) actress who played Adnan Salif, but IMDB shows us that she most recently played the headscarf-wearing CIA analyst Fara Sherazi on Homeland. (Speaking of ridiculous, self-important shows…)
I guess Quinn’s mouth is all better now after Huck tortured her by yanking her teeth out? This explains why this show’s insane plot twists continue to have diminishing returns: they’re totally forgotten by the next episode, and sometimes by the next scene.
I chuckled at Abby’s “we’re-the-normal-ones-here!” rant to Harrison:“If you need to borrow my gun, all you have to do is ask.”
It’s so hard being the rich, handsome president! Waaaah. Yo, Seriously: fuck Fitz.
Liv definitely has no moral high ground here — although I saw a lot of viewers rallying behind her last night, as the Mellie-got-a-side-piece-too! reveal popped off. Olitz fans were all too willing to label Mellie a hypocrite for calling Liv so many homewreckers and whores over the years. But there are no neat corollaries in this love triangle, are there? Do we know yet if Mellie and Andrew’s affair was pre- or post-Mellie’s marriage? And if it’s rekindled now (and it totally will be), can anyone blame Mellie for gettin’ it in with fine-ass Jon Tenney? No. No, they cannot. She has suffered far greater indignities than Liv has in service to an ungrateful, unfaithful spouse who — it can’t be said enough — she loves.
We know without a doubt now that Mellie formerly and currently loves Fitz and isn’t just keeping up appearances by remaining married to him. This is a sticking point for me because this show’s initial conceit was to sell us on the idea that Mellie was a heartless political climber using Fitz for his power. Now that we know how desperately she desires him and how many attempts she’s made to woo him back — not in power plays, but in hopes of reprising a once-happy marriage — it makes Olitz even grosser and Liv, by extension, more difficult to root for.
Enough about Mellie. I actually don’t have any favorites on this show right now — not a single one — so while I’m glad to see Mellie finally be desired by someone who (as far as we know) isn’t out to violate or manipulate her, we have a ton of other stuff to discuss after this long hiatus, right?
Before we go further, I have to say that I’m not a House of Cards viewer, but it was fascinating to see how much Twitter commentary crossover there was between the two series last night. A lot of “Frank Underwood wouldn’t stand for this!” whenever Fitz was onscreen. Is the handling of politics and, well, scandal, on House of Cards heightening folks’ notice of Scandal’s glaring flaws? (I certainly wouldn’t doubt it.)
In other news, Harrison finally gets a storyline (complete with shirtless lovin’!). I’d always figured Adnan was a dude. (I know. I don’t know what show I thought I was watching.) Depending on what their backstory is, it’s starting to make sense that he hasn’t been in a serious relationship since the show’s inception. This woman seems to have serious dirt on him and access to his heartstrings. No moving on for him. (Although I still think he and Abby are endgame.)
So James is finally, finally sick of Cyrus’ shit and ready to pack his raggedy duffel bag, the daughter Cyrus boasted about “buying” him, and what’s left of his scruples and go. Let’s see how long that lasts.
The last thing I want to discuss tonight is the scene between Eli/Rowan Pope and Liv. Is it me or did he totally slut-shame her? He chastises her for letting Fitz “defile” her and basically says that his losing his position with B613 and her mother’s escape from custody are all owing to the fact that she can’t stop herself from sleeping with him. It’s pretty despicable — especially since she only sought him out to extend empathy for his losing his job to Jake.
I have personal reasons for why I have such low tolerance for the belligerent, disarming way Papa Pope addresses Liv on a regular basis, so maybe I’m reading too much into that. (I actually had a couple people defend his behavior in that scene to me last night, so who knows?) Either way, Joe Morton was a casting coup for this series. Sometimes, you need your scenery masticated — and who better than this dude? Now we know how Liv got her growly, loud lean-forward schtick.
Notes on a Scandal
I wonder how long Jake is gonna last as head of B613. His relationship with Liv is getting more interesting to me, since he knows as much (if not more) about her, her mother, Fitz and their sordid history than anyone else. Liv is ruined for “normal relationships,” but she could probably work with Jake, if she were so inclined.
There was minimal Huck in this episode but I wasn’t mad at it. Huck seems to only be used now when he’s torturing someone — and that’s exhausting.
Sally’s subplot is really boring to me, as is her imminent ouster as VP. But if readers want to weigh in on that or anything else here, have at it!
Miguel’s new song “SimpleThings”, from the soundtrack of Lena Dunham’s Living Single-lite show “Girls”, is EVERYTHING.
“I don’t need a model, no I don’t need a debutante…just be a tough act to follow, you know, a free spirit, with a wild heart”
G.D. goes in on me about my love of what he believes to be mediocre R&B singers – Lloyd, Miguel, Trey Songz, Bobby Valentino. al., but I think they provide a necessary service in providing work that is sentimental and swoonworthy. It used to be that rough-edged rappers would hop on a track with a R&B dude to do a song ‘for the ladies’, but now it seems that Drake and Future are doing better by doing their crooning in-house. Still, SimpleThings are great because they invoke that feeling of being so into someone that even the smallest things about them make your heart soar. *dreamy sigh*
Also, even though their songs can sometimes border on diabeetus-inducing, most of these R&B cats can *actually* sing. Yeah, Lloyd might have an S-curl and Miguel’s bouffant is better than Janelle Monae’s, but vocally they bring something unique to music and I appreciate their contributions. My friends want explanations for my deep and abiding love for saccharine R&B but I have none. Fight me.
Also… Philanthropy, sad to say, is a luxury, and it’s one that we largely can’t afford. Think about it this way; if there are reports of people not saving adequately for retirement, of not being able to help fund their OWN children’s college education, and not being able to pass down wealth to their own children…WHERE is the money for endowments to institutions going to come from?
I’d only push back a little and say that folks could probably part with, say, whatever their Netflix costs each month and send it back to their alma maters. But that, again, is a case that their institutions have to make and a process they have to make easy.
But it’s still an important point. Jason Whitlock’s premise is that black folks don’t give back because they’ve abandoned their institutions in the mad dash toward the white man’s colder ice.
Do you think Notre Dame’s base — well-to-do white Catholics — would flee their prized institution and let the football program rot from neglect, indifference and a desire to make non-white Catholics love them?
That is what is happening to HBCUs and their athletic programs across the country. In our desire to integrate, in our desire to create the ideal mainstream/white experience, we have abandoned black institutions.
If your bullshit detectors are wailing, they should be. Black folks and black institutions have very different histories in this country — histories that didn’t allow for the deep pockets that keeps schools like Notre Dame on such firm financial standing.
Notre Dame is an elite private Catholic institution. It was started by and is still partially supported by the Holy Cross brotherhood of the Catholic Church. It has an endowment of over six BILLION dollars. It draws upon not only the private wealth of its esteemed alumni but also the support of the Catholic Church. A 2000 year old institution that is its own sovereign nation and is present in almost every country across the globe. [Emphasis mine.] And I would be remiss if I did not remind folks that some proportion of the wealth of the Church comes from the benefits of black and indigenous slavery and the wealth benefits that white Catholics have gained over the years in profiting off of an economic system built upon the exploitation of black labor and the expropriation of black wealth.
Grambling State University is a public HBCU founded in 1901 in Louisiana for the purpose of educating black residents of northern Louisiana. The land on which the school was founded was donated by a local white lumber king. It has an endowment of nearly five MILLION dollars to serve approximately 5,000 students. Grambling has always depended upon the support of the state and Louisiana’s governor, Bobby Jindal, has supervised a constant campaign of disinvestment, most recently cutting over $50 MILLION dollars of support. Grambling’s decline is not due to the depraved indifference of a blind population obsessed with white acceptance, but is the inevitable result when states and the federal government disinvest from their own institutions. It should go without saying that the donated income of a few successful alumni will not be able to fill the gap made not only by more consistent external funding but centuries of accumulated wealth that black Americans have never had access to.
Amerigo Gazaway’s gimmick, and it’s a brilliant one, is crafting collabos between musicians that never actually happened. He’s the dude behind the excellent Tribe Called Quest/Pharcyde mashup, Bizarre Tribe To the Pharcydeand the dope De La Soul and Fela Kuti blend, Fela Soul. His latest is Yasiin Gaye, a mix that blends classic soul with the vocals of the artist formerly known as Mos Def. Some of the cuts – especially the “Ms. Fat Booty” re-imagining — sound like natural fits. I also love the treatment of “Respiration,” one of my favorite Black Star tracks, even though its sans vocals from Mos, Talib or Com.
A photo from Fort Greene’s Renaissance: Spike Lee, Vernon Reed, Reginald Hudlin, and Lorna Simpson were all part of the creative class that almost certainly helped gentrify Fort Greene.
Last night at Pratt Institute, some poor dude asked Spike Lee if he might see “the other side” — that is, the good side — of Brooklyn’s gentrification.
While I don’t know for sure that Spike’s sleepy eyes got big and buggy, I like to imagine that that’s what happened as this went down.
“Lemme just kill you right now,” Spike said. And thus commenced an epic ethering.
Here’s the thing: I grew up here in Fort Greene. I grew up here in New York. It’s changed. And why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every motherfuckin’ day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. P.S. 20 was not good. P.S. 11. Rothschild 294. The police weren’t around. When you see white mothers pushing their babies in strollers, three o’clock in the morning on 125th Street, that must tell you something.
[Audience member: And I don’t dispute that … ]
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. And even more. Let me kill you some more.
[Audience member: Can I talk about something?]
Then comes the motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house in nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight, and the motherfuckin’ people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He’s not — he doesn’t even play electric bass! It’s acoustic! We bought the motherfuckin’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherfuckin’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fuck outta here!
Nah. You can’t do that. You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you’re motherfuckin’ Columbus and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people. You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.
You can’t just — here’s another thing: When Michael Jackson died they wanted to have a party for him in motherfuckin’ Fort Greene Park and all of a sudden the white people in Fort Greene said, “Wait a minute! We can’t have black people having a party for Michael Jackson to celebrate his life. Who’s coming to the neighborhood? They’re gonna leave lots of garbage.” Garbage? Have you seen Fort Greene Park in the morning? It’s like the motherfuckin’ Westminster Dog Show. There’s 20,000 dogs running around. Whoa. So we had to move it to Prospect Park!
I mean, they just move in the neighborhood. You just can’t come in the neighborhood. I’m for democracy and letting everybody live but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now shit gotta change because you’re here? Get the fuck outta here. Can’t do that!
And then! [to audience member] Whoa whoa whoa. And then! So you’re talking about the people’s property change? But what about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore! You can’t afford it. People want live in Fort Greene. People wanna live in Clinton Hill. The Lower East Side, they move to Williamsburg, they can’t even afford fuckin’, motherfuckin’ Williamsburg now because of motherfuckin’ hipsters. What do they call Bushwick now? What’s the word?
[Audience: East Williamsburg]
That’s another thing: Motherfuckin’… These real estate motherfuckers are changing names! Stuyvestant Heights? 110th to 125th, there’s another name for Harlem. What is it? What? What is it? No, no, not Morningside Heights. There’s a new one. [Audience: SpaHa] What the fuck is that? How you changin’ names?
You can (and should) listen to their whole exchange here:
One irony here is that a lot of folks might understandably lay the gentrification of Fort Greene at Spike Lee’s feet.
Nelson George’s documentary Brooklyn Boheme sketched out the crazy mini-black/boriqua boho Renaissance in Fort Greene in the late ’80s/mid-’90s. The film is a love letter to that era, as George was very much a part of that scene.
Wesley Snipes was just a young buck who threw wild, sweaty-ass parties in his brownstone in the summertime. The glorious Rosie Perez, who still lives near the park, remembered how she used to roll up to Snipes’s parties, but would leave because of to all the holleration and ribaldry.
Pre-SNL Chris Rock was a struggling comedian renting out another brownstone on Carlton or Clermont for $300 a month just around the corner, and recalled when some burglars tried to break down his door with a sledgehammer.
The photographer Lorna Simpson was there just getting started out, as was the writer/theater director Carl Hancock Rux.
Everyone tried to get at this baddie named Halle Berry, who moved to the neighborhood for a summer for a bit part in one of Spike’s movies.
Vernon Reid, who went to Brooklyn Tech, stayed in the neighborhood after graduating high school and started his rock music career in earnest.
Guru and Premier were just young dudes who were trying to get put on, and they rented a room upstairs from a young Branford Marsalis, who had just moved up North from Louisiana. (Apparently, Jazzmatazz came out of this proximity.)
A little bit later, Erica Wright — the Queen Badu! — would move there to perform poetry at Brooklyn Moon on Fulton, along with locals who went by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. (Badu still owned a studio apartment there as of a few years ago.) Saul Williams moved to the city after he graduated from Morehouse and fell in with that set.
For a long time, Spike was at the center of this scene; it’s no accident that Snipes, Perez and a bunch of other people from the neighborhood all appeared in Spike’s early films.1
One theory of gentrification is that artists and creatives are a key part of its early stages, because they make an area more desirable for young people, and they have a lot of free time and the inclination to make old homes and neighborhoods pretty. Once those neighborhoods become cool, trendy places to live, the money follows. It’s not hard to see Spike as being implicated in that, even indirectly.
In Boheme, Spike said that his wife tired of having random neighborhood folks knocking on the door of their brownstone right off Fort Greene Park at all hours of the night. According to Lee, she told them that he had to choose between staying in the beloved neighborhood where he grew up and everyone knew him or her and their daughter, Satchel. He obviously chose his family, and so they moved and sold their brownstone for a million dollars — a then-unheard of sum for a neighborhood that was still run through with crackheads and crime. Real estate agents quickly noticed that something was afoot in Fort Greene when they could fetch a million dollars for homes in a neighborhood still rife with crackheads and crime. Thus, George posits, Spike’s sale of his brownstone was the beginning of the Park Slope-ification of Fort Greene.
1. At the screening for the documentary that I went to, Nelson George told a story in which Branford Marsalis recalls walking down Washington Avenue with his five-year-old son when a crackhead approached him. “I’ll suck your dick for five dollars!” the crackhead said. Marsalis then called up Spike sorrowfully, saying that he knew it was time for him to leave the neighborhood. That moment — or the “suck your dick” line, at least — ended up in Jungle Fever.↩
He dangled the empty bottle of Jack over the balcony like the Yes Organic Market dangles its $5 apples over the neighborhood. He faked like he would throw it from the roof after shaking the last drop into his glass, but now we were both peering down at the three idling cop cars in the street below us, making up scenarios for what would have happened if he really had thrown it, with the bottle shattering over the red and blue sirens that didn’t seem in a rush to be anywhere.
I didn’t feel like holding my tongue when he asked, probably rhetorically, why the cops were always chillin’ over here in the first place. Old Jada would have held it in. Probably would have shrugged my shoulders and ranted silently to the audience in my head, who greeted all of my musings with “mmhmms” and “preach!”
“To make sure all the precious residents in this building feel safe from the guys selling incense on the metro,” I said, still managing to keep a light-hearted tone. He agreed, as I should have expected him to. He had just finished telling me about his time living in the Arizona desert for seven months and how he once hitchhiked from Northern California to New Orleans. I definitely wasn’t talking to a Let Them Eat Cake kind of dude.
I told him that I resented it. That I wasn’t even from D.C. and it still got on my nerves. That the people who had endured the crack heads and the crack-related shootings and the crack smoking mayor wouldn’t be the ones to enjoy the spiffed up buildings and the patio brunch specials. That the freshmen at Howard would probably be more inclined to get money than get involved on campus, because Froyo aint cheap and neither are those bright red Capital Bike Share bikes. And this, I said, and that, I said, and don’t forget about the other thing, I said — just like I had the night before, standing in the exact same spot, with a different homie, off a different kind of Jack.
He humored me — agreed when he felt like it and stopped me when I didn’t know what I was talking about. I liked him because he wasn’t bleeding with white guilt; he was just like, “true” when I told him how pissed I’d be if D.C. became majority white and miraculously got some Congressional representation. I smiled. We would have been a set of interracial freedom riders, I thought, as we headed down from the rooftop — the one with a million-dollar view of the Capitol and the Washington Monument and the Basilica and my alma mater and the cop cars that were just hangin’ out, I guess.
We exited the elevator that usually took me from that rooftop to my George Jetson-looking gym, to the 24-hour concierge that I had stopped by earlier to pick up my delivery from the locally sourced, organic grocery service I subscribed to after a hummus tasting. Then we crossed the street, past the spot which, legend has it, used to be a fish joint that old old Howard used to go to but now sells $15 burgers and cocktails du jour. That’s where we met, sipping something from mason jars and charming each other about how gross it is that we’re all so dependent on technology — shoot, none of us could probably even fish with our bare hands anymore, how pathetic. I gave him my number, kind of yucked out that his first text popped up in a green bubble instead of a blue one.
“D.C. is gonna be so different in like 5 years. SMH,” I thought, as I walked back home. It was late and I was checking over my shoulder to make sure that was just the wind behind me. I was by myself, wondering what that guy who just passed me said, too low for me to catch through my earbuds. Probably nothing. He was probably harmless. He was probably a church-going family man. I kept walking and hoped there were some idling cop cars around.
I’m going to share a story. I’m not sharing this story to single out the subject of this story, Shannon Sharpe, the NFL Hall of Fame player and Savannah State alumnus. Sharpe was a guest on my podcast Thursday. We discussed many topics. At the end, we talked about HBCUs and the importance of them. Sharpe was an awesome high school football player. He was a poor student. He “had” to attend Savannah State to play football.
During our discussion, I asked Sharpe whether he financially supported his alma mater. He unashamedly told me he did not. When I pressed him on the subject, he explained that he felt he did not owe Savannah State support. In his mind, he was a good football player, he stayed eligible and the school sold football tickets in exchange for his scholarship.
It’s been my experience that Sharpe’s mindset is pervasive throughout black athletes and black people. I attended Ball State University, a mainstream school. When I speak to my former teammates and other athletes about financially supporting the school, they constantly say their performance as athletes years ago was their giveback. …
If you talk with administrators at HBCUs, they will tell you it is extremely difficult to get their alums to give back. We haven’t been properly educated on the importance of financially supporting our institutions. We can’t fathom the importance of giving $50, $100, $500, $1,000 annually. You don’t have to be rich to make a difference at a small college or university. Many of these schools are collapsing now that federal funds are disappearing. That’s what is at the root of the crisis at Grambling State, Howard University and nearly every HBCU.
Whitlock isn’t wrong to point to poor alumni giving as a major hurdle to financial health at HBCUs — that’s a huge potential funding source that’s gone dangerously untapped. Hell, Whitlock probably ain’t even wrong to argue that there are cultural obstacles to alumni giving, but he gets the causation there all wrong (because that’s just how Jason Whitlock gets down).
[First, let’s back up a taste. Just because their student bodies or mostly black — or, um, most of them have student bodies that are mostly black — doesn’t mean that HBCUs are pulling from the same pool of applicants. The kid who’s going to get into Spelman isn’t the kid who is going to Cheyney. When we’re having a conversation about HBCUs, it’s worth remembering that we’re talking about distinct institutions of varying sizes with particular histories and administrations and challenges. Por ejemplo: part of the reason Howard’s books are a mess is because they run a hospital, which is a money pit and that they can’t get help from the government to pay for. That’s a problem specific to Howard. Just wanted to get that outta the way real quick.]
One of the big problems facing HBCUs is the shifting demographics for them: richer, elite predominantly white schools are courting (and winning) the most academically talented black students. And new, stricter lending rules from the feds have made it harder for students at many HBCUs need government-backed student loans to pay for school, which has hit HBCU finances really hard.1
And he’s also right that the major reason schools like Grambling are struggling is — wait for it! — racism. A 2013 study of land-grant universities, which get money from Washington that their states are supposed to match, found that land-grant HBCUs were far less likely to get those state matching funds than predominantly white institutions were. Between 2010 and 2012, that came out to about $56 million dollars in unmatched money. That’s a whole lot of loot even before you consider just how paltry the endowments of many HBCUs are. A lot of HBCUs just aren’t priorities for their legislatures, which is a funding problem as old HBCUs themselves.2
Okay. Back to Whitlock. He’s right that there are things that HBCUs themselves can control — generally speaking, they do actually do a terrible job at encouraging alumni to give back.3 Howard alums are constitutionally incapable of shutting up about about having gone to “the Mecca,” and yet the university’s grad alumni giving rate is a paltry 16 percent — which is actually FOUR TIMES HIGHER than it was in 2008. Yikes.
And this is where Whitlock is a bit off the mark on the culture-of-giving stuff: folks aren’t giving back for honest, not-all-that-irrational reasons. A big, big part of why HBCU grads don’t donate to their alma maters can be traced to what Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, called the “Bermuda Triangle” of their administrative building: the registrar’s office, the bursar’s office, and the financial aid office. Students develop serious love for their schools, but it’s complicated by the real animus folks feel toward the pencil-pushers in the “A” building —for a lot of folks, those are the only administrator-types they have any contact with. People will offer up their war stories about how some lady in the financial aid office cursed them out or cut them off, how solving some minor paperwork problem became a logistical challenge on par with launching a Space Shuttle. (There are those Stockholm Syndrome types who argue, oddly, that jumping through all those hoops is one of the benefits of going to an HBCU — “It taught me how to deal with adversity!“)
Here are a few I’ve heard of those war stories I’ve heard from friends over the years. One left Howard because they never told her what her financial aid package would look like for her sophomore year despite her hounding them; it wasn’t until she’d left to start matriculating at Brooklyn College that she even got a response.
Another friend and I both laughed when we remembered that we’d both applied to Howard and never even heard back from them. She ended up at Hampton, where she said she was dropped from a class every semester due to some administrative mistake.
A different friend couldn’t get the folks in the A-building at FAMU to give her a copy of her transcript because they’d made some mistake on their end. That problem that was only rectified when her father — a long-time professor at the university — happened to walk into the office during her argument with the administrator. Some muckety-muck gave her the document as a favor to her pops, whom he knew and liked. (“I’m not asking you to do me a favor, I’m asking you to do your job,” she said.)
My boy said he had his locks on his dorm room changed every semester at FAMU — they said it was for non-payment of his tuition and boarding fees — even though he was there on a full scholarship from the school and had been awarded extra grant money/aid on the side. He said FAMU changed his life and opened up the world to him, but that he would never, ever give them money.
This kind of bullshit almost certainly has real material implications for attrition and graduation rates, although we don’t know how much yet. And many still rep their schools to the death and travel across the country to go to Homecoming, but many of those same alumni come to feel, understandably, that their schools can’t do some very basic things consistently well, and thus can’t be trusted to responsibly allocate any money that might come their way via donations.
At this point, the idea of administrative foolywang is just part of HBCU lore, the kind of thing that folks take as a given about the black college experience. Here’s Obama at Morehouse’s commencement last spring.
I know that some of you had to wait in long lines to get into today’s ceremony. And I would apologize, but it did not have anything to do with security. Those graduates just wanted you to know what it’s like to register for classes here.
The line got a big, knowing laugh. And it’s all jokey-jokes until you start asking for money from those same paying customers you’ve erroneously locked out of their rooms and disenrolled from their classes.
2. An ex who is a FAMU alum always, always complained about the way Florida State, quite literally down the street from her university, was much more generously funded. Fighting for dough twists the ways HBCUs are meant to function in a bunch of other ways, too. There are HBCU football programs that literally sign up to get mollywhopped by traditional football powerhouses because they get a huge payout to do so. FAMU was paid $900,000 by Ohio State to come to Columbus last year, where they promptly lost, 76-0. There’s a lot of ethically dubious stuff going on there, but FAMU is doing what most schools do: using its football team as a way to generate revenue for the university, albeit with a very different calculus than an SEC school might.↩
3. The big exceptions to this rule are Spelman College and, surprisingly, Claflin University in South Carolina. Both are in a race to be the first HBCU to clear the 50% alumni giving threshold; they’re both currently in the 40s, and rising — numbers that aren’t just high for HBCUs but high for colleges and universities, period. ↩