Message to My Extended Family (excerpts)

In honor of National HBCU Week, Smashing Boxes is celebrating with a Mixer at our Durham office on Thursday, Sept. 20. We will hear from several local leaders who have been shaped by their experience at a Historically Black College/University.In that spirit, we will be sharing some of their stories and experiences on our blog. This is the first - excerpts from a speech given by King Kenney at a symposium sponsored by an unnamed public high school in 2017. Read the complete transcript here.I viewed college kids as socially inept, bespectacled zombies with no ambition other than to do as they were told. They were the “most likely to be corporate mascots” that I would have unfriended on Facebook – had Facebook existed.College represented an idea – or, a set of ideas – that clashed with my teenaged worldview.I wasn’t interested in cramming for life-or-death exams, changing my major six times or vying for an unpaid internship.With my a priori assumptions substantiated, I dropped out. I felt Kantian and invulnerable to a society that mandated my pursuit of the 13th grade. It was blissful young rebellion.Over successive years, I transferred to four different schools… Every institution felt the same, and I knew that I didn’t belong. Trying to explain this was pointless. My mother prophesied what would happen if I didn’t accept the price of the “piece of paper.” She cinematically framed my future: an uneducated me as Will Hunting but black and without any social supports at prestigious institutions. In many ways she was (probably) right. I’d been the troublemaking, closeted nerd who could wreak havoc at a moment’s notice. My tenure with counselors dated back to the fifth grade when I first realized my capacity for destruction – and how it quieted the hurt. Impulsive rage was my defense mechanism, and I couldn’t foresee an end to my deep-seated detachment.

Then, there was North Carolina Central University.

Truth be told, I hated NCCU when I arrived. It was no different than the other institutions, save for the overabundance of black students and the unavoidable sensation of black history – all around. So, while it was still college on its surface, it was something altogether different underneath. This much I understood, straightaway.My Arts & Humanities professor spoke to me candidly after the first day of class: a motherly, aide-mémoire about what would happen if I failed to participate in the next discussion.[1] This felt different, and significant. Also, conversations surrounding the bedlams ofthemoment were more meaningful and open than they had been elsewhere. Something about the feeling of being there – a student at the first public liberal arts institution especially made for the edification of African Americans – felt touchable. The library’s books spoke to me, the cafeteria’s food was more appetizing, the history and weight of it all – moved me.NCCU didn’t remind me that I was black. It didn’t wake me up from some lifelong sleep where I dreamed of what it would be like to be surrounded by powerful black thinkers. My being black is something that I have always known: an unmistakable fact that society would remind me of, should I ever forget. Add that I am the byproduct of an environment predominated by poor, nonetheless intelligent, African-Americans and African-Africans.

A historically black college doth not a black man make.

Instead, it opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of education’s value to African Americans. I began to grasp my mother’s urging as one professor stridently clapped his hands and reminded a dozing student that “the most heinous crime committed during slavery was not the castration of genitals but the castration of minds.” Such a graphic reminder of the fact that slaves were not permitted to read or write would not have been effective at the historically and predominantly white institutions that I had slogged through during my freshman and sophomore years of undergrad. In fact, drawing such a parallel may have been cause for the professor’s termination. But it was moments like these – unexpected torrents of truth and sober demands for intellectual fortitude – that shaped my college experience.The uniqueness of the knowledge gained and the familial connection to alumni cannot be accurately articulated. The value of the experience, the history and the supporting system is the education. And while I won’t assert that the value HBCUs confer to their graduates is obligatory for every high school graduate of African descent, the fundamental value of HBCUs for those that choose such an enlightening path cannot be so easily quantified.

[1] Coincidentally, it was a message that I have never forgotten.

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