By Roland S. Martin
Shortly after I joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a city hall reporter in 1993, I was talking to one of our staffers at the photo desk when a young, African American reporter approached us.
I spoke her to, introduce myself as a new staffer, and she replied, “Oh, you’re the brother who didn’t know who he was.”
Stunned by her comment, I asked what would make her think of saying something like that. She said, “Well, brothers like you who go to schools like Texas A&M don’t know who they are. I know who I am because I’m a Southern graduate.”
This wasn’t the first time I heard such nonsense, so I laughed and replied, “First, you don’t know who I am and what I’ve been through. Second, I know exactly who I am. I was born to Black parents, in a Black family; raised in a Black neighborhood; grew up in a Black Catholic church; went to two Black elementary schools; a Black middle school; and a Black high school. If I didn’t know I was Black by the time I was 18, no HBCU could teach me about being Black.”
The last I remember was the deer-in-headlights look on her face as I turned on my heels and walked away.
I still laugh when telling that story because it spoke a lot about her total ignorance of my life experience, as well as her misplaced notion of what college should be about.
This story comes up because yesterday, while quickly disposing of an ignorant Morehouse student on Twitter who suggested that I wasn’t doing enough for the Black community, someone else suggested that maybe I was jealous of the school because I couldn’t get in. I replied that I never tried to get in, and I didn’t need to go to an HBCU to know I was Black.
That ticked off some HBCU students and graduates, and they began to tweet me, demanding an apology.
I made it clear that none would be forthcoming.
For years I have advocated for the survival and funding of HBCUs. It doesn’t matter that I never attended one. As a student of history, I have always understood their value to this nation, and the education of African American youth.
Two of the three honorary degrees I’ve been awarded have come from HBCUs; I’ve spoken on many campuses; and I’ve been an active participant in fundraising efforts of the UNCF and individual HBCUs.
But what I will also quickly put in check is the arrogance and misguided views that sometimes are held by HBCU graduates, as well as the view that somehow Black students aren’t able to survive at non-Black institutions of higher learning.
For instance, when I was a high school senior and decided to attend Texas A&M, Luther Booker, the legendary football coach at Jack Yates High School, pulled me aside to talk. Coach Booker said he heard I chose A&M and was upset that “the best and brightest of our Black students are going to white schools.”
“Coach, wait a minute,” I said. “Are you not the same coach who has gotten upset when major Division I-A universities aren’t recruiting your top players? Now if you want your football players to go to A&M, Texas, Nebraska and the top football schools, why is it bad for a student like me to also go to those schools?
“Coach, didn’t y’all fight for students like me to go to any school we chose? Don’t my parents pay state taxes? So why shouldn’t I have the freedom to go to a state school?”
Coach Booker sat stone faced, knowing full well he was dead wrong for what he said.
Why was I so fired up? Because this was the third time I was insulted for making a choice to attend college.
The first time was by a fellow classmate, who decided in our homeroom class a couple of weeks before to go off on every one of us who chose not to go to an HBCU. He began to blast us, saying he was proud to stay in town and go to Texas Southern University, while we went off to the “white schools.”
He was spewing such ignorance that I just told him to shut the hell up.
But the most offensive statement came from one of my teachers in May 1987.
I never took a class with this teacher, but his in-laws attended my church and I would regularly see him there.
As I was headed to class, he stopped me in the hall and said, “Are you really ready to go to Texas A&M? Don’t you think you ought to go to Prairie View A&M first, and then transfer to Texas A&M?”
Clearly offended, I replied, “Are you telling me the education I got at this school in the last four years didn’t prepare me to attend Texas A&M? That means the job you and my other teachers did wasn’t up to snuff. Man, whatever. I’m going to Texas A&M and succeeding because we need Black students to go there and succeed.”
And I walked off. Four years later, when I graduated from Texas A&M in December 1991, I made sure to drop off a graduation invitation so he would remember what he told me.
In the 20 years since my college graduation, I’ve listened to a number of HBCU students and graduates talk about how I missed out on a real, Black college experience. I’ve had folks say pledging at Texas A&M was nothing like pledging at a Black school. Folks will say that no halftime at Texas A&M could compare to a halftime at a HBCU.
Why do I blow all of that off? Because at the end of the day, it’s not about cultural awareness, ethnic pride or anything else. It’s about getting a degree.
Yes, college is about graduating. Then moving on and becoming productive adults.
I am an education advocate. I want as many Black folks who desire to get a college education to get one. I want us in four-year schools, state schools, private schools, HBCUs, PBIs (predominantly Black institutions), junior colleges, community colleges, you name it. If you want to go to BYU (Mormon), Catholic (Notre Dame or Xavier), or Brandeis (Jewish), please, go right ahead.
But we’ve got to stop this nonsense of making Black kids feel less than if they didn’t attend an HBCU.
I praise Howard, Spelman, TSU, Prairie View A&M and the other HBCUs. But I am proud as hell of my fours years at Texas A&M. I wear my Aggie maroon colors and my Aggie ring with pride.
Every Black student reading this that attends a non-HBCU, be proud of your choice. Don’t let anyone make you think that you’re less Black or deprived because of your college choice. English is English. Math is math. Business is business. And when we all are finished with our college days, we can all say, “I’m a college graduate.”
That is the point, right?