As a high schooler, I was a decent student; I did well in class, played sports, was in student leadership . . . I figured I would follow my other overachieving peers and go to the University of Virginia (UVA). If you were smart and southern it was one of the pinnacles of American education, it was Jefferson’s handcrafted university. There was no reason why I should not have gone to UVA. But a small liberal arts school in the middle of Indiana outplayed this vanguard of American higher education.
I picked up a magazine. The glossy pages were filled a cacophony of articles and images seeking my attention. Everything faded into noise, but an advertisement that stood out. It was for a small liberal-arts college in Indiana named Taylor University.
In the week following my happenstantial glance at the advertisement, three separate people; a 4th grade teacher, a youth worker, and a new employee of my brother’s, mentioned Taylor University to me. A school that was unknown to me a week before now took-up the majority of my mind. Happenstance transformed into serendipity and I was compelled to visit.
The road to Indiana is not straight. Though Indiana is a flat, geographically monotonous state with gridlines providing the skeleton on which farms and small town America is built, getting to Indiana is complicated. As my parents and I were winding through the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky, I wondered, why I am I doing this? What is it about this place that is drawing me? Was it its faith-orientation? Was it because it was small? Was it because I had never heard the term “liberal-arts” until I saw the advertisement for Taylor? Was it because I was tired of the racism and classism native to Virginia?
When we arrived on campus, we did not know what to do. My parents had not “done this” before. The ivory towers, manicured lawns, liberal-arts aesthetic, and coded academic language were foreign to them, to me, to us. My parents did not go to college. In the 1950’s and 60’s being Black in rural Virginia didn’t leave one with many options after high school. And even the options that were before them were stifled by the separate and unequal all black high school they attended. My parents and I went on a tour of through the lawns, residence halls, and academic buildings. It was a beautiful representation of a possible future. The college campus was something my parents could not help but desire for me – something that took me away from the things that restrained their life and deferred their dreams.
But my parents and I did not know what questions to ask. I wished we knew to ask about internship opportunities, research, staff/faculty diversity, average debt after graduation, and a number of other important questions . . . but we did not. We were lacking cultural capital – we were not aware we needed it. No one deposited that information for us, no one was working in the background on our account. Without the cultural capital, we simply got a “feel” of the place meaning people were nice, classes were small, and there was an emphasis on “community”. We liked the feel, they gave me money – the capital we understood – we said yes.
About three weeks after school began the veneer began to fade; the shine of this new place was wearing off. I had made friends and classes were going well, but I started to feel the Whiteness and richness of the campus. This is was not the “feel” they were selling on my campus visit. It was the truth that niceness become thin once reality sets in.
I wanted to be home again.
I knew Whiteness. Growing up I went to predominantly Black churches, predominately White churches and multi-racial churches. My high school was predominately White (and all my teachers were white), my neighborhood was predominately White . . . I had navigated the White world and thought I was quite skilled at it.
But until Taylor I had never experienced such an unrelenting sense of otherness. I did not get to go home at the end of the day. I didn’t get to reinforce my history, my culture, my skin, my self routinely as I did when I was growing-up. There was no ceremonial exit and entrance into Whiteness as I had when turned the door knob to I enter and exit my home. I had no respite at Taylor, no place to be released of my consciousness as “other”.
The smell of Brookneal lingers with me. Southern Virginia was built on farming. Meaning it was built on slavery, indentured servitude, and sharecropping. The scent of cows and tobacco integrated itself inside every fiber of that place. And occasionally I smell it, even without a stimulus, the scent has integrated into my personhood. Brookneal is the place of my family, my grandparents lived there, my siblings grew-up there, my parents went to segregated high school there. It was the epicenter of the Canada family.
Isolation from this scent and my blackness was beginning to damage me. So I sought to reinforce what I knew and pulled out the video of my grandfather. We had recorded him before he passed away. He is sitting in the farmhouse that he built and my parents (and siblings) grew up in. Grandaddy was doing what he did best in old age, being the convivial storyteller.
My hall-mates interpreted the experience as just part of the process of getting to know one another, as most first-years do, but I watched in protest. I felt the part of me, the Black, Virginian part, attacked by the overwhelming, unrelenting, normality of Whiteness. My grandfather’s accent was one only I could decipher, his stories were about realities that only I knew about. Watching him tell stories of life was a conversation about truth; a black truth, a working-class truth, that I felt was slipping away in this White collared, White place.
When I returned home for Christmas, I travelled back on the winding roads that brought me to the mid-west’s eternal cornfields. The journey home felt more complicated than the journey to Indiana and the sameness of Indiana geography and monotony of gridded roads were the manifestation of the sameness that I felt at Taylor. Indiana’s field was meant for the White corn of Midwestern culture not the Black leaves of dried tobacco. Tobacco had been a way to enslave in Virginia, but Black people found ways to transform it (or at leas begin to) into something that offered the hope of freedom. In Indiana, corn seemed to form a wall and maze that either blocked out my Blackness or trapped it in its monotony so much so as to make Blackness weary and weak.
This time Kentucky and West Virginia provided different fodder for reflection. Did I have what it takes to make it at this college that did not represent me, my people, my history? Are there people who I do not have to explain myself, my blackness, my working-classness, my non-Whiteness to? Is my loneliness – that was turning into depression – worth it? Can I push through the White walls that feel as if they are binding and blocking me?
In Reflecting on my own experience, research in higher education, and the experiences of first-generation students and students of color with whom I have had the privilege to work with, I have come to see Beverly Tatum’s, 9th President of Spelman College, ABCs as a helpful framework.
In order to thrive students who don’t fit the norm at an institution must.
- Have spaces to affirm their identity.
- Build community both within their affinity group and outside of it.
- Be cultivated into leadership on campus and beyond.
Many first-generation, students of color are not warned that their experience in college may instigate an identity crisis and a need to re-affirm their self. But it is the common experience – especially at small predominately White institutions. While community is often the theme that echoes in the brochures, speeches, and admissions speak, community is as real to first-generation students of color as is post-racialism. The community spoken of is the community of those who have the privilege of assuming affinity, assuming fit, and assuming success. This does not mean community cannot exist, but it is surely not organic.
Building community will most likely mean finding the subgroup that is affirming (they are intimately intertwined). This might mean a racial/ethnic specific student club, this might mean a church, and this might mean a group of friends who are safe. Community is a group of people that provides a feeling similar to being home. For me home, in its fullest, was a space that allowed for questioning and critique as well as comfort. My home, my family, affirmed my self not because we always agreed, but because within the familiarity of our culture’s rituals there was questioning and truth-seeking. At college, I found “home” in the amalgam of a small group of black students, staff and faculty (called Taylor Black men), and the sociology department. Taylor Black Men provided me with the culture, ritual, and affinity I needed to be affirmed. The sociology department provided me with a safe space to think critically and deconstruct reality while hoping to reconstruct something better.
Although it seems easier to just passively be frustrated by one’s experiences, the opportunity to engage in leadership provided me both an avenue to deal with my frustrations and an appreciation of how complex systems (of Whiteness, but also of any sense) are. I didn’t believe my college was doing a good job in regards to diversity and culture, so I incorporated myself into the leadership starting with student activities and by senior year I was on the executive committee for students. This may seem minor, but it was a platform to instigate change. The passivity that, as a first-year, seemed to be the less abrasive approach would have left me dissatisfied. I had questions that needed addressing and being justified through the leadership system, mean that I had to seek answers.
Our questions never disappear, they restructure and reemerge or worse they submerge into our self and create a deep, insidious dissatisfaction that infects our whole-person. I knew and know that questioning is important. If I did not find the friends and avenues to pursue the ends to my questions I would be filled with vindictive anger or apathy rather than righteous anger. The former two are the consequences of being hurt and feeling powerless, the latter is being hurt and working to effect change.
As a college student I questioned.
I am I becoming something different than my family in a way that I don’t want to? Am I slowly becoming an “other” to them? Is this because they did not go to college? Will I be formed (like it or not) by this White space called Taylor University? Do I belong to that school I went to and does it belong to me? Can this place change? Are there others like me? Can I make a difference?
I still ask questions. They have shifted to be about neighborhood segregation, economic inequity, church division, and educational access and in the midst of these questions and the context that rest within I find my self seeking affirmation, finding those with which to build community, and taking leadership to effect change.
I guess I owe that to my White, Indiana university.
*Just a note: I have no malicious feelings towards my alma mater. I have critiques of divergences from , and disappointments with Taylor, but I also believe it does much good and has the capacity to do even more. Please take my reflection and commentary as an attempt to be earnest; not a call to arms against Taylor.