Over the next several weeks college and university students across America will be celebrating homecoming: home to football games, tailgating parties, steps shows, Greek letter organizations, drunken nights followed by drunken days followed by more drunken nights and all of the irresponsible subsidiaries of alcohol and underage drinking, camaraderie, alumni mixing and mingling, and for many, a healthy dose of nostalgia.
In celebration of my 10-year anniversary as a Hampton University graduate, Class of 2005, I am beginning to feel uncharacteristically nostalgic–longing for my foregone waistline of early millennium years and questionable morals that could be blamed on and overlooked due to young age and presumably not knowing “any better” (Way to catfish young ‘Drea!).
Before attending college we all have preconceived notions of college life that have been shaped by parents, siblings, guidance counselors and teachers, and for a lucky few, college tours. But for high school students like me, who thought themselves invincible and only half listened to the advice of the ill-advised advisors, none of whom attended college, nothing molded the ideas of college more than that of fictitious colleges and universities seen on television and movies! I all but graduated summa cum laude from Hillman College.
In honor of college students past, present and future, here are lessons learned from our favorite fictitious educational institutions from A Different World’s Hillman College to Dear White People’s Winchester University.
A Different World, 1987-1993 – Hillman College introduced us to student prototypes we hadn’t yet seen on television. In the primarily black cast we saw ourselves, or who and what we hoped to be, in the bougie southern belle, the future doctor, the musician, the bohemian future attorney, the poetess, the mathematician and a host of other students and staff who made up our hopeful college experience. We learned that college wasn’t merely a four-year vacation where all we’d accomplish was a trial of independence and freedom and meeting friends of diverse socio-economic status. It was a place to learn and explore. The students of Hillman College were thinkers who were shown participating in cram study sessions, eating crappy food and begging for an assignment extension—you know, the real stuff that college is made of.
School Daze*, 1988
We learned that although Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) nurture a sense of camaraderie, belonging and greatness, the traces of America’s dysfunctional racial history and divisiveness shows its face even among a sea of brown faces. Spike Lee’s School Daze put a lens on the fact that while at some point there may have once been a single black America with one shared agenda, that ship had sailed. We learned that the black experience, the college experience, is not heterogeneous. Mission University is where we stared our issues of colorism in its face—who could forget the “Jiggaboos” versus “Wannabes” scene?
*Talk of a School Daze sequel, School Daze Too, is said to explore “the same issues that students faced in the late ‘80s, while taking on new subjects such as the pledging process and homophobia at historically black colleges.”
Higher Learning, 1995 – Here, at Columbus University, we learned about diversity and multiculturalism in ways that previous films and television shows based on college life hadn’t explored. We were warned about date rape. We witnessed extreme racism and how the need to fit in could kill or drive you insane, or both. However, a less obvious, but very significant lesson we learned from some of the students at Columbus, was that in order for a black person to be seen, he has to work harder than his non-black counterpart. By the time we entered college we’ve probably heard from loved ones that black people had to be “ten times smarter and work ten times harder” than anyone else to receive our “just due.” It’s been 20 years since Higher Learning was released, but only recently did I learn from Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the best-selling nonfiction book “Between the World and Me,” journalist and one of this year’s recipients of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation genius grant and a once Howard University student, that working “harder” to receive a reward or payment that amounts to the same as the person who knew less and did less isn’t considered “just due.” It’s a travesty and theft. Consider that gem as a continuing education credit.
The Great Debaters, 2007
Wiley College is not a fictional institution, but a longstanding HBCU in Marshall, Texas. Though the movie about Wiley’s debate team was inspired by true events, like most other nouns in Hollywood, it is embellished and dramatized. The Hollywood-effect of the movie does not distract or take away from the incredible heights the Wiley debate team achieved, including the defeat of the USC debate team at the national championship depicted in the movie as the defeat of Harvard University. At Wiley, we mentally and emotionally immersed ourselves in the Jim Crow era. But like a diamond is formed under extreme pressure, we surfaced from Wiley bright and shiny, flawed, but unbreakable. We learned that we—black students, black people—are a people whose minds are so incredibly valuable that they were stolen, suffocated and drowned. And for that reason we must always be on a deliberate quest to “…find, take back and keep [our] righteous minds.” We learned that despite the many adversities that we as a people have faced and continue to face, our voices and minds will not be silenced. Much like the #blacklivesmatter movement and its leaders, the act of Deebo-ing politicians’ platforms who ignore our reality with attempts to criticize and attack the legitimacy of the movement, and our call for ownership of our righteous minds and bodies, we cannot be silenced. Lesson learned.
Dear White People, 2014
When we were granted admission to Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League school where white students entertain themselves by painting themselves hues of brown and black while sipping “purple drank” from Katt Williams-esque pimp cups and black students turn a blind eye to the overt racism and white privilege and accept their place as second class. Go along to get along. The film was in direct parallel to real life current events. Like our matriculation at Mission University, Winchester University shatters the once held idea of a singular black America. Here we received our master’s in self-identity.