The Blast

Reflections on returning to Howard University for homecoming

I had a column today in the Times. I tried to use to convey the gravity of Homecoming at Howard University last weekend:

A group of us — black parents with ties to The Mecca, as we call it — returned for Homecoming weekend. The football game (versus Morgan State University) was sloppy. A great many of the best college football players are black, but since the fall of Jim Crow, schools like Howard have not been able to compete for them.

But at a black school, football is barely the point. The point is the bands that battle at halftime. The point is the affection in the stands, the warm banter between us, which we invented out on the margins of America.

Howard won. We cheered and walked out on the Yard where thousands of black college students and black college graduates assembled in reunion. Love was free-flowing. Cameras were passed. Memory cards were filled. I walked past Douglass Hall, and thought of my professors who put The Struggle in my heart and Consciousness in my head. There was tailgating just off campus. The entire community was there, from hustlers running card games to Kappas running steps.

I came to Howard as an insecure 17-year-old boy from Maryland, with none of the confidence that oozes out of my son. In my youth, doubting your own humanity, which is to say your own beauty, your own intelligence, your own history, came easy. Resisting the hatred in my heart could be accomplished only in a crowd, where 10,000 others like me, who sang a variant of that same blues, could lay on hands.

A sense of "peoplehood" was all over the campus last weekend. I don't know how to convey this except to tell you who I am and what I have become. For the first twenty years of my life I lived almost wholly within black America. My parents were black. Their friends were black. My friends were black. My girlfriends (when I had them) were black. White people were something that mostly happened on TV.

The next twenty years of my life were spent very differently. I became a writer. I moved to New York. I had a son. I put him in school. I went to Paris. At each of these points I found myself in contact with people who were not black. If I was slowly moving out of the nationalism in my younger years, each of these steps pushed the process along until I basically became a lefty multi-culti humanist. But I was a reluctant cosmopolitan. My parents kicked me out of Baltimore. My wife wanted to come to New York. Then she wanted to go to Paris. I was fine before I knew. But then I knew and somehow felt I could never go back.

Except I could.

I spent Saturday in my native country. The old feeling came over me like a quilt. Brothers saw me walking on the Yard, gave pounds, knowledge, told me they were proud of me, then moved on. Sisters who I'd adored, but had not lately seen, enlisted their children, handed them cameras. You can find us somewhere on Facebook smiling as though it is 96, and we are young, black and can not die.

I walked past Douglass Hall where I was throttled by history professors. I walked down Georgia Avenue where China Wonder tried to kill me. I was packed in, weaving  my way down the block. At even stops brothers were playing three card monte. Inside a large parking everyone was tailgating.  Everything was Parisian and bacchanal. Blunts and cognac were all around me. Women strolled, beautiful, inducing malfunction. The Alphas assembled on one side. The Qs a little ways down. The Kappas with their canes were working a step.

That was when I felt The Blast--Everything warm. Everything close. Nothing translated.

We were given the one-drop--it was not our choice. But we took it. Flipped it. Until we were something broad but tight. By another's man hand we were made a race. But by our own, we became a people. That is The Blast--the understanding that you are more than what someone else did to you, that you are more than what socioeconomics makes of you, that you are more than the other side of a Marxist analogy. I have always known this.  But it is so easy to forget it out here in this new and necessary world.