The Latin translation for the phrase we use to refer to schools that awarded us a diploma of some sort is “nourishing mother.” For HBCU graduates, the phrase conveys an especially significant relationship. Historically, Black “nourishing mothers” were the only schools who would take us in. They gave us hope and celebrated our achievements to immunize us from countrymen who resented our freedom. Besides, our institutions taught the world what inclusion could look like, as we were the only schools that weren’t legally segregated following Reconstruction. Each fall, we travel back to our mama’s houses to recharge, pay homage, and see the siblings who helped us navigate our “Different Worlds.” Howard University is my different world, my nourishing mother away from home. I don’t know why I stayed away for over a decade, but I know that I won’t let another ten years go by without stepping foot on the yard.
The yard is what I’ve missed most about my alma mater. The yard was a daily reunion, and I might never have made it to class were it not for the clock’s chime and the random sightings of administrators who seemed to know our class schedules (I could have imagined that). The yard was where we all gathered on the morning of September 11, 2001, holding onto each other around a flag at half mast. The yard is also where we organized to march against police brutality after the murder of Prince Jones. I was a freshman; this was my orientation to student-led activism.
Pedagogy is the other way HBCUs shine as “nourishing mothers,” especially the schools that maintain teaching staff that reflect the diversity of their students. I’ve since attended two historically segregated institutions, and the classroom is one reason Howard is still the only school I call my alma mater. Dr. Wade Boykin taught me to de-center the dominant narrative that would cast Howard as some”Black Harvard.” Being the Black Howard was more than good enough. Dr. Sybil Roberts taught me how to write in the service of revolution, modeling the lesson with her play about Mumia Abu Jamal. Dr. Greg Carr taught me to honor the ancestors whose unmarked graves were walked over daily. I couldn’t possibly name all of Howard’s “nourishing mother” traits, which is probably why Homecoming seemed bittersweet at first.
By the time I attended my first post-graduation Homecoming, I had experienced the alternative to HBCU education. The difference between Howard and my new institution was an open wound. Perhaps that is the reason I stayed away for so long, telling myself that I would return when I was finished, once and for all, with graduate school.
But life happened. During the gap, I finished a graduate degree program, started another, had a daughter, moved cross-country twice, and felt further away from home with each passing year. Howard became a distant mother, a museum of treasured moments too far to reach. I will admit that I also got a little too wrapped up in the lore around her name, comparing my achievements to the legendary “siblings” listed in brochures.
Queen Latifah helped free me from the comparison trap. In Girls Trip, she played a Florida A&M graduate who was facing some very similar struggles: wanting to keep up with the ballers and shot-callers with whom she’d once stomped the yard. The pressure of iron sharpening iron was the hidden tuition of HBCU life, the small price the characters paid for inspiration breathed in on the yard. The staged pictures of the actresses in college, the shoutout to my own Homecoming, and each one of Tiffany Haddish’s antics reminded me of the relationships I’d malnourished. I knew just how to feed them. Before the movie was over, I was breaking the theater’s house rules and searching for October flights on my phone.
Within an hour of our arrival on campus, not only was my own connection to my alma mater revived, but it had now become something that I share with my seven-year-old. Howard managed to work her magic on my friendly-but-very-discerning little one, who had been pestering me to be called “Emma” until she met the beloved classmate for whom she was named.
I quickly learned that even though I had allowed myself to question the validity of my connection to Howard University, that didn’t mean my Howard University siblings had lost their connections to me.
The girlfriend who had known how to comfortably fit 10 people in a tiny dorm room for study groups, parties or some combination of the two still had space in her heart and car for both me “and anyone you want to bring,” a phrase she’s repeated for fifteen years. My plus-one came with a teddy bear and was just as welcome as any other face on the yard.
The homeboy who had always been a protective big brother figure was now a doting dad, who managed to make his own daughter feel safe and secure despite all the excited screams filling the air (Okay, most of them were from me, but still).
I was surprised to learn how much confidence I’d built in the ten years I spent away from college. Wearing a Howard tee-shirt and sneakers, I felt good in my own skin and appreciative of, rather than intimidated by, all the high fashion and beat faces around me. I saw hundreds of strangers before I saw my own friends, but I still felt at home. When my daughter said, “Mommy, this sure is a lot of Black people,” I remembered why. The gift of my HBCU experience was about more than a prestigious history. It was about the people who made the place feel like home.
HBCU graduates know how it feels to have a “whole lot of Black people” reflecting our magic back to us in brilliant mirrors. We know how diverse Black experiences can be, and we who have touched the diaspora on our yards and in our classrooms owe it to ourselves to visit home, touch base, and reconnect with the friends who have only gotten better at loving us over the years. Sometimes we need reminders that our alma mater’s original mission was to make room for us all.
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