During my spring break of junior year in high school, I went on a historically black college tour with a group of classmates. It changed my life.
We spent most of our week in a coach bus watching famous movies most of us had never seen—School Daze, Coming to America, 4 Little Girls, Get On the Bus—driving south on I-95 from Connecticut. We took campus tours of Delaware State University, Bowie State University, Hampton University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Norfolk State University, the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore and Morgan State University. We met campus administrators. We met students. We met locals. We visited libraries stuffed with books written by black authors. We toured museums. We heard the stories of past and present black educators, thinkers, inventors, writers, authors, actors, dancers, preachers, politicians, painters, soldiers, CEOs, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, socialites and ambassadors we had never heard of before. We witnessed packs of brown-skinned women flaunting afros and toting 900-page textbooks. We passed cliques of brown-skinned men in suits, button-up shirts and bow-ties. We saw white people. We saw Asian people. We saw Spaniards, Nigerians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Mexicans, and Samoans. Everyone was together.
For many of us, the trip was the difference between what we thought we knew and what we wanted to find out.
I remember returning to Middletown in a very genuine state of culture shock. I felt like an alien. I had no idea how to approach at least four everyday characteristics of my 17-year-old life, tangible pieces that had always been there, but pieces that I suddenly felt a obligation to defect from. It started with my closest friends, whom were all white. I felt at a distance from every single conversation about a new crush or weekend plans or movies. I was dating a white boy, but by the time senior year rolled around, I somehow came up with the idea that "he doesn't really understand me." Then came my hair. I stopped perming it by the middle of senior year. By graduation, I'd grown a full 4 inches of natural hair and a habit of two-strand twisting it. By my first day at Howard University, I'd shaved my hair down to the length of an eyelash.
My family saw what I could not see for myself. I thought my experiences on the college tour changed my life. It turns out I was just growing up.
Mom said it best: "You're not only a woman. You're a black woman. And you came to this realization all by yourself."
She was right. She still is right. My family never forced black culture into my life. As quiet as it's kept, my mother and aunt sported natural hair of all lengths for years. Locs, twists, braided extensions, afros and the like. My uncle attended Hampton and was born in Richmond, Virginia. My aunt is an active member of a prominent black sorority. My grandfather was the first black man to open up a pharmacy in Connecticut, a member of the first black fraternity, and was a proud post-Lincoln era Republican. My paternal grandfather was the only black person to own his house on the street he lived on in Hartford, Connecticut. My older cousins own and operate a million-dollar funeral home service in Georgia making them some of the wealthiest African-American non-celebrities in the South.
I never heard about any of this until after I got on that bus. Boy, what being inspired can do to a person!
I can't remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to change, but I am going to take a stab at guessing:
A classmate used to incessantly rag on me about my "acting white" and "talking white." She was obviously black, and actually one of the most popular girls in a school with a then-five percent black student population (seriously, I can name every black student off the top of my head right now). She went on the HBCU tour with me. After we got back, she never teased me again.
And she graduated from one of the schools we visited.