THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


A Spellbound Semester

Race and identity as a Brown girl at a Black college

by Kali Ridley

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published April 21, 2017


 

The professor of my Survey of African-American Music course faced the wall and played the saxophone for the first 10 minutes of class. This was my second week at Spelman College as a domestic exchange student from Brown University. The music entranced my professor so much that he seemed to forget his lecture on John Coltrane; he could focus only on his breath, fingers, and ears.

“Why hello, my brothas and sistas!” he greeted the class of over 30 Spelman students after he finished playing, acting surprised, as if he didn’t know we were there. 

Dr. Ralph Jones was a kind, musically talented, and socially aware professor of music and Africana studies. Jones’ artistic affect made his classes accessible, laidback, easy even. Every class, we listened to music, discussed its importance in the context of African-American history and our lives, and then went about our way humming the tune of one of the many jazz, R&B, or blues songs we learned about. During class, Dr. Jones would make us yell out the lyrics of the songs we listened to, knowing full well that we felt embarrassed doing so. 

“Be proud of the lyrics!” he would yell above our haphazard attempt to verbalize the assigned portions of John Coltrane, Ma Rainey, Nina Simone pieces played on the classroom stereo.

“These are the words of your people!” He paused. “Feel their pain. Feel their spirit.”

We rolled our eyes at him, feeling neither pain nor spirit, just discomfort. But deep down, beyond my eye rolls, I knew what Dr. Jones wanted us to feel. Sometimes, when I could remove myself from the hustle and bustle of campus life, I would stop in my tracks, breathe in, and quietly celebrate the spirit and the legacy that Spelman emanated. I tried hard never to take my semester there for granted.

This semester was the first—and probably only—time in my life I was able to surround myself with people who were most like me. I was and am very different from traditionally enrolled Spelman students, given that I go to Brown. But over time, my sense of difference was confronted and transformed there. For me, the common ground of being Black allowed the tensions of being different to gradually wash away. Many questions I had in class, at social events, walking on campus, and beyond could simply be answered through reflection on my sense of Blackness and Black culture. This idea of Blackness as the answer is not an attempt to oversimplify being Black, but rather to revel in the beauty of having an identity, and being in community with people who aligned with it. 

On cue, in the final segment of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme Part I – Acknowledgement,” the class emulated the deep vibrato in the song and recited the lyric together: “a love supreme” over and over again until far after the song ended.  

 

“a love supreme”

“a love supreme”

“a love supreme”

“a love supreme”

 

Every Thursday, Dr. Jones ended class by yelling life advice at us as we moved toward the door. “Fall in love this weekend! You only go to Spelman once.”

He was right, and my time there was even more abridged than that of my classmates. And he did help me fall in love: not with another person, but with the magic of the school. And the magic of Spelman catalyzed my journey of healing, understanding, and falling in love with myself.  

 

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Spelman was founded as Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary in 1881, and therefore holds the distinction of being America's first private, historically Black liberal arts college for women. In 1884, the Seminary’s name changed to honor Laura Spelman Rockefeller and her parents, who were longtime abolitionists. 

Spelman has educated many successful and well-known alumnae across many disciplines for over 125 years. Now, with nearly 2,100 students, the college exists in a larger consortium of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) called the Atlanta University Center, including Spelman’s all-male ‘brother’ school, Morehouse College, as well as Clark Atlanta University. Black college-bound students were often denied admission to other colleges due to systemic racial discrimination. The first HBCUs were founded before the US Civil War in Pennsylvania and Ohio. However, most HBCUs were established to educate freed slaves after the war. The second Morrill Land-Grant Act, passed in the 1890s, mandated that states that used federal higher education funds provide an education to Black students, either by accepting them into majority white universities or by establishing schools specifically to serve them. The remainder of HBCUs were created prior to the Higher Education Act of 1965, which expanded federal funding for colleges and universities nationwide, and gave these colleges their designation of HBCU. HBCUs flourished in the 20th century, attracting the best and brightest Black students and professors.  

Now, many Black high school seniors looking to apply and attend college are currently forced to make a choice between enrolling in a predominately-white institution (PWI) or an HBCU. The remnants of Jim Crow-era discrimination impacts the schools Black students decide to attend, and the choice between HBCUs and PWIs has engendered an unsolvable debate within the Black community over which type of school is considered the right choice.

“There is something powerful about attending an institution that was built for you,” wrote Skylar Mitchell, current Spelman sophomore in her New York Times op-ed, “Why I Chose a Historically Black College.”  She continues, “Most colleges were built for white students, or at least, with only white students in mind. At Spelman, I found a place for myself in the curriculum, and an opening to learn what it means to be me.” 

Until college, my best friends were white, my teachers and coaches were white, and my social life beyond my family was largely white. In many ways, I was like my peers. We all played on the same field hockey team, learned algebra in the same classrooms, and ate the same chocolate chip Chewy bars after school. But the one difference, my Blackness—which was rarely discussed but always acknowledged through second looks, one-off questions, and ‘no offense’—was always the elephant in the room. Because of this, I’ve become an adaptable, self-aware person. However, this upbringing has also been damaging and subsequently created many self-confidence issues; by age 18, I felt like I got along better with white people than I did my own.  

My mother went to Spelman, and I grew up wearing Spelman t-shirts to bed and hearing about the marvel of this special place. I decided to go to Brown for various reasons, but I admit that it felt like the more comfortable choice because of how I grew up and who I grew up with. 

 

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During the semester I was enrolled, Spelman inaugurated its 10th President, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell. To highlight her promise to enhance Spelman’s arts programs under her leadership, the inaugural celebration lauded acclaimed Black artists and included acts from the award-winning playwright and Spelman alumna Pearl Cleage, dance shows choreographed by and performed with Diane McIntyre, and a film screening and question and answer session with Academy Award-winning filmmaker and Morehouse alumnus Spike Lee.   

Of the three, I was most excited to see Spike Lee. As part of his visit, he showed his latest film, 2 Fists Up: We Gon Be Alright, which detailed the socio-political and racial unrest that unfolded at the University of Missouri and the Concerned Student 1950 movement; the resulting turmoil led to the resignation of Tim Wolfe, the president of the University of Missouri school system.

2 Fists Up poignantly captured the experience of what it is like to be a Black student at a PWI in a country that continues to perpetuate racial prejudice and marginalization. The film clearly depicts the overt hatred on Missouri’s campus and the sadness and anger its Black students had to channel to make changes in the university they attended. Watching it made me appreciate Brown, even if only 6.7 percent of the student body is Black. Brown is less than perfect, and very white, but generally progressive. Watching the film, however, also made me further appreciate the comfort and protection that going to Spelman provided me.

Spike Lee reminded me that I, in fact, was not an HBCU student after all. He told the audience, which was packed to the brim with both Morehouse and Spelman students, that they were lucky to go to school where they did, because “if you’re not an athlete you catch hell [being Black] at these white schools.” I remember being torn from my daydream and looking abruptly up from my seat. I felt as if he was talking to me. From the book Citizen by Claudia Rankine, I learned that racial trauma—the amalgamation of all of the micro-aggressions; this “hell” Lee speaks of—has a name, John Henryism. We experience post-traumatic stress disorder from the war between our bones naturally trying to form against those who consistently work to break them.

“We do catch hell,” I whispered to Gabrielle, my closest friend that semester. Our mothers were roommates together at Spelman. “What?” she replied, confused. She wasn’t listening. And she didn’t have to; she had three more long, rich years at Spelman. What Lee said did not apply to her. Lee’s words sent me into a panic, as I realized I would have to leave this euphoric experience in a few short weeks. Growing up in predominantly white schools and then attending Brown, I had never known what life was like outside of this “hell” until I left. 

 

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I remember the awe I felt when looking at the entire freshman class around me, probably 500 students, as they lined up to walk into Sister’s Chapel, the cornerstone of Spelman’s campus on the school’s founder’s day. Sister’s Chapel, a stately brick building supported by white Doric columns, houses many important spiritual and traditional Spelman ceremonies. It’s also the building where the campus community annually celebrates the founding, growth and accomplishment of the school, its students, and its alumnae.  

The excitement was palpable. I felt a rush of warmth standing amongst the crowd, immersed in this experience at the same exact level as the freshmen surrounding me. This experience was just as new to me as it was to them. For the first time since the semester started, I didn’t have to play catch-up or ask questions that made me look like a newbie. Together, we formed an ironic sea of white as the uniform color of our dresses melded together against the variegated tones of our brown skin. Our beauty literally took my breath away. This was a defining moment in my semester, as I felt like an authentic Spelmanite. As I walked through the doors of the chapel and up the stairs towards my seat in the balcony, I felt history in the balls of my feet. 

I can’t remember the details of each performance on Founder’s Day. We sang, we prayed, we danced, we laughed, I cried. I felt so fulfilled to be a part of this legacy, this tradition, this community. 

“I just don’t want to leave,” I told my friends as I wiped my tears from my eyes. 

“We don’t want you to either,” Gabrielle replied to my tears. “Just stay!” 

But I couldn’t. This semester was my time; I had to be grateful for it no matter how short, because although I could not complete my college career at Spelman, I could have never come at all. I had chosen to go to Brown and wanted to see that choice until the end.

During Founder’s Day, I wondered if I could only be a proud, confident, Black woman at Spelman around other proud, confident, Black women. I feared what would happen to me and my sense of self when I returned to Brown. At this moment, the beginning of the end of my Spelman semester, the PWI vs. HBCU debate had come to the forefront of my mind.

The unanswerable question arises again: which school is “better”—Spelman or Brown? Spelman, where one gets to feel empowered, strengthened, and accepted for just who one is? Where one builds a network of amazing people who simply get you? Or Brown—where one can be thoroughly challenged and pushed in ‘important,’ academic ways, but are often left feeling empty or unfulfilled in others?

I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to engage with both experiences during my time in college. When asked if I wish I had gone to Spelman from the start, I can confidently say no, because the experience would not have been so rich without a benchmark to compare it to. I’m sure I would have enjoyed myself, and assumed the role of full-time Spelmanite wholeheartedly. Yet I would have taken the warmth, history, love, and traditions of the school for granted. As a Black woman, to live and learn in a community where I could be in the majority was an unparalleled experience. But it’s not how life in the “real world” is, so to speak, which is why PWIs like Brown are necessary for many to develop in. I have to accept and hold the beauty of both the PWI and HBCU experience, and be content with how fate has curated a large portion of college. Ultimately, the way I view myself as a Black woman in this dynamic and challenging world means accepting and reveling in this dichotomy I’ve engaged with in order to persevere successfully throughout my life.  

 

KALI RIDLEY B’17 loves supremely.