stay woke is a call to consciousness, awareness, skepticism, and action. Last week, however, it became more than a figurative admonition when Lolade Siyanbola, a black graduate student at Yale University, was reported to campus police by a white female student for the suspicious action of napping in a dormitory common room. Like generations of hard-grinding Ivy League scholars, Siyanbola had succumbed to the exhaustion of finals week. But her inability to stay awake—a literal failure to stay woke—resulted in a 20-minute encounter with police officers who insisted she verify her right to be on campus.
I first learned about the Yale incident when Prof. Sherri Williams of American University shared the news with the Black on Campus GroupMe chat. The GroupMe is one of the key tools that Dr. Williams and I use to communicate with a cohort of 10 student journalists. The Black on Campus fellows attend colleges and graduate schools throughout the country. Since January they have been meeting, studying, traveling, and writing together in a program jointly sponsored by the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University and The Nation as they document the lived experiences of today’s black college students.
The Black on Campus cohort barely reacted when Dr. Williams shared word of the Yale incident. They may have been outraged, but racial shock is exceedingly rare among these young reporters. After all, their academic year began with white supremacists wielding flaming tiki torches as they marched through the grounds of the University of Virginia chanting “You will not replace us.” On a near weekly basis, we’ve shared stories of campuses inflamed by symbolic racism, discursive violence, or bodily harm against black students in predominantly white spaces. We reeled when Howard University was caught in a funding scandal, suggesting that even the nation’s premier historically black university was a place where students experienced intentional institutional harm.
For Black on Campus fellows, these stories were not distant or disconnected. Fellow Lauren Lumpkin and Dr. Williams study and work at American University, where bananas and nooses were found hanging in trees one year ago. The wounds of white-supremacist violence are still fresh at the University of Virginia, where fellow Alexis Gravely is a junior. Wake Forest fellow Bri Reddick was trying to study for midterms when she found herself at the center of a campus racial controversy making national headlines.
Together we have been a loosely connected but distinct cohort of faculty members and graduate and undergraduate students following multiple interconnected threads of black life on American college campuses, as we seek to understand what it now means to be Black on Campus.
Today’s black college students have spent their baccalaureate years navigating campus hate speech, dodging constantly changing DACA rulings, and living with the real consequences of repealing affirmative action and Title IX enforcement. The new class of college seniors started school in the fall of 2015. That semester, graduate student Jonathan Butler stopped eating to protest inaction and ineffective administrative responses to racial incidents at the University of Missouri. He refused to resume eating until the system’s president, Tim Wolfe, resigned. Four days into his hunger strike, Butler was joined by 30 Missouri football players who announced they would boycott football activities until Wolfe resigned. Within weeks both the campus chancellor and Wolfe were gone, and the effects of the Mizzou protests were still being felt for years after they began. In 2017, The New York Times reported on plummeting enrollment and a budgetary crisis at the University of Missouri as students remained wary of a campus where racial clashes had reached such a fever pitch. It is impossible to determine the precise nature of the correlation—whether the protests effected these new campus realities—but there is no question that the events at Mizzou continue to resonate across the landscape of American higher education.
Mizzou was a turning point. Within weeks, black students organized massive demonstrations on Ivy League campuses and flagship state universities. Activists decried the racial climate on campuses in the South, Northeast, Midwest, and California. They demanded change at schools small and large, on campuses with conservative or liberal reputations. Echoing tactics employed by student demonstrators in the 1960s and ’70s, they held vigils and rallies and staged takeovers of administrative offices, articulating systemic, symbolic, and structural concerns about their experiences of being black on campus. Yale students resisted faculty who declared racially insensitive Halloween costumes to be protected speech. Princeton students demanded the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from campus buildings in light of his troubling racial legacy. Harvard Law students discovered photos of black faculty members that had been defaced in the halls. Suddenly these experiences no longer seemed isolated, but were linked as part of a larger movement against institutional racism in higher education.
Many stood in solidarity with the student protesters, but others were exasperated by their actions and in some cases implied that personal discomfort, or even interpersonal experiences of racism, were a steep but necessary price to pay for a college education. Even within black communities, there were intergenerational divides born from the painful disappointments of seeing college—long a kind of symbolic promised land—decried as yet another space of racial violence and rejection. It can seem inherently revolutionary to nurture black intellect in a country built on the surplus value extracted from nonconsensual physical and reproductive black labor. Viewing higher education as a pathway to equity, African-American families and communities have made enormous sacrifices to send black kids to college. It was painful to see that golden ring turn to brass.
Substance of Things Hoped For
In March 1960, Ebony magazine profiled “Richmond’s Genius Twins” in a multipage spread about William and Wesley Harris, who were poised to graduate from segregated Armstrong High School and become the first in their family to attend college. Ebony described Wes and William as “sons of a restaurant owner who died in 1955 and a Richmond seamstress who is a chronic arthritic and earns $35 a week doing home sewing and making slipcovers.” Knowing her sons’ departure for college would significantly reduce her household’s already meager income, Rosa Harris told Ebony she was nonetheless determined that “the boys will go to college!” in spite of the difficult sacrifices it required. Black parents, grandmas, papas, aunties, congregations, Masonic lodges, sorority chapters, and fraternal orders have echoed the determination to ensure that the children in their communities make it to college to earn a coveted degree.
A college education has always been a rare commodity. Prior to World War II, only a small fraction of white people attended college. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that the GI Bill and a changing domestic labor market made college a more common experience for white Americans. In 1960, only 10 percent of white men older than 25 had completed four years of college; by 1990, that share had grown to nearly one in four white men. Today, more than a third of white Americans over 25 have college degrees.
For black folks, the barriers to college have been far higher and more aggressively guarded. In 1960, 2.8 percent of black men and 3.3 percent of black women over 25 had completed four-year college degrees. Today, one in five black Americans is a college graduate. For much of the 20th century, the vast majority of black students obtained degrees at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCUs have proud legacies but have never boasted the robust resources of their predominantly white peers.
It is worth remembering that George Wallace did not stand in the doorway of a primary school or high school. Rather, in 1963, he blocked the entrance to a state land-grant university as he sought to keep Vivian Malone and James Hood from entering the University of Alabama—thus ensuring, Wallace hoped, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Is it any wonder, then, that black folk have developed a tradition of boisterous, thunderous, celebratory enthusiasm during college graduations? Each and every graduate marching, striding, shouting, and hopping across the stage as they accept the parchment so rarely passed into black hands is a repudiation of Governor Wallace. And is it any wonder why black people were appalled to witness the white graduation marshals at the University of Florida aggressively push, pull, and nearly tackle black graduates as they attempted to dance their way across the commencement stage this month? In a way, those marshals were reimposing the segregationist barrier; they saw neither the depth of the sacrifices that made these graduations possible nor the historical context in which they were achieved.
No Evidence for the Things We Hoped to See
The racial inequities in American higher-education outcomes are shocking. During the past 50 years, the gap between black and white high-school graduation rates has narrowed, but the racial gulf for attaining a bachelor’s degree has widened—doubling from 6 to 13 percent since 1964.
Higher education is not a great equalizer. The struggle, sacrifice, and effort it takes for black students to earn a degree often pays meager long-term economic dividends, while extracting enormous emotional costs. The median wealth return for college graduation for white families is $55,869, while black families enjoy a median return on college graduation of only $4,846. This results from the crushing debt carried by black graduates. Compared to their white peers, black students are more likely to borrow to pay for college, less likely make repayment progress within 12 years, and much more likely to default.
Employment prospects improve for African Americans when they graduate from college, but a degree does not eliminate the racial inequities of the labor market. Compared to their white counterparts, black college graduates in their late 20s are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed. Even amid the economic recovery of 2016, black college graduates aged 24–29 experienced an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent—a rate higher than the 9 percent unemployment rate that young white college grads suffered at the peak of the recession.
Colleges and universities are not ivory towers tucked away from the real world or able to avoid controversy at will. These institutions are embedded in our communities and in our consciousness. To be black on campus is to be black in America.
But despite these depressing statistics, there is still something powerfully compelling about being black on campus. When global superstar Beyoncé chose to frame her earth-shattering 2018 Coachella performance with one aspect of black cultural life, she chose black college life. Though she did not attend college, Beyoncé offered up a citational riff on collegiate blackness, from HBCU drum majors and drum lines to black sororities and pledge lines. Despite its all too frequently amounting to four painful years, Beyoncé celebrated the experience of being black on campus.
William and Wes Harris, Ebony’s “genius twins,” both became college graduates. In fact, both became college professors. William finished at Howard University, earned a PhD at the University of Washington, then returned to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he taught for more than 20 years and served as the first dean of African-American affairs. Wes made history as the first black man to earn an engineering PhD from Princeton and later chaired the Department of Aeronautical Engineering at MIT. His historic accomplishments began at UVA, where he was the first African-American student to live on the Lawn.
Sending the twins to college required their mother to make enduring sacrifices, but Prof. Wes Harris remembers his experiences at UVA in the early 1960s being marked by racial exclusion, threats, and violence.
Dr. Harris’s story is not entirely dissimilar from the one recounted by Lauren Lumpkin, the Black on Campus fellow, last week when she served as the American University School of Communication undergraduate student speaker. Lauren’s brief but affecting address began by acknowledging the parents and teachers whose efforts made her own success possible. She spoke of her teenage longing to attend American University and then of her broken heart when the campus was marred by ugly racial incidents. Lauren explained it was her awakening to the need for diverse voices telling diverse stories in the wake of these experiences that led her to the School of Communication and to her chosen career as a journalist.
More than five decades separate the college careers of Wesley Harris and Lauren Lumpkin. Still, they are intertwined. Wes and William Harris are my uncle and father. Lauren is one of my students. Their stories matter. We must understand what it has meant, historically, and assess what it means now, to be black on campus.
For the next several months The Nation will bring you reporting from the talented young writers of the Black on Campus cohort as they follow in the example of Ida B. Wells—righting wrongs by shining the light of truth upon them.
Are Social Media Normalizing Campus Racism?
By Noëlle Lilley
The Costs of Campus Activism
By Lauren Lumpkin and Devan Cole
Why Are There So Few Black Women Leaders on College Campuses?
By DeAsia Paige
As a Black College Student, Poverty Was My Everyday Life
By Aaron Coleman
What Does Diversity Look Like at HBCUs?
By Deja Dennis
It’s Time for HBCUs to Address Homophobia and Transphobia on Their Campuses
By Sherri Williams
For Black College Students, Balancing Activism and Mental Health Takes Work
By Brianna Reddick
‘I Want People to Hear Me’: An Interview With Savannah West
By Melissa Harris-Perry
Looking Back at ‘Black on Campus’
By Sherri Williams