Howard University Changed My Life

I will always have a place in my heart for Howard University. Its new president, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, is about to be inaugurated. I taught for a decade at its law school in northwest Washington, D.C., as the first Asian-American law professor there.

Founded after the Civil War to uplift recently freed black slaves but open to people of all backgrounds, the school was named for a white Union General who had headed the Freedman's Bureau. During the civil rights era, many members of the team of legal advocates who attacked official segregation were affiliated with the place. Their leader, the late Thurgood Marshall (who subsequently became a Supreme Court justice), was a graduate.

More than any academic study could have done, my time at Howard illuminated for me the prejudices I held despite myself, and the privileges I'd enjoyed while barely noticing them. I learned more than I taught. Almost all my students had had direct experience, which I could not doubt, with bigotry -- if not daily, then more than often enough. Throughout my life I have faced children on the sidewalk challenging me to kung fu fighting, but I have not witnessed their parents crossing to the other side of the street or scurrying along because they assumed I might be a thug or worse -- not once ever.

Yet I saw how my white friends were curious about blackness. They simply had not been around many black people who were their peers. They wondered about what my life was like on the other side of the color line. They pointed out, inadvertently, not only the ambiguous position of Asian Americans and others who are neither black nor white but the reality that there remains a meaningful divide.

Contrary to the casual speculation of people who were not black, in a predominantly black classroom race became much less important. Folks did not sit around all day long talking about race and racism. People were comfortable in a way that they could not be if they were a token who bore the burden of representing a race -- an impossible task. A student could be confident that she was not likely to be treated as a stereotype or overlooked by a teacher for an inappropriate reason. Nobody was about to come along to touch their hair because they were dying to know about its "nappiness."

I was immersed in the diversity of the African diaspora. I saw that "black" encompasses not only African-American but also African, Afro-Carribbean, Black Britons, Black Hispanics, Afro-Asians ("Blasians" in the vernacular), and every combination conceivable. I'd estimate that fewer than half of my black students were African Americans born of two African Americans. Some who would have been identified by a white passerby as "African-American" would have proudly identified themselves as Nigerians whose families had come here when they were young. I also met Baptists descended from preachers, Muslims who had converted to the faith as well as those born into it, a few Episcopalians who were as "high church" as any WASP could be, and some stray Buddhists. There were third-generation professionals who pledged the same fraternity or sorority that their forebears had led, and the impoverished who could not buy the books needed for class, and those who exemplified "urban" and those whom they called "country." All political ideologies were present, from separatist nationalism to a traditional, entrepreneurially oriented Republicanism (which, it turns out, could coincide).

All of this brought about permanent changes for me. I don't mean merely that I partake of grits and greens, which were always available in the cafeteria, for breakfast and lunch, respectively. I also mean that I am indebted for relationships and a new outlook on subjects I thought I had understood. We are expected to assimilate, but we are rarely explicit about the fact that there is a specific standard that is the norm.

I saw the enduring value, for all of us in a diverse democracy, of institutions of higher education that have a distinct purpose. They make good on a promise of community. (Some wise guy always asserts that Howard is somehow an example of reverse racism. For every historically black college or university, there were many historically white schools. They were separate but not equal during the era of "Jim Crow." The former included whites in many roles right up to the top; the latter excluded blacks except in jobs at the bottom. It is whites generally staying away that keeps black schools predominantly black.)

My life was transformed for the better by an association with Howard University. I encourage everyone to look for opportunities where we could not have imagined ourselves.