Each week the Reckon Women newsletter includes a column from an Alabama woman, in collaboration with See Jane Write. Click here to sign up for the newsletter. Click here to sign up for the Reckon Women Facebook page.
By LaKisha Cargill
While perusing Instagram, I noticed a post that read “I’m so glad I attended an HBCU and not a PWI.” I wonder why he is “glad” he attended a historically Black college or university vs. a predominately white institution, I thought to myself. Until last week, I didn’t realize there was an acronym for predominately white institutions. I never gave it much thought even though I graduated from one.
I remember the day I moved into my dorm room at Birmingham-Southern College. If you aren’t familiar with BSC, it is a private liberal arts college on the west side of town in Birmingham, Alabama. With rolling hills, beautiful landscapes, and historic buildings, the gated institution sits right in the midst of a black community. Despite its location, my graduating class had just a few students who looked like me.
Of course, being one of the only ones that looked like me came with the usual burdens many Blacks deal with daily. There’s that belief that when you speak, you are speaking for an entire race. There are the constant questions about your hair. And there are the looks of some people who don’t think you belong, people like white parents who are shocked to realize that you are their daughter’s resident advisor or their child’s roommate their freshman year. But I never allowed this to diminish me. Actually, it motivated and inspired me to just be me and to seek opportunities to continue to learn about my history and create my future.
It was during this time I had the opportunity to learn more about Black culture than the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. At this PWI, I read the complete works of Toni Morrison and had the opportunity to attend her lecture live. At this PWI, I met author Ernest Gaines, known for writing about the African American experience in such literary works as A Lesson Before Dying. At this PWI, I had the chance to submerge myself in the Gullah culture in South Carolina. At this PWI, I had the honor of escorting Ms. Olivia de Havilland, the last known surviving cast member of Gone with the Wind, to the Civil Rights Institute and on our ride over, we discussed the history of Birmingham. At this PWI, I had my first piece published in a magazine about the city’s journey from “Bombingham” to Birmingham. At this PWI, I stood on the stage during the Miss BSC Pageant and proclaimed, “I know who I am, I am only telling you because I want you to know who you are dealing with” from the poem “Essence 25.” At this PWI, I pledged a historically black sorority. I had so many opportunities at this PWI that I can’t get it all in this essay.
As I reflect on my college years, I can honestly say I thrived. I don’t say this to brag or boast. No, I say this to say that attending a PWI can be a rewarding experience. I am writing this to serve as an example to all those Black and brown students deciding on what college to attend. I’m not trying to sell you on PWIs or HBCUs. You have to make that decision yourself.
But as you make that decision, remember that it is important to be represented, to be seen, and to be heard no matter where you are. I gather from my friends who attended HBCUs that this was one of the best things about attending a historically Black institution. Always having that level of support and sense of belonging no matter what room you entered has to be a powerful feeling. But I can truly say that I felt seen and heard at my PWI. Yes, there were instances of blatant racism and micro-aggressions were sprinkled throughout my four years but it mimicked (and perhaps even prepared me for) experiences I’ve had since graduating. And as Michelle Obama states in her documentary Becoming, “You can’t wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen.”
Thus, I challenge you to make yourself seen, make yourself heard no matter where you are. Be free. Be yourself. Seek opportunities to elevate yourself and in doing so you can often educate others.
LaKisha Cargill is a Birmingham creative who loves sharing her voice through written and spoken word. She is currently working on a children’s book and blogs at www.sizablechic.com.