Photos by Hannah Broder.
Are you brave enough to enter an arena where you are constantly presented with uncomfortable, challenging, radical and inspiring moments?
This was the response I gave to a hopeful Black high schooler wondering if attending the College of Charleston was a smart choice. Wanting to take exuberant pride in my school — and hoping to win the College one more minority student — I first gave the young girl my politically correct response. The College is awesome. But suddenly, truth broke, her question forced me to look back on my four years spent in Charleston.
Being 7.5 percent of the student body, most of my peers and I can agree that the Black experience at the College is a life-altering odyssey. Before we leave this institution and embark into the real world, we reflect on our complex journey.
This is our narrative. Our moment to tell the stories straight. The way we saw it and the way we lived it.
Discover your new world. A speedy consolidation and transition. This is what M.O.V.E and SPECTRA stand on. Inviting Black high school seniors to visit classrooms, interact with faculty and explore campus, the Multicultural Overnight Visit Experience promotes the idea that the student body may consist of many backgrounds, yet it forms one Cougar Nation.
Justin Leonard: Marketing major
“I would definitely say that M.O.V.E. was impactful in its mission to bring Black students to the school. When I came, I saw students from my similar background. When I got to the College, I realized very quickly that we were being used in a numbers game. Though we were being used, it wasn’t necessarily a harmful thing. I recognized that we were being recruited, in a way. Which I don’t feel is wrong at all.”
Before entering the College, minority students can catch an exciting glimpse into academic and residential life. During the summer, SPECTRA students hone study strategies, writing techniques, leadership skills and are paired with tutors and peer counselors. In the end, students are assigned a SPECTRA mentoring class meant to provide support throughout freshman year. According to campus research, SPECTRA participants consistently have more meaningful college experiences — academically and socially — than their non-SPECTRA peers.
Chelsea Powell: Psychology major
“I absolutely loved SPECTRA. I took African American Studies with Dr. Greene and I guess you can say that was the foundation of my Black experience at the College. That class opened my mind to a lot of things — like White privilege. There used to be a time when they had to beg people to go to SPECTRA, but now it’s more selective. I like seeing that growth and acknowledgement of SPECTRA and just seeing more minorities here in general. I even went on to become a SPECTRA leader twice.”
Kha-Lil Pearson: Accounting major
“[M.O.V.E and the Spectra] made me more aware of the demographics at the college and it prepared me for freshman year. Honestly, without Spectra or M.O.V.E, I probably would have been lost my first few months on campus. Spectra is very special to me because this allowed me to get a feel for what real college classes were like and it allowed me to build relationships with my incoming classmates. Without these relationships, I would’ve had an extremely difficult time transitioning from high school to a college campus. This was an easy way to make friends, develop relationships with knowledgeable professors, and it gave me a huge learning curve when it was time to go to class in the fall.”
From new presidents to new majors, the College underwent a metamorphosis. Despite his controversial connections to Confederate memorabilia and reenactment, Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell was selected over other candidates to head the school. McConnell’s victory ignited a dialogue about the lack of student voice and influence on campus, while emphasizing race relations at a predominantly White institute. That same year, the College pushed focus on the Black experience, giving students the chance to explore history, culture and community through an African American Studies major. Simultaneously, students immersed themselves in culture and discovered new identities as they joined the “Divine Nine,” pledging a historically Black Greek letter organization.
Imani Brown : Psychology major
“I hate having negative feelings toward people. But I greatly disliked him, his opinion and what he represented. Me and my family talked about it. We spent one of our holidays just discussing him and the issue behind him. And for him to be an outside topic of my life, that made me even more heated. And to hear ‘I’m going to do more for diversity’ — you’re lying! You’re cutting funds for diversity. We noticed this. Maybe no one else noticed this. But we see it.”
Alisa Padilla: Political Science major
“I love [African American Studies]. I feel like I learn more in those classes than I do my actual major — just things that relate to me and my history. You’re exposed to so much.”
Aisha Gallion: African American Studies major
“Prior to college, I did not know much of anything about Black history in America; let alone history in Africa. It was a great thing seeing the minor turn to a major. Black people are rarely given the chance to be taught about themselves on a level that is not whitewashed or made to seem like Black people got to where they are by being passive. Personally, I have benefited greatly from the African American Studies Department. Everything from the courses, to the professors, provided me with a sense of heritage and new level of respect for my own people.”
Nia Strothers: Communication major
“Being in a Black Greek letter organization at a PWI [predominately White institute], you constantly feel like you have to justify the importance of your organization. They don’t even know [NPHC] exists or what we do. We’re not just a dance organization. I grew up knowing how amazing these organizations are and then to be somewhere where they don’t really matter to most people on campus is weird and I don’t like how it feels. I would say that being in Black organization on campus brings the black community closer because we work together.”
“SGA has been the most rewarding experience, but also the toughest obstacle I’ve had to overcome while here at the College. Being Vice President of an organization that has a real platform is not easy. You can either mess it up, do nothing, or improve the sectors of campus that mean the most to you. I wanted to be a part of the organization because of the impact it has and because I did not see a lot of people of color being a part of that impact. We, minorities, tend to stay in our communities. And nothing is wrong with that, but I I wanted us to be a part of another field – to allow others to have a seat at our table. To bring our issues to the forefront. If we don’t look out for us, who will? And this is how my experience became draining — there is no amount of words that could ever portray the frustration I feel with this school sometimes. When it comes to expanding/bettering the life of students in general, but also improving life for minorities on this campus, it is not easy. But with anything, there are going to be up’s and down and the harder we push, the more I learn. The more obstacles we have to go through, the more motivated we become.”
June 17, 2015, nine were slain at Mother Emanuel AME in a terrorist act motivated by White supremacy. Subsequently, Black Lives Matter supporters marched the historic streets of the Holy City as Blacks students performed “Blackouts” in Cougar Mall to showcase while small in numbers, they are a powerful force on campus. Resilient in their protest, the Black student body proved they were fired up and ready to fight for what is theirs when the College defunded ROAR, a scholarship program aiding first-generation, low-income and disabled students. Through great tragedy, activism and loss, the Black community on campus and off joined hands for a common cause, and a united Charleston was born.
Donovan Taylor: Communication major
“I remember a lot of major outcry came from people who are in our class. I think the reason why a lot of us show up is to set examples. And we were brought up by those before us — to be involved and do things — that was something really pushed for us. We were told we were all that each other had. We had to have each other’s backs. So we have been a very head strong class because we sort of want to continue a community that we built and bring other people up into it.”
Celena Cole: Women and Gender Studies major
“With ROAR being defunded, I definitely took action. Me, Julian Harold and Alexis Walters — we organized a Blackout and tried to get the message out there. It was a good turnout. People got to share their thoughts and feelings of what ROAR meant to them and all it did for minority students as a whole on campus. We got people interested and thinking about problems that may exist on campus.”
James Baldwin once said, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” The Black experience at the College is life altering. Since stepping foot on the historic bricks, we have been molded by the importance of recovering our history, examining ourselves and leaving a legacy that will be instrumental in the future. Years on this academic journey have been spent relentlessly questioning and protesting the injustices of the world around us. But now we look to ourselves. How do you transition into the real world as racially conscious young adults? Where do we go from here?
Alexis Armour: Communication major
“I was like, ‘I’m going to win [Homecoming Queen]. It’s going to happen. I don’t even care if there’s not a lot of people that look like me.’ This was the last thing I wanted to do at the college to make my mark. And when I won, I was in complete shock. At that moment, I knew I had finally accomplished what I came to college to do, and that was make a difference and inspire the younger generation. I accomplished the ultimate goal by winning something I never in my life would have imagined me doing. Also, we went down in history because Donovan Taylor and I were the first Black couple to win Homecoming King and Queen. We’ve inspired other people on campus and that’s the greatest gift in the world. I never would have pictured myself at the College doing what I have done”
Julian Harold: Marketing major
“‘Community’ started growing on me. And I feel like that’s an honorable cause to want to push forward to. This idea of communicative — togetherness. I feel like the College of Charleston is a great place for a young Black man to come into his own. And I say that because I learned to love myself — I’m still learning to love others. [laughs] But I felt very pigeonholed freshman year. I see you communicating with young Jason and then when young Julian tries to speak with you, it’s a whole different dialogue though I’m talking about the same thing. Everytime something happens to me regarding race, it’s always in the back of my mind are they doing that because of my race of what I did as an individual.”
Kaila Reynolds: International Business major
“If anything, I have learned to be patient. These four years have taught me that self care is an absolute must. Trying to defy every stereotype, be involved in every event, and be at the forefront of every cause will kill you. I came to college woke and I’m leaving woke with far more realistic expectations of people and myself. I’ve become a more confident individual and have learned to love myself unconditionally. Let’s face it you’re either going to learn to love yourself or change yourself to be loved by others in a PWI environment.”
The daunting beginning of school, controversial transitions, inspirational protests and groundbreaking victories. Whether, achievements or pitfalls, the moments presented at the College molded and shaped us into racially conscious young adults. We leave this institution set on fire with pride and passion for our people, community and culture.
*This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Yard.