A part of me has always felt that the debate over the continued relevance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) would come to a rapid conclusion if people stopped citing famous alumni and modern-day racial disparities in education and employment and simply told the truth: HBCUs are necessary because they are models of an alternate universe. For every HBCU attendee or alum who has ever been told that HBCUs are not representative of “the real world,” instead of going global on the speaker—you know, the actually-two-thirds- of-this- world- is-composed-of-people-of-color argument—turn to your detractor and say, “They’re not, and that’s the beauty of them.” HBCUs are intentional microcosms of black intellect, talent, success, and power, places where people of color run things without apology.
It was in anticipation of this purposeful “alternate reality” that I made the decision to attend an HBCU. Just as scholars have argued that positive images of oneself or one’s group in the media and elsewhere are crucial to the development of an individual’s self-esteem and sense of purpose, as a black woman, I firmly believe that there is no better motivator than the HBCU experience, where suddenly—although indicative of a larger problem among black men—black women are in the majority. However, somewhere in the midst of enjoying this sense of commonality, I began to shoulder the weight of my differences in a whole new way.
As a black woman born with Cerebral Palsy, while I have by no means been oblivious to my differences, I have often said that I don’t think about my disability until I am reminded somehow: a stare, a tone of pity, an insensitive comment, a broken elevator. As a physically challenged person of color, I have seen the discrepancies in the opportunities afforded to many of my peers. Because my family saw them too, I was purposefully usually the only physically challenged person wherever I was: in my schools, on stage, or at an internship. In constant attempts to get others to get past my disability and to respect and acknowledge my humanity, I was never eager to highlight any features that the public may have viewed as detriments. While I was never ashamed of my disability, I understood that it made me who I was, and I’d always had a certain level of suspicion towards people who said that they did not want to be identified by their skin color or that they did not think of themselves as “black first,” attending an HBCU forced me to realize that I feel the same way when it comes to my disability.
While I have no trouble wearing my racial pride on my sleeve, when it comes to being physically challenged, I have a tendency to stress my sameness, to prove or demonstrate my equality, in order to fit in, be granted opportunities, and ultimately, to succeed, and just like there is nothing like a “driving while black” episode to remind some people of who they are, there is nothing like a broken elevator to bring me down to size because “disabled” has not become an accepted minority. Despite the hurdles that African Americans still face, we had a Civil Rights and a Black Power Movement. It is now legally and socially acceptable, even “cool” to be a part of black culture, and although we may not always agree with our portrayals, we see ourselves represented in media and the arts all the time. When black women realized that the issues we faced required specific attention separate from that of both women in general and blacks, we even had our own movement. No such movements have yet to take place for people with special needs, particularly people of color with special needs.
While the legal rights may be in place, the social rights and practices still need work. We live in a society where the Crip walk is less shocking than a crippled one–or no walk at all, where the only blind people we know are ones who play piano, and where American Sign Language is as foreign to many people as Urdu.
Ironically, in my quest to be inspired by the black “alternate reality,” I was smacked in the face by my reality. As I sometimes imagine many black women must have felt during the Civil Rights Movement and Black Liberation Struggles, I realized that my identity consisted of more parts than I had previously allowed myself to admit, and that I had my own issues to consider that were not being addressed. I was not necessarily black or a black woman first anymore because a lack of plans and accessibility problems forced me to acknowledge that while black and black female empowerment oozed from every corner and crevice of campus, I was still in the minority when it came to my disability.
Experience has taught me that it is hard to get most people to understand and respond to situations to which they feel that they cannot relate, but as institutions dedicated to the education and uplift of historically oppressed groups, I believe that HBCUs need to be training grounds that do everything in their power to consider the needs of all minority groups. As places that house people who know the pain of having to explain and defend one’s equal right to exist, not even lack of finances or amenities can make up for effort, awareness, and attitudes. As a function of our continued purpose in an era that questions our relevance, it is our job to misrepresent “the real world” so unconventionally, yet effectively, that we act as a mirror for what it could and should be.