Between Howard University and Me

by Shanel Adams

I won’t delay the fact that I think Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is absolutely genius because it is. Even amongst a weird Facebook status from Cornel West and the middle-American book reviewers who clearly didn’t get it— are tweets galore of praises of this timely memoir. Not to mention that my idol gave Coates a review on the cover. I mean after Toni Morrison tells you that something is “required reading” do you even have a choice? After blocking out the commentary, I rested my eyes on the pages that sat me at the feet of Coates as he told his son the candid reality of being Black in America. It was poetic, rich and yet effortlessly easy to read. But most importantly it was a jewel that reminded me what Blackness continues to be– and Coates did that through his authentic and moving portrayal of Howard University.

My Howard experience was the same but very different from Coates. Unlike him, I didn’t have a family connection and I had never even been to D.C. in my life. I understood what he meant about the Black “body” growing up in Detroit– I saw blight, fights and crime amongst an abundance of love. I wanted to see more. Howard was my escape and with an army of supporters back home I took a leap of faith. It was a life changing experience, like Coates alluded in the book, there were beautiful Black people everywhere with accents from everywhere. I felt like there was a place for every “type” of Black person at Howard; you could be the most eclectic girl from Minnesota or have the longest weave sold in Brooklyn– at The Mecca you were not alone.

In this book laden with Coates’ not-so-distant memories of police brutality and educational disparities, he awakened memories of my own. Memories that included my walk with the Dream. Coates talks about the Dream we all know; where we work hard, get a nice job, marry well and live happily ever after. My family sacrificed a lot for me to attend Howard, so this Dream had to come true for me. As much as I was awakened by a previously unknown exposure to the African diaspora, professors like Dr. Greg Carr and the campus’ Different World vibe– I could not go home empty handed. My family loved me but like most Black kids I was pushed from very birth to know that I had to work obsessively to eat enough to stay alive in this country. I had to intern every semester at Howard and work to help pay towards my being there. I had to network, network, and network. I couldn’t make mistakes or relax on The Yard too many afternoons in a row. I couldn’t make time to be the creative writer that was at my core. Coates called this “losing your softness.”

This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile. No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much. It seemed to me that our own rules redoubled plunder. It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between The World and Me)

A reviewer of Between the World and Me stated that this book doesn’t give people “hope.” For some reason that reminded me of something Toni Morrison said in a recent interview

Don’t settle for happiness. It’s just not good enough. Life has to be about more than whether you feel good.
— Toni Morrison

Leaving Howard taught me about what that means. America teaches us that the Dream is this career in public relations I have, this new car I drive and the receptions I schmooze and booze at. It is light and happiness– and it is a lie. In fact, being a part of the corporate America, idealistic world makes the Dream even more painful and dark. It’s an inexplicable mix of feeling like a fraud and a disappointment. Like most Howard grads permeating ourselves in the world, I had to find more than happiness. I had to find purpose and courage. I had to learn how to be a voice. This book doesn’t confirm this idea of the Dream but you would have to be knocked out to say it doesn’t provide hope. It gives me hope that the truth will inspire change. That we will stop covering up the inherent pain of racial injustice in a country that is touting its progressiveness to the world.

Coates, like Howard University, awakened my mind. I needed this because sometimes we forget what it means to live in a Black body until something humiliating happens. I haven’t been on Howard’s campus since I graduated two years ago. As Coates ended the book with his memories of taking his son to Howard’s homecoming, I think it’s only right that I too make my way back to The Mecca this fall. And when I come back from homecoming I can’t wait to tell whoever I see what happened between Howard University and me.

My only mecca was, is, and shall always be Howard University.”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between The World and Me)