An Education In Becoming Whole Again: How My College Experience Taught Me To Love My Blackness
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By Brandi Tanille Carter
One of the best feelings in the world is the moment a pilot announces that we are on approach into LAX. I feel an instant swell of love and pride because I'm home. People spend money to vacation here, others sing songs about it and many more fight to get here and stay here to make their dreams come true. And until I was 18 years old, Los Angeles was all that I had ever known.
No matter where I go, I've almost (and a few times actually) been brought to tears as I take in the birds-eye view of the sprawl below as the plane begins its descent and I settle in for landing: the Hollywood sign, the iconic palm trees, the coastline, downtown, snarling traffic on the freeways. I feel so blessed to call Los Angeles my home. I am proud to tell people, in this city of transplants, that I am an original that was born and bred right here.
When I was 7, I began attending school at Calvary Chapel Christian in Downey. There, I got my first of many lessons on race: Don't bring your full self to the party.
Growing up, I was surrounded by people that looked like me. I was affirmed, I was told that I was smart, that I was pretty, that I was loved. My world at home was unapologetically Black and beautiful; it felt safe and secure. At home, we didn't talk about race, and we didn't talk about being Black people. Consequently, I wasn't aware that there was a different standard that would contradict what I knew amid my community.
Then, I started going to school in Downey. My experience with racism was not the overt kind that Ruby Bridges experienced desegregating her Louisiana school. There were no parents and students yelling slurs at me and the handful of other Black students. It was much more subtle.
There was one time I got into a fight with a girl who had put a "Kick me" sign on my back, which incited much of class to start kicking me. I was suspended for being "violent;" she got detention — but only after my mom lobbied for her to be punished in some way too. I've reflected over the years, and come to the realization that this was the first but not the last time in my life that I was invisible. The adults around me were ambivalent about my presence. They were neither interested nor uninterested in my presence in their classroom.
Experiences like these were quietly eroding my confidence and understanding of who I was in such a way that my own parents didn't even recognize what had happened until I was ready to head off to college. I learned that there was a standard that needed to be met in order to fit in and to exist in this predominantly White environment. So, I adapted.
THE TWO FACES OF BRANDI
I split myself in two, the Brandi at home and the Brandi at school. Both were genuinely me, but sharing the wrong part of myself to the wrong audience resulted in being too White or too Black for the other side.
Brandi at school scrunched her socks, gushed over Scott Baio on "Charles in Charge" and sang Debbie Gibson songs that she heard on KISS-FM. But at home, I dreamed of marrying Ronnie DeVoe while listening to New Edition on my record player, watched "Amen" on TV with my family, did the wop with Soul Train dancers on Saturday mornings and wished my mom would buy me a pair of Fila sneakers.
At the same time, the local news told the stories of two Los Angeles-es, one where White people live in safe, respectable cities, and Black people lived in dangerous, poor, drug-infested communities. So, when my classmates would ask where I lived, I would tell them Culver City or Carson, where my dad lived. In my mind, anything was better than telling them that I was a Black girl from Compton.
Between age 7 and 11, I learned to be conflicted and ashamed. As pervasive gang violence and the crack epidemic took root in Compton, we lost our home. I witnessed childhood friends being taken in by relatives and taken away by social services because their parents' addictions took priority over their care. Yet, my grandmother's home, the center of our family life, was always a place where God, love and really good food overflowed. But that's not what people at my school understood about the community I was from. By the sixth grade, I was firmly entrenched in living out my double consciousness.
COLLEGE-BOUND, IN A NEW DIRECTION
By the time I reached high school, it was now cool to celebrate your pride in being black. The most-watched night on TV was when "The Cosby Show" aired followed by "A Different World." In that hour, we saw an aspirational Black family. We learned about Black college life. Watching the likes of Dwayne and Ron, we donned hoodies displaying Black college names over baggy jeans made by Black-owned clothing brands like Cross Colours and Karl Kani. We spent spring break taking Black college tours. We wore African medallions, listened to Public Enemy and Queen Latifah, and participated in the Black Student Union. Now, living in suburban L.A. County, I could fully represent "my people" with my Black peers, while still tamping down my Blackness when visiting my White peers.
I had mastered my dual existence by 1991, the year 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was killed, Rodney King was beaten by police and the '92 L.A. Riots were on the horizon. Race was suddenly all we were talking about, and well-meaning White friends found it important to declare that they were not racist because they "didn't see color." At the time, it seemed like the right thing to say, the thing we should be hearing. You accept me as a part of the whole of humanity; my color is not what you see. That's a good thing, right? So, I was convinced that being racially absorbed into mainstream culture, indistinguishable from the rest, was best.
I graduated from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts in 1994. As senior year neared, conversations about what was next and where we were headed post-graduation became increasingly common among myself and my 90 or so classmates. Attending a school like LACHSA, schools like Juilliard, Yale School of Drama, and NYU's Tisch School of the Arts were the most desirable. Yet, my heart was set on attending Sarah Lawrence College.
However, my plans begrudgingly changed one evening after a call with my father.
That night, my father and I were catching up by phone. I don't recall the specifics of what we discussed, but I do remember his frustration with me in that conversation. I was talking about the behavior of my fellow Black classmates in the cafeteria that we shared with the college students at Cal State Los Angeles.
I used the term "those kids," in reference to whoever I was talking about. The words flowed out of my mouth without any forethought or malice, it was simply a reference point. My intent wasn't to distance myself from the Black students, who were also my friends.
Yet, what my dad heard was his Black daughter speaking of other Black teens as though the world didn't see us as the same and as though I saw myself differently. Although this isn't what I believed, my father had watched the development of my dual existence over the years without comment.
Unlike my mother who grew up in Los Angeles, my father moved west from Louisiana as a young adult in the early 1970s. He followed several older siblings here, and connected with others from Lake Charles that had moved to Los Angeles. Their upbringing was segregated, although we have never spoken of it in those terms. Because colorism determined their social hierarchy, my father has demonstrated a greater concern for the acceptance of other Black people. However, I've never seen him strive for the approval of White people. The Jim Crow laws he grew up under clearly communicated that their approval wasn't achievable.
My dad has never led a bifurcated racial existence. He is a Black man. Period. So hearing me saying "those people" was the unacceptable straw that broke the camel's back. It was clear to him that I needed a course correction.
At the time, my older sister was finishing up her senior year at Grambling State University in Louisiana. Whereas kids from my high school aspired to Juilliard and Yale, my dad's classmates' children had dreams of attending Grambling. For my sister, and eventually my younger sister, attending the school was a great source of pride for my dad. There, my older sister had flourished: pledging Delta, winning scholarship pageants and finding teachers and administrators who were invested in her success.
So, not long after this call, my father made a proposition. For years, my mother selected the private schools that I attended, and I already had my choice college picked out. Yet, my dad asked me to set it aside to spend one year at an HBCU. I wasn't happy about the idea, and I can't remember what actually convinced me to agree, but I did. Applications for schools I had never heard of began to arrive. I completed the applications for the schools located in major cities that I wouldn't mind living in: Howard in Washington, D.C., Xavier and Dillard in New Orleans.
Ultimately, I chose Clark Atlanta University. Like the Claremont Colleges just minutes from our home in Pomona, CAU is co-located with Spelman College, Morehouse College, Morris Brown College, the Interdenominational Theological Seminary and Morehouse School of Medicine to form the largest contiguous consortium of Blacks in higher education in the U.S.
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I wouldn't be alone in Atlanta. By the time I accepted a place in the freshmen class of 1994, four family friends and distant family members had moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Something was happening in the Black community. This return to the South was baffling to many Black Angelenos who had escaped the region and built good lives for themselves and their families in L.A.. Why would you ever go back? I would soon find out, and it would change me forever.
MY BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL
My mother and I took a red eye flight from Ontario to Atlanta in mid-August so that I could attend a college I had never seen in a state I had never been to. We went a couple of weeks ahead of when I was scheduled to move on campus to help us get our bearings.
When the pilot announced our descent into Atlanta, I did what I always do. I got myself situated and opened the shades that had propped up my pillow through the night and saw more green than I had ever seen in my life. I was in awe. I looked at my mother and said, "Don't you want to live here?" I was finding my way home.
The next couple of weeks marked the beginning of a journey that can only be described as finding myself. I had many firsts in those weeks: My first sweet tea and Mrs. Winners chicken biscuit. My first time pressing my own hair after my mom realized she had forgotten to teach me how to do it myself. My first hot and ready Krispy Kreme Glazed donut (before they were a national franchise — there's a difference). The first of countless warm summer rains that make humid Georgia nights a little more bearable. The first time that I stepped foot on my campus (This also coincided with the first time that I stepped into a nest of fire ants, so it's a bit of a bittersweet memory).
We arrived early on move-in day. It was exactly how I pictured it, just like in the movies. Parents were parked in front of an old brick building unpacking trunks and carrying in a hodgepodge of essentials inside. There were energetic RAs greeting everyone, answering questions and giving directions. There were new roommates and soon-to-be friends meeting for the first time. The only difference from what I anticipated? Everyone was Black, and it was unbelievably beautiful.
I was seeing myself for the first time. Black, female, ambitious and ready to take on the world. I wasn't alone. There were thousands of us on that campus. I was not an anomaly. I was not a credit to my race. This was my race. These were my people — in every shape, color, size, from every economic background. There were different languages spoken, accents from New York to the Caribbean, but we were all here, and we were all Black. This was Blackness. This needed to be seen. This needed to be celebrated.
And, for the next week of freshman orientation, that's exactly what we did! It started with a barbecue on the lawn, where I saw countless well-dressed Black parents. They, like my parents, had diligently prepared their Black sons and daughters for greatness, and were nervously preparing for the moment when they would have to leave us to begin our adult lives.
The week concluded with the Induction Ceremony, a CAU tradition, where I was one in a sea of beautiful young Black women in white dresses and handsome young Black men in suit and tie. The ceremony added us to the ranks of distinguished CAU alumni like James Weldon Johnson, who penned the Negro National Anthem "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," and civil rights icons Hosea Williams and Ralph David Abernathy.
Here, my race, my Blackness, was on full display and celebrated every day. It was not invisible. You couldn't be colorblind because the full spectrum of our collective body shined so brightly. We, as Black young men and women, mattered. Our Black lives — full of diverse experiences, talents, hopes and dreams — mattered.
Everything about attending Clark Atlanta University told me so.
The new dating pool I had entered, brimming with smart, funny, cute young Black men I finally had to choose from told me so too. Dating is a big part of high school and college life for most young people. Yet, dating as a Black teen in Los Angeles meant dating from a shallow pool of guys of all races who were attracted to Black girls. I was not born with skin that appeared lightly tanned by the sun or with a cascade of wavy hair flowing down my back, the standard of beauty depicted in 1990s music videos and on the arms of celebrities and athletes around L.A. I was a Black girl with skin the color of coffee with a splash of cream and kinky, curly hair and who appeared undeniably of African descent. My sophomore year of high school, I met my first boyfriend, a senior. He graduated and went off to college. That's the end of my high school dating story.
But at Clark Atlanta, for the first time, I found myself quite dateable. I was suddenly surrounded by young Black men with bright futures like mine, each with their own criteria of what that they found attractive. For many, I fit the description. I filled a calendar on my dorm room wall with the names of young men I spent time with — in between studying, of course; one for each day of the week. Coming to understand that I was not the only one who thought I was a catch was freeing and exciting, and resulted in my second boyfriend who I dated for most of my college years.
I also stopped working to live up to impossible beauty standards that had been a challenge to Brown girls like me since the days of playing with blonde Barbies. Nineties music groups like Zhane, Total and Brownstone featured brown-skinned women who confidently cut off their pressed or relaxed hair in exchange for short pixie-style haircuts that put their beautiful brown faces at the forefront. One spring break I spent in Los Angeles, I made a salon appointment, and watched my shoulder-length pressed hair fall to the floor. When I stepped off the plane in Atlanta, I was freer, lighter and owning my newly defined ideal of Black femininity.
* * *
For the first time in my school career, I was keenly aware that my teachers were wholly invested in me — which required that I make a greater investment in myself. They cared whether I succeeded, failed, self-sabotaged, fell apart and most importantly, that I lived up to my fullest potential. Because of that, even when I didn't care for myself, I didn't want to let them and my parents down. So, I pressed forward.
The one year that my father originally proposed, quickly turned into five years of matriculation at Clark Atlanta. With this clarity, I returned to Los Angeles for vacations more aware of "those people" who were struggling with their identity, presenting their full selves to the world, who were blind to the beauty of their own Blackness. I wished that they could share my college experience. I wanted them to fully know the wonder and uniqueness of the Black experience and perspective.
By the time I graduated, I was a young Black professional fully awakened to my whole self, no longer compartmentalizing parts of my being and unpacking the most acceptable parts for the acceptance of others.
When I awoke in the backseat of my new car packed with my belongings and my pitbull puppy, as my Uncle Sam pulled into my mother's driveway after helping me move back to L.A. from Atlanta in 2004, I felt sadness. I felt lost. Looking out of the car window, I knew my mom was inside ready for my arrival five years in the making. She had arrived for my college graduation with a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles in hand. To her dismay, I declared I was staying in Atlanta. I wasn't ready to go. There, I had found a place where being Black and Brandi were one in the same; I was just me. It had been freeing and liberating to explore my young adult life without expectations of what being me, a Black woman, should be or should mean.
But now, I was back and aware of what my upbringing in Los Angeles had given me, but had also failed to provide: room to be me. I was unsure whether I had left Atlanta with the strength to remain unified, to continue to reject a double consciousness. Had I arrived home only to begin living a divided life once again?
A few months later, I walked through the doors of my first post-college job for my first day of work. I wore the latest jeans, a vintage yellow blazer, fly heels and a curly afro. I was self-assured, grounded in what I knew and who I was and ready to take on the world. I had landed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Brandi Tanille Carter is a Los Angeles native born to parents that arrived in Los Angeles from Texas and Louisiana as a result of the Great Migration. From 1994 to 2004, she lived in Atlanta, where she completed her undergraduate studies at Clark Atlanta University and began her 20-year career in philanthropy. Brandi returned to Los Angeles in 2004 where she continued to build her career. Today, she is the founder and CEO of The Fruitful Company, which engages people of color in charitable giving so that the full spectrum of American philanthropists feel included and honored for their generosity.