I remember the day when I announced to my family that I wasn't considering the family alma mater. My family, proud Tennessee State alums, were confused but not surprised when I told them their alma mater was nowhere near on my list for college. It was fall break of my senior year in college and when I showed my mother my short list, she noticed something was off.
"There's not many HBCUs on here."
Oh damn, she was right.
For some reasons I didn't consider any, in fact, I completely forgot about them. My sights were set on a small liberal arts college in Jackson, Mississippi. It was perfect, despite it being small as all get out, I loved it, but my wallet didn't. I was eyeing several liberal arts schools and of course a few state schools, mainly in the South. I was OK with going out of state but not too far, considering I didn't know how to drive (still don't, I know pathetic) but also did not want to stay home. I'm talking I refused to stay home.
So, I began my search a little late in the game. I didn't actually start looking for colleges until August of senior year (fight me, I was worried about other things, like making sure I made it out of my high school alive and making sure my mental health was somewhat intact).
I had never visited the University of Tennessee ever, I had never been to Knoxville. I had no reason to, until now.
My very first encounter with UT was interesting. It was a random spring weekend during my junior year of high school. My parents got lost while trying to find parking and they proceeded to groan as usual. Once we finally got through that, we reached the rec center where the open house was meeting. My parents noticed something. Out of all the families huddled in the rec center, only 10 were Black. Ten. My parents pushed past this and let me have my moment. I loved the campus and I fell in love with the possibility of working in student media, theatre programs and more.
We were sitting in our hotel room, reflecting on the day and my dad finally spoke up.
"Why here of all places?"
I was thrown off. I liked UT and I thought they did too. They were smiling and listening to the over-eager tour guides with the same enthusiasm as the other families. "Because I like it," I bluntly replied.
After that open house, I continued my college search and as the senior year was winding down, UT was slowly creeping up to the top of my list. I didn't really understand what was the issue my parents had with UT until fall break of senior year. Until we sat down and finally talked. They were scared I was going to lose my identity, the identity I had worked so hard on accepting and loving. They were worried I would whitewash myself in order to succeed and that I would potentially become a target.
It was wild, hearing that from my mother and father. My father, who remembers the day when Martin Luther King Junior died in Memphis, was saying this to me. My father, who remembers my grandmother catching the bus and working as a maid and then a seamstress. He had good reason to be scared.
Hell, if I was him I would be scared for my child.
We tend to think that the Civil Rights Movement is some distant event that we learn about in American History class, not realizing that people lived it and are still alive to tell us about it. My parents didn't want me to live what they lived and hear what they heard.
They wanted me safe and happy. So I chose the University of Tennessee knowing some people, didn't care to see me on campus and I was okay with that. I am happily on this campus, on my scholarships, having fun with my friends, and making good grades. I chose UT because they had what I wanted and I felt happy here, plus I look amazing in orange chile. I thank my parents for seeing what I didn't see at the time and trying to shield me from the worst.
Thank you, mama and dad, I will be just fine. I chose UT and UT chose me. No bigot, racist, or otherwise can stop me from what you've prepared me for.