Black to School: Reflections on My Time at a Christian University
Editor’s Note: This is an unofficial addition to a much needed conversation taking place at christenacleveland.com entitled “Black to School: African-American Voices at Christian University”, a 7-part series that aims “to affirm and give voice to the long-silenced stories of black students.” As an alumnus of a Christian University, I thought it might be helpful to unofficially chime in.
In 2006, I attended Belhaven University (formerly Belhaven College) in Jackson, MS on a basketball scholarship. Perhaps when you read Jackson, MS, you leaned in because you are sure my story will be the juiciest, laced with racial slurs from young KKKs with ropes in hand. That’s not Jackson. Don’t believe the hype or horror. Furthermore Belhaven is extremely diverse in regards to race, socio-economic status and culture largely due to the fact that it is a Christian Liberal Arts school and is one of only 30 schools in the United States to be nationally accredited in all arts programs: dance, music, theatre and visual arts. Belhaven’s students are from all over the United States and the world, which makes it an ideal school to consider attending.
Originally from rural Pickens, MS where blacks are the dominant majority, I experienced complete culture shock when I arrived at Belhaven. Initially, I engaged and interacted as I did back home. Although I was only 45 minutes away, I soon realized that I wasn’t in Pickens anymore.
The conversations were different. The clothes were different. What was socially acceptable back home was not always acceptable here. For the first time in my life I was a minority. I felt like an alien and outsider. It was in college I fully realized what W.E.B. Du Bois describes so eloquently in The Souls of Black Folk:
“One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
There were some things about me that needed to change for the sake of spiritual maturity and personal growth. However, I felt this implicit internal and external pressure to become “white” in certain social settings in order to be accepted. I was laughed at for not getting a joke or not catching certain cultural references. Students were not sympathetic because the assumption was “all Americans should know this.” After taking a mission trip in 2008 to Kenya, I realized that principles used by Christians on the mission field were not being applied at home. For example, the famous “it’s not right or wrong, it’s just different” was only applied over seas and never with minority neighbors in the States.
[Tweet “I realized that principles used by Christians on the mission field were not being applied at home.”]
As relationships progressed, people began to get more comfortable and make ignorant remarks. My favorite was “Phil, you’re not really black.” This communicated that this person thought “black” equaled ghetto, ignorant, and inarticulate. Sadly, this stereotype is perpetuated in the black community as well when we call our brothers “Uncle Toms” and “house negroes” for communicating opinions that are labeled “white”. Other noteworthy ignorant statements made to my face include “racism doesn’t still exist”, “there shouldn’t be a Black History month”, and referencing blacks as “colored” (although this was as innocent as it was ignorant) to name a few. I won’t even get into all of the interracial dating challenges I encountered, another topic for another day.
I’ll admit that some of my negative experiences had a lot to do with culture. However, situations were heightened due to ethnic differences and dynamics. There have been times I’ve heard whites say they should be able to address blacks and whites equally without considering race. This argument is unacceptable and if applied in other similar situations, such as addressing and engaging abuse victims and people who haven’t been abused equally without regards to their unique experiences, would be labeled naïve and insensitive. We have a history in this country that neither our emotions nor memories will allow us to ignore, even if we tried. Therefore, in order to advance race relations, we must be willing to deal with the history, rather than ignore it.
[Tweet “We have a history in this country that neither our emotions nor memories will allow us to ignore”]
[Tweet “in order to advance race relations, we must be willing to deal with the history, rather than ignore it.”]
Why I Made It
Despite bad experiences, I survived. I used “survived” loosely. I absolutely loved my time at Belhaven. Apart from God’s effectual grace, I credit my overall good experience to his relational providence. At the end of my freshman year, I almost quit. Due to a painful experience that was partially birthed out of my own sin, I concluded that Belhaven was not for me and decided I should complete my education elsewhere. After this decision was made public, I received gracious calls from school officials, coaches, staff and students encouraging me reconsider. It was then I begn to realize that they cared.
I returned to campus and the following semester was introduced to the new campus minister for Reformed University Fellowship. He was white so I engaged him pessimistically while he pursued me persistently. The Lord primarily used him to equip me spiritually and emotionally to engage majority culture. His name is Chad Smith and the weapon he armed me with was the Gospel.
The Gospel compelled me to not only love God, but also my neighbor. The Gospel furnished me with tough skin to encounter rejection and at the same time a soft heart to respond with charity. The Gospel gave me vision to see my own blind spots and sin before an omnipotent and flawless God. Consequently, the Gospel gave me deep, rich, strong cross cultural relationships. To this day, I live in community and do life with a good amount of friends I made in college and still keep up with professors and staff. One professor, Dr. Wynn Kenyon who is now with Jesus, was dear to me. He taught me how to think.
[Tweet “The Gospel furnished me with tough skin and at the same time a soft heart.”]
[Tweet “The Gospel gave me vision to see my own blind spots and sin before an omnipotent and flawless God.”]
Everyone that has encountered Belhaven did not have my experience. I know students that left due to cultural and ethnic challenges. It’s not perfect. Yet I’m pleased with the institution’s efforts over the years to make it a safe place for minorities. I’m committed to being apart of these efforts for the rest of my life because I know that when the university is at it’s best, great things happen.