What was it like coming to Knox as an African-American student?
For me, it was a culture shock. I came from an environment where I grew up that was almost 99 percent African American. High school was the first time that I got a little exposure to other groups, particularly through playing sports and then with the advanced classes that I had, things of that nature. Then, when you go to Knox it's the complete opposite, pretty much devoid of that diversity. You had students from other countries, but in terms of American diversity, there was relatively little diversity in that regard. And there were some pretty wide economic disparities as well. You had some very wealthy people who went to Knox, and that was the first time I was exposed to that level of wealth. It was a culture shock in a number of respects.
How was A.B.L.E. important for you and for the college?
For me, and I think I can speak for a lot of my African-American classmates, you really had to look for ways to continue to validate your worth and your culture, because everything at Knox was geared toward white culture. We're used to that, because we have to live in a society that's predominantly white, But when you're going away from home for the first time, you don't realize the things that you miss, and how foreign it is, when there are very few mirrors. There are not very many mirrors for you to see reflections of yourself in that environment.
So you can feel kind of isolated, because you don't have a critical mass. That's why organizations like A.B.L.E. are critical, because they give you that touchpoint, it gives you that sense of community that is often lacking. And it's not through any malicious intent. Knox tries very hard to create a welcoming environment, but there's a likeness that they aren't able to create, because there aren't many others like you. Students tend to huddle together to have that bond, that commonality, and that solidarity.
The unfortunate aspect of racism is that, among African Americans, you're a visual minority, an identifiable minority. Because of the color of your skin, it's easy for others to see when you come together for the same things that others are coming together for, which is community. But then you get criticized—"Why do all the Blacks sit together?" Well, because we're friends. Just like you sit at lunch with your friends. It's just a lot more noticeable when there aren't that many of us, and we're all sitting together in one section, and we all do the same thing every day, we hang out in this corner of the cafeteria. Or we're all going to an event, or doing something, it just makes it even more pronounced.
I think that's an issue that society still grapples with. I know it was a big issue on campus back in the day when I was there. That's why people want together to live in the A.B.L.E. house, to be able to talk about these issues and have that sense of belonging. And just to be able to celebrate each other. Because you often feel like you're attacked when you go outside. It's hard enough being at college, and a highly selective college like Knox, but then you have to deal with all this cultural stuff on top of it. It makes it tiring sometimes. You want a place where you can retreat and let your hair down and be. And that's what A.B.L.E. did, in an everyday practical sense.
A.B.L.E. is also an advocate. When there are things need to be changed or things are not as they should be, or if we feel threatened by a policy or group or individual, or whatever the case may be. And there was some stuff like that in my time, when folks felt that some folks were being racist or racially motivated incidents were taking place. And that's what ignited some of the protests that I was part of, that were designed to give voice to the concerns that we had as a group.
What did you see as the results of your activism through A.B.L.E.?
I consider myself an activist, an economic activist. I really try to focus on turning around underserved communities and having social impact. For A.B.L.E., I think the way you measure progress is through longevity, through survival. As much as I look at this country and how we've devolved in many ways, I think of how much worse it would and could be if there weren't people who try to push back against those forces that would take us back to a place that's even darker than the some of the darkness we have now. Progress is an ebb and flow, and every time there's progress, there's regression. You're always going to have powerful forces that want to maintain the status quo. That's why we're in the situation we're in presently, because there are people who benefit from doing things a certain way. While the folks who are part of A.B.L.E. are still fighting the same fight, without them, things would be a lot worse. In my instance, I felt that the actions that we took had some immediate effect, some positive impact. Over the years, yes, the sea erodes the land. The progress that you made, nature takes it back; that happens with movements as well, that as much progress as you make over time, there's some erosion of those gains.
I know that one of the big issues when I was at Knox was just having an A.B.L.E. house that wouldn't be moved around—one year we'd be at one house and the next year we were at another house. We wanted a permanent place. That was a big deal for us. We had a list of about 10 demands that we presented to the faculty. We took over a faculty meeting. I remember most of them were met in short order. One was having an A.B.L.E. house. We wanted to change the reporting structure for the director of minority affairs. We wanted the director to have a direct report to the president of the College. We wanted to have some targets in place for increasing African-American enrollment. There were programs that were put in place. I don't know whether they're still in effect, but we helped develop that with the college to try to address those issues.
I believe that's how Professor Fred Hord got hired; we created a Black Studies department. He became our mentor. Just like any movement, you get folks all riled up and there's progress, and now what? He helped us keep the momentum. We had everyone's attention, and we wanted to maximize that and create some structure around it. And with the tremendous relationships that he has, he was able to evolve that protest into us being recognized as an institution where a protest was successful. He had activist speakers, thought leaders who were part of his network. It was a forum for them to come and talk about what Black Studies and Black liberation could look like. And it made sense, because Knox was at the vanguard for what it could look like at a small, private liberal arts college,to be able to create a space and environment for Black intellectual thought and leadership. It was not just "We're mad," but "We have something to contribute to an academic perspective." Not just students but also from a philosophical standpoint, contributing to the body politic, as it were, of academia. Black Studies was ushered in, in large part, because of our efforts, and it's still there, 20-plus years later. I'm very proud of that.
One of the things that I recall vividly about Knox was that there were not many books in the library by Black authors. I appreciated when the periodicals were updated with the newest issues of Essence and Ebony. This was back before the internet, MTV, videos, and all of that. The library was our connection to the world. You had to use a payphone to make a call to your family, and all of us were broke, so our connection to the outside world was books. It was important to us that we had contact with writers and authors and thought leaders that reflected the values, the ideas, and the beliefs that were central to our existence and our contributions to the society. We were very much focused on practical things that I thought were aligned with the College's mission and its duty, that we felt they weren't fully adhering to. That's why I felt we were able to have some success. Because we weren't asking for stuff that was not in step with what the College should have been doing.
How did you experience A.B.L.E. House in its various functions?
It was central to our success. It was a privilege to live in A.B.L.E. House. It was not just randomly selected, it was something that you had to earn. It was not a boot camp that you had to go through. This is where meetings were held. We didn't have the kind of resources that the fraternities or sororities did. We couldn't throw the kind of parties that they could. We got a little budget from the College to host events, to the extent that we could. We invited all students, whoever wanted to come to our events, for cultural exchange. They got a chance to see how we live. We brought in speakers, mixers, receptions. If we had a big speaker, it would be in CFA, and maybe a gathering or reception after at A.B.L.E. House. There were dinners, small lectures. A place where people hung out, discussed ideas, your homework. This was before Starbucks, so people would be hanging out drinking coffee and doing homework.
More importantly, it was a sanctuary. You could be you. You didn't have to worry about anyone asking, "Why does your hair look like that?" or, "Why do you wear that?" or "Why do you talk like that?" Everybody knew; we were all from the same culture. It was a safe space. It's where people came when they had enough of their roommate,or their suitemates. That's kind of how the protest got started. We were all at the house, and the person who was offended came to the house. They said what happened, and we heard it, and we'd say, "No, this cannot stand." It wasn't outreach on our part. People came to share. Because we were all there, we said "We have to take some action."
What do you think A.B.L.E. should be working on today?
Social engagement, social justice. When I was in college, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and thought I could change the world, and I hope that today's generation still feels that way. There are a plethora of injustices that still exist, that they can look at. I'm a firm believer that everyone is a steward of humanity. That we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, that we have a responsibility to each other, in whatever way is your gift, that you owe a debt to society for the space that you occupy and the time you've been given. Whether it's time, treasure, or a specific talent, you utilize that for the betterment of society. Martin Luther King said that life's most persistent question is "What are you doing for others?" From my perspective that's what we often lose sight of, while we're pursuing our individual dreams to be whatever we think we should be, and while you're in college, trying to figure out what that "should be" is. I think if we could have our young folks focus more on identifying what they could do for others, that's where the strength of an institution like Knox is further buttressed. When you have folks in your institution who reflect what I think are the ideals of a college like Knox at its core, we can turn out more leaders who will have some real impact. If we could have our folks focus on that, we could address a lot of the problems that we have in our society. Unfortunately, far too many people are just focused on themselves and don't understand that they are global citizens and stewards of humanity, and they are responsible for each other and to each other.
Once they're done with college, what do you think A.B.L.E. alumni should focus on?
I think that my family gave me the foundation, and the things I did a Knox were a reflection of the way I'd been taught and raised. Those to whom much is given much is required. The folks who have been able to graduate from a place like Knox and become alumni and have benefitted from not just what I did when I was president of A.B.L.E., but from the other folks who came before me that paved the way for me. I think all of us who benefited from being part of that organization, that institution, have a responsibility to support the school and support the A.B.L.E. students in their struggles and play a role to the extent that we can in our larger society.