“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”
― Graham Greene, Ways of Escape
I write often about what’s going in the larger society in our communities, whether it’s politics, feminism, the economy, race or a critique about the other million other things going wrong in our world. But one thing I don’t write enough about is the black experience. Walking the halls of Tuskegee University, a historically black university, it was something that we talked about in several classes, and it was never taboo or inappropriate, it was just as important as every other subject, because after we graduated, and left the comforts of “home”, Tuskegee University, we would have to face the challenges of a world that was very different than the one we thrived in for 4 (or 5) years.
The founder of Tuskegee University (formerly Tuskegee Institute), the great Booker T. Washington, would be proud, not only for the famous or successful alumnus that made it through, but for the magnetic sense of family his institution and legacy has created. What I talk about goes so deep that few people on the outside can truly understand, it’s richness, but I will share a little piece of our soul.
The black experience at Tuskegee University created a family in all of us, because you have to learn several lessons at Tuskegee. Some of those lessons and experiences were good and others bad, but they continue to shape my life and grow the bond with the people who will forever be called my family. About two weeks ago, our Tuskegee family, suffered a big loss. We lost what some would call “The People’s Champ”, and I personally lost an old friend, Andrew Brown. Every loss is hard, but the hardest part of losing Drew is that he embodied the Tuskegee spirit, one of those people you were always going to look for at homecoming, and have a funny, sad or crazy story to talk about. And not just for his very close friends, but for many people who walked the halls during his time.
And as much as I wish I could say this was the first time Tuskegee had taught me this lesson of loss, it wouldn’t be true. But the deeper lesson I learned besides loss, was learning how to to fight even when you’re grieving with a loss, and I remember a time when I, Andrew, and large part of the Tuskegee family had to learn this lesson. There are so many memories written about Andrew over the last week or so, I figured I’d write another one. Because today, I write for a little therapy for my family, my Tuskegee Family, and for me, because sometimes, memories are all that you have.
During my four years at Tuskegee University, we lost a number of students, for a number of reasons, but there was one loss in particular that reminded me so much about our family and how tragic it was. During the spring time, before I became the student-body President, I was the “President-Elect”, a Freshman member of the University Choir was tragically murdered off campus. The choir wanted to gather a few days after on campus to sing and pray in his remembrance. Due to an unsatisfactory school policy at the time, students weren’t allowed to gather unless paperwork was filled out 7 days in advance even if a tragedy occurred. (7 DAYS ya’ll, it was one of those very stupid “Tuskegee” rules I had come to love). While I’m sure it had it’s place, we really did not need it at the time. And Tuskegee definitely taught us that tradition has it’s place, but sometimes you need to break the mold.
We had already been warned what would happen if the choir came together, they were to be broken up by the campus police. Some of the members of choir had already tried to get the paperwork rushed through and a few of my friends (Drew being one of them) had approached me about their options, but unfortunately our hands were tied. But as true Tuskegeans would do, the choir members decided to congregate anyways. These next few moments run in my mind kind of like a movie, so long ago, you think, did we really have the guts to do that?
So when the choir gathered, and the Police began to walk towards the crowd, I, Drew, and a couple other choir members jumped in to diffuse the situation. Drew had also been elected to be Mr. Tuskegee for the next year with me, and his passion for the university and the choir was self-evident. I can’t remember our exact words, but I know they were hurting, and we were having to deal with this bureaucracy crap. The choir did not get to do all they wanted that day, but we didn’t stop there. After this incident was over the students were still upset and the policy was still in place. Instead of letting the policy stay the same, we acted. I wrote the President of our University to fix the policy urgently and with my persistence, changes were made. What we didn’t know then, that our actions would make a difference. The following semester as student body President, another student died, if we had not acted when no one else had told us, the same thing would have ensued or something worse could have happened.
I tell this story now, because this experience had a lasting impression on me as I pursued my legal career. That was the first time I really got to FIGHT for what was right, for the stupid rules that we let run our lives. I write it, because I don’t think anyone from the Tuskegee choir, Drew, and my other choir friends involved, know how in awe I was in that moment for their spirit in that moment. (I forgot to mention that I’m pretty sure I told them NOT to congregate and follow the rules).
And that’s the lesson, Tuskegee has taught me with this loss of Drew. We must take the time to talk about our stories, remember the good times and bad times, because you never know when they will end. Back in 2006, Andrew had lost an old friend, that he that he had fell out of touch with, and thought he was a bad friend; reading the messages where I told him he was good friend, and that he just had to make sure he was more diligent in the future with his friends, was hard to read. I gave advice to him, that I needed at the moment I heard of his loss. I had lost touch, and I felt like a bad friend. But hearing all the wonderful stories of Drew made me realize he was so diligent with his time with the people he cared about, that he did take the time with so many people, and I will take this lesson with me, and I hope you do too.
I want to end with a saying we coined in my final year at Tuskegee, as a young 21 year old not knowing exactly what it would mean, but almost nine years later, it has been engrained into my individual experience at every step. I love my Tuskegee family:
“Your Story is My Story, We are Tuskegee, the strengths, the struggles, the successes, Make us who we are”.
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