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I tell myself that I don't have a dog in this hunt.

Money is tight everywhere, and in a state like Mississippi, where money is always tight, tougher times for the country mean cutting yourself to bone. Toward the end of last year our governor suggested consolidation of the state's three historically black universities and incorporation of the Mississippi University for Women, the first public college for women in the United States, into one of the other three state universities. This was an unpopular suggestion, to say the very least, and Santa Clause swept it under the skirt of the tree.

There it remained until this past Monday, when local papers reported on another proposal to consolidate the state's three public HBCUs under a new name and with clearly defined missions for the currently existing campuses. The proposal, made by Ronald Mason, Jr., president of Jackson State University, the largest of the three public HBCUs, was never intended for public consumption, but it's provided a tasty meal for the local newspapers, citizens, and legislators for the last few days.

Public conversations surrounding race relations are always a bit dodgy, but they're necessary; if you're going to move forward, you have to acknowledge where you've been, why that's brought you to where you are, and what you need to do differently in the future. Outsiders might handwave the entire problem away as being one more indicator of how backwards this state--and, by extension, the American South--is and how racism still lives and breathes "down there." Insiders know there's more here than meets the eye.

I tell myself that I don't have a dog in this hunt. I'm lying.

I work at a small liberal arts college and read the Mason story from the comfort of my office. Up the newly-repaved but still potholed road from my college stands Jackson State University. Southward are the buildings of the state capital. To our immediate east stands a rival college, several high schools, a lovely old neighborhood; to our west could be more of the same, but hard times and dwindling resources have left these could-have-been places to rack and ruin. The eastern demographic is predominantly white, the western predominantly black.

This is my geographic situation, and it couldn't better represent my cultural one either. Every weekday morning this middle-aged black woman bundles up her son, places him in her car, and travels two miles southward to enter this particular contact zone. I pass the eastside high school where my husband teaches as I head for the west where I find my son's day care center after passing a string of solidly built but utterly vacant houses. There are bars on the windows at the center and a buzzer at the door, but inside everything is warm and friendly and open. I kiss him goodbye and hand him over to the young women who run this Montessori day care center in one of the poorest sections of the city.

I turn my car eastward, then enter the iron gates that encircle my campus. When I first came here, I thought the gates were lovely, a marker to the world that something special is happening behind this fence. As I began to understand my socioeconomic geography, I started seeing the gates as a buffer from the world outside the college. On bad days, they seem as walls to exclude those perceived to be socially undesirable. On good days, they act as sound-proofing against the noise of the city and state, allowing me to untangle so many twisted up phrases.

Take the phrase that defines this group of colleges and universities: "historically black." These schools are "historically black" because they are no longer exclusively so, their doors long ago opening to students of all races. They are "historically black" because they have long served this once legally under-served minority population. They are "historically black" because history has been unkind to blacks in this country and these schools give the black community a sense of ownership and pride.

But "historically black" carries heavier luggage. To some, "historically black" means it's holding you back, that your embrace of this racially defined community space keeps you from integrating into the larger society. To others, "historically black" means you continue to lack, that you'll only get what you need to get by when others long ago received what they needed to get ahead. And sadder still, for some, "historically black" means niggers get back, know your place and stay out of our schools.

A lifetime of being black in the American South has taught me to listen--consistently, not exclusively--with my skin.

I don't know what vote I would cast were I in the legislature. I can't say that I wouldn't have made a similar proposal (although, I hope, a more effectively presented one) were I in Mason's shoes. I won't say that I believe the schools should remain untouched in perpetuity.

I do know that tough and often unpopular decisions have to be made. I can say that I understand why Mason's proposal has wounded and angered the black community, why, having publicly denounced the Governor's initial proposal, he's seen as Janus-faced on this issue. I will say that HBCUs occupy a peculiar--and peculiarly necessary--place in American higher education, and that while I may not be directly involved in this conversation, I have a vested interest in its outcome.

I'm a mother, a teacher, a taxpayer. I have to have a dog in this hunt.

*******

The conversation continues:

Jackson State President: HBCUs Future at Risk

This post was written in response to the Week 12 Current Events prompt at [livejournal.com profile] therealljidol.
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