Books | Autumn 2011
The Only Black Student
By Max Hunter, John Perkins Center Teaching Fellow
The Only Black Student
Mengesha Publishing (2009), 76 pages
The Only Black Student is bound to stimulate some ire, head-scratching, sympathy, and illumination for its readers. As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, Lull Mengesha spent his Saturday mornings at the campus bookstore searching for good reading.
As a mentor for younger minority students nearing graduation, this apparently bookish student — with lots of discretionary funds, I might add — scoured the store’s shelves for a guidebook for his younger black colleagues. He writes, “True, there were many books that gave guidance on race relations, but you need so much more. There are classrooms, dorms, professors, campus police, and a long list of other issues students of colors have to deal with that are neglected” (p. 7). Out of desperation and concern, Lull decided to write a book for black students considering attendance at a “Predominately White Institution [of Higher Learning].”
His efforts culminated in The Only Black Student, a text that is part memoir, part college survival guide, and part self-help manual. Much of what’s written is from the perspective of a black student who was born in the Sudan, raised in the Western United States, and attended a large state university in the Pacific Northwest. The author’s limited perspective, however, doesn’t prevent him from offering food for thought for high school graduates embarking on their undergraduate journey.
On the personal-biography end of things, Lull provides lots of interesting stories to give his readers insight into the types of racialized encounters at minority students might commonly experience. For example, he discussed “The Tyrone Factor.” He describes being erroneously taken for African-American students with names like Jerome and Tyrone. In other words, the East African Lull was frequently mistaken for black athletes and other students. It doesn’t end there.
While he is diminutive in height and size, Lull was often ask to play basketball in intramural by the very students who eschewed him in classes that require group projects. In order to elucidate his audience about the cognitive dissonance their ambivalence created, he writes:
If majority students approached us as aggressively in the classroom as they did in the gym, I think we would see racial tension in the classroom dissolve. I sometimes contemplate why our confidence and abilities are shown so clearly on the court versus the classroom. I can’t completely pin the entire classroom environment on majority students is to approach the classroom the same way they would approach the basketball court; With a presence that says, “I know how to do this, and you need to pick me if you want to have any chance to succeed” (p. 55).
This balanced approach to critique permeates the book. For example, Lull deplores the use the “N” word and the non-black usage of the term “ghetto.” On the one hand, poor students of color use it in conversation with each other. On the other hand, dominant students appropriate these terms in a demeaning manner to convey their hipness. Lull explains, “When we, as in the minorities, use the word, there is a clear differentiation. If I say something is ghetto, it is from the perspective I have, being a black male who grew up in a ‘ghetto.’ You will often hear majority students describe anything that is cheap, poor, or ugly as ghetto” (p. 58). In the end, black students want their peers to cease and desist from using these terms, writes Lull.
Beyond sharing stories about his experience with microaggression, Lull gives future PWI minority students advice about the duration of college these days ( five years for him), studying, reading, purchasing books, college and financial aid applications and student support services, as well as how to even the playing field in the classroom.
In helping students appreciate the need to make up for their educational deficits, Lull makes an analogy between his “sucky high school soccer team” and college life. Lull attended a predominately minority high school in Seattle’s south end. None of his teammates played select soccer. As a consequence, his team never won a game.
As a freshman, he went from a 3.6 GPA in high school to a 2.6 in university. In short, his high school hadn’t prepared him to play in the academic big leagues. Like the suburban and private school teams he played against in high school, his minority college classmates were “prepared, followed instructions, and made good choices on how to be successful” (p. 16). Much along the lines of Thomas Chatterton Williams’ memoir, Losing My Cool, Lull encourages his colleagues to put their sports gear and baggy jeans in the back of the closest and to grow accustom to donning more professional attire and maybe even purchase glasses to look school.
These types of the seeming irrelevant suggestions reveal the author’s earnest attempt to broaden his reader’s horizons. While not written by an expert in college counseling or in the field of education, The Only Black Student will allow first-generation minority undergraduates to walk onto campus with their eyes wide open and put what happens on that campus in perspective
Max Hunter, Ph.D., is the Perkins Center teaching fellow, and has been with the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University since 2008.
|Learn more about The John Perkins Center by watching the video This is the John Perkins Center on iTunesU.|