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A Black Ass Nightmare: My Four Years at Northweste...

A Black Ass Nightmare: My Four Years at Northwestern

Freshman Year

The year I traveled 40 minutes away from home to an alternate universe; a universe rife with opportunity, wealth, knowledge, racism and the ghosts of Native genocide.

The year I sat starry eyed and anxious in a 300-level course on Global capitalism that not once mentioned race in a social context.

The year a Northwestern student tied a noose around the neck of a plush bear belonging to a Northwestern custodian.

The year white people yelled, “NIGGER!” out of a car as my friends walked down Sheridan.

The year older, white alumni touring the ground floor of Norris stared at my friends and I as if we were martians. Wait, this happened every year.

The year I became a part of a dazzling community of Black people; artists, athletes, activists, Greeks, math majors, troublemakers and lovers. There were romantic prospects and drama. There were Black parties every weekend and our events filled huge venues.

We were here and thriving. It was a deceiving year.

 

Sophomore Year

The year the Black community began to dwindle.

The year I realized Morty and the administration did not and do not care about Black students.

The year I sat in a sea of lily-white faces in Harris Hall 107 as Morty and Morson paced the stage, bantering about alternate universes and finances in Humanities 260. I recall elaborate arguments in our discussion sections about life on other planets and how different society would be if Martin Luther hadn’t posted his litany on the door of the church. I also recall the silence that followed my argument about a non-linear historical narrative not being radical, especially when discussing racial progress in this country.

The year Morty invited Humanities 260 into his home for a dinner. I sat at a table of five, three white students and one Asian student. I remember constantly staring at the one Black man in the group of 20 something students. He never returned my glare. However, the Black servers did. I smiled uncomfortably as they offered me sushi.

The year I realized studying abroad was a white student thing.

In our pre-departure lectures we read case-studies about gang life and the culture of Black grandmothers on the west side of Chicago, my home, in preparation for our voyage to the Dominican Republic. During our activities, we were tasked with exploring the “diverse” neighborhoods of Chicago and asking the people for directions instead of using our phones. I rode the familiar Blue line route as my white peers talked loudly and stole photos of people simply living their lives. I stood in front of the UIC building I had attended summer camp at as a child, dejected and ashamed.

 

Junior Year

The year I found my passion and lifelong struggle.

The year I transferred into the School of Communications to pursue a degree in Radio/Television/Film. I was excited to meet the cultured, liberal white population at Northwestern. It felt like my homecoming. Until a white male student sitting adjacent to me in RTVF 379 remarked, “I don’t even know why Black people bother trying to get into the film industry.”

The year I realized that the lack of Black faces onscreen and behind the camera in the works on the syllabuses of my classes was intentional. Black art is not as important and my Black art will never be lauded like the work of even my mediocre, white counterparts.

The year I struggled and subsequently failed to convince my white peers to work on my film sets.

The year Darren Wilson was not indicted. We grieved collectively in Harris Hall that night, only to wake up to angry Daily articles about white students’ journalistic rights being infringed upon.

The year a white TA demanded I find sources and cite my personal experiences as a Black woman in a sociology course exploring the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The year I watched students of color rise up and fight for divestment — and win.

The year I fantasized about who I would’ve been at Spelman or Howard.

The year I admitted to myself that college would not be the best four years of my life.

 

Senior Year

The year I gave up.

Admittedly, my spirit of activism and hope had been squelched. I took Northwestern for what is was and always will be – a colonial settler institution.

The year they tried to take The Black House. It was August. Facebook was buzzing about a conference call and rumors of the Black House being destroyed. The administration and MSA decided to allocate resources differently, slicing the space for Black students drastically. The current Black students were emailing alumni and organizing under the guise of the Sheridan Block Club. I remember entering the sacred space of The Black House and finding purple MSA plaques near doors; looking for Daphne on the first floor and instead finding the walls painted a fishy turquoise.

The year we pulled the curtains back at SPAC and walked through the aisles; Black student athletes avoided our eye contact while ESPN reporters glared curiously. I remember chanting, “These are our demands!” as Morty and administration members demurely clenched their butt cheeks. A row of donors behind them giggled and others clenched their fists.

The year I entered the Black House Town Hall sessions to be greeted by an eager Patricia Telles-Irvin, a woman I had shared space with numerous times over my four years at Northwestern. The day of the first town hall she asked me my name for the first time. I remember being placated by a Black preacher; he condescendingly demanded Black students breathe as we were terrorized by cameras and lights.

The year Black alumni and underclassmen fell to our knees in front of heartless administrators, pleading for the space our predecessors had fought for.

The year I debated internally if I could encourage promising Black youth to attend this university and live with myself.

The year two Northwestern students soiled a construction site with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti.

The year I yelled at Spike Lee for making a mockery of the violence happening in my city.

The year I received an email inviting me to participate in a focus group on the Black student experience at Northwestern. My stomach dropped as I read PTI’s name and its contents lurched as I read the words, “You are one of 78 undergraduate seniors who, according to the Registrar’s Office, identify as African American/Black…”. Sick to my stomach I replied with my RSVP. Student Affairs replied, “Natalie, sorry. This focus group is full.”


It took a four-year nightmare for me to actualize the growth and beauty I’ve experienced at Northwestern. I wrote many papers. I read Baldwin and Morrison. I watched Micheaux and Burnett. Professor Davis, Professor Kipnis and Professor Petty pushed me intellectually. I made films. I partied – some. I found a family in my club basketball team. I grieved the loss of Wings Over. I supported my friends’ dance performances and social endeavors. I called my mother a couple of times each day.  I went home a lot. I suffered pain and depression.

But most importantly, I found unflinching love and friendship in my group of Black women. Our late night discussions at the apartments on Ridge and the voracious laughter we shared at Norris despite the overwhelming surrounding whiteness saved me. I wouldn’t trade these last four years for anything.

To the Black Northwestern students who will follow, you can accept this institution for what it is or work tirelessly to change it. Either way you are loved. I hope you make it through this white nightmare and reach your dreams.

 


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  1. Co 2012

    12 April

    I cant tell you how many times I wanted to scream while reading this because I felt such a flood of emotions and nearly every memory of my time at Northwestern resurge at once. I cant believe that in four years nothing has changed, but then again- that’s the Northwestern way I suppose. As a film student, I thought that maybe my white counterparts were just “better” at film than me. They had more experience with that sort of thing, spent more time on film sets, etc. But, in my heart, I knew that wasn’t true. I dreaded every single session in which I had to show the rough cut of my work and endure the scrutiny of my peers who never seemed to “understand what I was going for.” I could go on for hours. Instead, I’ll just say thank you for sharing. I’ll never regret attending NU because I learned a lot about people and some topics I may have never explored elsewhere and I met the best group of friends I’ll ever have. Still, I’m certain that I’ll never encourage any other young, black students to attend.

    • GeorgiaGirl

      13 April

      They are NEVER “better than you!” N. E. V. E. R.

      • Gray

        13 April

        Nothing Will Change Illinois is The worst. In my 57 years here. It is JUST the most Disgusting display of what America should be. Waving a white flag, I finally surrender any hope for planet Illlinois. Anywhere is better. I wanted to go to Northwestern. So glad I didn’t Southern Illinois U is where I went. Won’t go into a lot of detail, But I took pride in handling racism. My Way reeking havoc on any individual bringing me any. Good luck to those who wish to spend hard earned money on the likes of racist supported Universities in Illinois. The won’t get any more of. My suppot

    • Karen

      13 April

      My sister went to Northwestern for Law school but we both went to IIT for undergraduate school. I don’t really recall any of her experiences at NU but at IIT our diversity was embraced and encouraged. I’m am so sorry that this happened to you but I also applaud you for your accomplishments. The battle is fought in the field and in the mind and you have won both. All the best and thank you for sharing your story

  2. Raekissa

    12 April

    Listen little sista, thank you for sharing your experience with us. I’m in utter shock that you even had to go through any of that.

  3. Rochelle

    13 April

    Damn, my sister thank you for sharing your story. I’m on Northwestern’s campus, I take classes two nights a week. I shall never forget your story, it was both touching and enlightening. I’m glad you were able to find solace amongst a group of sisters.

    Peace and blessings

    Rochelle

  4. Michael V W Gotdon

    13 April

    So powerfully written. A cogent reminder of what is most likely being shared by nearly all black students at white institutions. Yet, I would hate if we allowed these institutions to become completely white ever again. Ain’t that crazy of me?

  5. Ida

    13 April

    Thank you for sharing your experience, many may agree Our experience. Well written and graciously received.

  6. Richard

    13 April

    You have summarized my experience at Northwestern. I graduated in 1986 and I see in 30 years, nothing has changedIt is not something you experience but survive. I described it today to someone at my son’s Stanford Admissions event as a 4 year episode of “Survivor”.
    I met my wife there. It is one of the only redeeming things I feel.

  7. Ryan Robertson

    13 April

    This is the most beautiful and disheartening piece I’ve ever seen written about the Northwestern Student experience. Beautiful because of its richness, its honesty and the bravery of its author. Disheartening because I graduated from NU almost 25 yrs ago and could have written this piece myself. Replace Morty with Arnie, replace Darren Wilson with the cops who beat Rodney King — line by line, year by year — the similarities are frighteningly uncanny. It pains me deeply to see how much the numbers have dwindled and how little out little the experience has changed.

  8. Bonnie

    13 April

    Beautifully written. I was liberated at a majority white university when I was able to write a paper in my literature class addressing the lack of interest I had in reading novels by white racist. My professor and esteemed novelist, Virginia Carr, surprisingly gave me an A. At that point, I knew I had a voice. You have a voice, a great education and a great start to a wondrous, complex journey…

  9. This is a remarkable piece. You have voiced the struggles, concerns, and opinions of not just Northwestern students, but countless students who find themselves in liberal, white institutions like Northwestern without adequate support or understanding of their plight. I attended Bowling Green State University for undergrad in the 90’s. My story is perhaps a mere image of yours and in 2007, I attended Northwestern as a 30 something graduate student. Unfortunately, in my class of 50 “would be” future teachers, only about 5-7 of us were black. At least two dropped out of the program before the end and more than half of the rest of us are no longer in education, but I digress.

    Fortunately and unfortunately for me, I endured the worse of racism at Bowling Green where passersby also yelled “nigger” from their car windows as I walked down the street. Bowling Green was also a small town where the Klu Klux Klan often demonstrated at the Towns Square just a few minutes from my campus and where many of my classmates had never seen a black person other than on television. This was my life.

    I say all of this to assure you, that some of us are chosen to be the ones to pave the way, to tell the stories, and to be the ones who endure, so that we can assure those after us, that in the end it will all be worth it. At 42 years old, I am wiser, more resilient, less interested in proving my point and therefore, I allow ignorant people to stay where they are. This gives me peace, but also tolerance for the differences of others. You have come through the “good fight”, but you might not see it right now. For this, you will do great things in the world, change lives, and view the world a little differently than your African-American counterparts. Why? Because you have to. After going through all of this, as a journalist you must now put it to great use and rise above all that you experienced in those 4 years at Northwestern.

    Thank you for reminding me of the torch I once carried and the struggles I twice endured going to predominately white institutions. What didn’t break me only made me stronger and it will do the same for you.

    Thank you. Thank you and thank you again for sharing this my young sister.

    Dr. Terre Holmes Arnold – Chief Visionary Officer at EnvisionU

  10. Davielle

    13 April

    Natalie,

    It’s just crazy to think that, from graduating from Lane Tech where the diversity is amazing and where we could interact with so many different kinds of people, we could to go to college and be stripped of that. I’m at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and I’ve experienced the same kinds of things. Your family over at NU has our support!

    Very well written!

  11. John Bracey

    13 April

    Dear Sister Natalie:
    I was a grad student in the History Dept from 1966-1969. I was a part of that generation that knocked open some doors that we thought would make Northwestern a space where Black folk at least for a few years could learn , study, and grow in relative peace and quiet from the racist practices so pervasive in Chicago and the nation at large. It is more than a bit disheartening to hear that many of the gains of my generation have been rolled back or eliminated entirely. When it comes to the struggle against racial oppression a valuable lesson is that there are gains and losses, and that new generations might have to fight old battles. I wish you, and your sisters and brothers ,strength in the struggles that await you if you choose to engage in them.
    You didn’t mention much interaction with faculty in the History and African American Studies departments. In 2008 there was a conference to reflect upon and commemorate the
    40th anniversary of the 1968 takeover of the bursar’s office. The entire proceedings were recorded and should be available if you want to compare issues,strategies,etc. Professor Martha Biondi would be the person who can guide you to these materials. They might be helpful to you and your generation in processing your Northwestern experiences.
    Stay strong,stay well. A Luta Continua.
    Peace,

    John Bracey

  12. Mo Rodgers

    13 April

    U made it. Congratulation. It’s a good start.
    Make som films. If you get to the west coast, maybe you can do a video for me.
    Peace, love and blues
    Mighty Mo Rodgers

  13. Ken Nixon

    13 April

    As you will discover, your NU experiences are valuable and will serve you.

  14. Jasmin

    13 April

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  15. Nicole McZeal Walters, Ed.D

    13 April

    This was incredibly powerful and insightful.
    I’m a product of both HBCUs and PWI’s and I am now employed full time at a private, PWI. You have affirmed that while being in this white space is isolating for a faculty member, I must remain vigilant in my support and nurturing of Black and brown children. They must see faces with whom they can identify. Offices where they must be nurtured. Affirmed. Loved! I cannot thank you enough for your countenance and story. You will go far–and do well. Keep your voice out there. You are the one!

  16. Shirley

    13 April

    Wherever you would have gone (Spelman or Howard) you would have remained a beloved warrior.

    #SpelmanGrad #YourSister

  17. So crazy, my stomach hurt when I read the student athletes scared to make eye contact and join you in your demands. Northwestern was undoubtedly a tough experience but one I hope you and the rest of us are able to grow from and do great things.

  18. Khalil Bou-Mikael

    13 April

    Fucking intense. My heart breaks, my eyes cried, and my soul hurts. I love that through her struggle she found her rocks, but I hate that this experience happens too often in today’s age.

  19. Lawrence Ross

    13 April

    Read my new book on campus racism, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, and you’ll see that your experience on PWI’s is not alone. http://www.amazon.com/Blackballed-Black-Politics-Americas-Campuses/dp/125007911X/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1434859582&sr=1-3&keywords=Blackballed

  20. Charmaine Coates

    13 April

    I feel blessed to have read your story and congratulations on your survival. I only wish that your experience could have been a film you were producing because our young people who need to read this will never see it. This is TRUTH and things are getting worse ! Bless you !

  21. Liz

    13 April

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this. This line in particular resonated with me: Admittedly, my spirit of activism and hope had been squelched. I took Northwestern for what is was and always will be – a colonial settler institution. It really encapsulated the reasons why NU will never be a place I can consider ‘home’ or an environment that encourages truth, activism, or the progressive redistribution we so desperately need. I always felt deeply that institutionalized racism and sexism were prominent at NU; I’ve been proud in the past few years of those students, like you, there now who are standing against this. I hope the next fours years bring you to a more joyful, rejuvenating place where your work is encouraged, accepted, and critiqued. As a white woman at NU, I did not live through the pains you describe of overt or institutional racism. But the pain in your experience rings true for me – classism and sexism at NU penetrated steadily and deeply – and left a long sting I’m still recovering from 10 years later. Reading this encourages me to keep trying to show up in solidarity – a challenging space for me personally that I’m continuing to grow in to – having been socialized that quiet is polite, opinions are best discussed at home only, and bystanders aren’t guilty.

    Keeping putting your art and soul out there. It’s beautiful and big. Peace.

  22. Nivea Rios

    13 April

    This was a powerful read. Thank you.

  23. Grenita Hall, PhD

    13 April

    God bless you Sister in the Struggle. I had a similar struggle at Illinois. You persevered, and still you rise. We won’t forget…

  24. James Morgan

    13 April

    Every time I read something like this, I thank the Creator that I decided to go to Howard University. I am sorry you had to deal with that foolishness at a so-called place of higher learning.

  25. DeLisa Williams

    13 April

    Awesome Testimony! You survived!

  26. Judge Marianne Jackson

    13 April

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. I am one of the Black students who took over the Bursar’s office which resulted in the agreement that I heard a young person many years ago refer to as the “historic accord” with the university which resulted in some changes, including the Black House. I graduated in 1970, and many times referred to those 4 years as the coldest years of my life. Yes, I have sometimes seen the shock and surprise on faces when informed that I graduated from there. Yes I have also seen admiration and respect. I too formed life long friendships forged from the hardship of that experience. Would I do it again knowing what I now know? Honestly I don’t know. Have I benifited from the degree from that prestigious Big Ten university? Absolutely.
    The place willprobably never change, but that does not mean we should give up the fight for a place at the table. The struggle goes on.
    Hi John Bracy, hope all is well with you.

    • Floyd Crider

      16 April

      Good to hear from you. It has been a while. Maybe some ping pong next time we are in the Black House.
      Critter

      • Marianne Jackson

        21 April

        Critter, good to hear from you. Do you think either one of us can still play?LOL

  27. Todd Lewis

    13 April

    When you graduate in a couple of months take some advice from a Michael Jackson song: don’t spend your life being a color.

    • Tara

      14 April

      That’s offensive. We can’t wake up one day & be a white man. Don’t you think we’d choose that instead? Don’t you think we’d choose a color police don’t see as target practice? Don’t you think we’d like to sleep on that 1000 thread count bed of white privilege you rest your head upon?

      And Jesus Christ, why would we? Our story & our struggle make us, make this country. Without this story, HER story, what is Northwestern? What are we? Not a damn thing of note.

  28. Dino

    14 April

    Great article…and as others have already stated, I could change the date and names and all would apply at the university I attended and graduated from in 1989.

  29. Keep Shining

    14 April

    You are a beautiful writer. I hope you don’t give up on your film dreams. Howard has a nice graduate film school. We’d love to have you and hate that we missed you in high school. Cinematography is a speciality.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/movies/howard-university-has-become-incubator-for-cinematographers/2013/01/28/39202f00-697f-11e2-ada3-d86a4806d5ee_story.html

  30. Angela Jaimes

    14 April

    I look forward to an update in 5 years and 10 years. Is the experience Northwestern, being placed in an environment of opportunity, elite higher education, society, humanity?

  31. Julie

    14 April

    I always suspected that this is how it is at these kinds of places. I’m white. I am sorry and embarrassed that this was your experience. Yet I am blessed to have read this. I have no doubt that you will continue to create beauty and significance out of pain and losses that must be acknowledged and understood. All best as you go forward, powerfully, always speaking.

  32. Kay

    14 April

    I just want all the black woman here and everywhere to know I love you even if no one else does. I went to Howard and can’t speak to this kind of experience. I am so sad for you and am glad you are soon getting out of this toxic environment. I hope you always dream big. Thank you for sharing this experience as I know if will help someone else.

  33. Paige

    14 April

    I am proud of you! I had a similar college experience at Albion College in Michigan… One of less than 60 in a population of over 2000 students. You will be a better person for this experience, you already are and we are proud. Do not be dismayed, these experiences will mold your prospective of the world forever…your at an advantage. Keep pushing, keep being you, your black is beautiful!

    Signed,
    A fellow sister in this struggle.

    • Paige

      14 April

      *I am also a born and raised Evanstonian*

  34. Paula Major, EdD

    14 April

    Why didn’t you attend a HBCU? Did you not apply? Were you not accepted? What’s so special about wanting to attend Northwestern? I personally was never interested in a PWI for undergrad. I always knew I rather learn in an environment were I’m celebrated and not tolerated. I’m a proud Howard alumni and Wayne State University and Ole Miss grad. So I was well prepared for the white bullshit that you faced from both faculty, staff and students.

  35. Ky

    14 April

    Reminds me of my own experience at a PWI

  36. Northa

    14 April

    Thank you! You handled your business by living it and then telling. You were not there by mistake. To learn, to teach, to meet. In the years to come you will know why.
    Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
    Carry on.

  37. Janus thomas

    14 April

    I felt the exact same way attending DePaul University ( Lincoln Park campus) fifty years ago. I remember being refereed to as”your kind” with absolutely no support from the dean. I was told it was “turbulent times” I remember being the only “colored” in all my classes. I remember not being able to get adequate academic counseling…..unlike others, I just could not take it…seventeen years old and not really able to negotiate my unfair treatment with the appropriate staff, I transferred after two years. ( after being told “perhaps I wasn’t really “capable of being a DePaul student) ” Thanks to the wonderful faculty and counselors at Roosevelt University, I was able to re_enter the world of academia, graduate and obtain a MSW from the University of Illinois. ……

  38. Sacha

    14 April

    I hear you and I thank you for sharing your story. I work here and i work here, and i am trying to listen and learn, to try to give the black students a better experience than what you have experienced. I appreciate your patience, and i am sorry that you are having to be patient. I will try to learn faster and make fewer mistakes. I try to work on it every day. Sincerely, thank you, for sharing.

  39. Tara

    14 April

    Woman. Strong. Broken. Brilliant. Hurt. Black. Woman. Soul–

    I applaud your courage. For that is rare in this world. I ate your words like a plum, for they were that well-written. And I say prayers over your head, holding your hand, black hand entwined in black hand because every day something or someone is literally trying to kill us. You are not alone in this fight. In this world.

    I’m a fighter too. And you contact me if you ever. Need. Any. Thing. You hear me?

    –tmstringfellow,
    WCAS ’07, MFA 7 Candidate ’17

  40. Howard

    14 April

    “The year I realized studying abroad was a white student thing.” That’s not entirely true. The truth in that statement is, studying abroad in a White culture is a White student thing. On the other hand, studying abroad in a Black culture is a Black student thing. Imagine the benefit to your psyche health if you could live and study in a foreign culture consisting of all Black students. Now that you have successful acquired a certificate that will enable you to take care of self, its time to get a real education. Go to Africa. Go abroad where you can live and breathe among people with a humanity just as strong and spiritually connected to the cosmos as yours. There you can refill your psyche mind and you will begin to understand why you are so hate at PWIs.

  41. Dwayne Alexander

    15 April

    This is crazy because this was my number one school. I can tell you one thing, my list has changed.

  42. Wymsy

    15 April

    So I just graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and had the EXACT same experience. PWI where black students have to fight for their right to exist AS black students who are unwilling to assimilate or acquiesce. Somehow, this piece that you wrote has given me a bit more closure and put me at peace about my experience. Thanks so much for speaking out. Better years to come. Glad to hear your voice, sis.

  43. Wilma

    15 April

    I know your nightmare so well. You were and are not alone in your feeling or thought. The problems you experienced also exists in downstate Universities, including the one I attended, Illinois State University. We as a people must never give up.

  44. Uncle Fred

    15 April

    Nat you are a true solider , Too Black Too strong, ,,,,your ancestors are applauding you right now

  45. Donna Rose

    16 April

    Thank you Queen for your powerful words! You have truly earned your 21st century warrior marks!!

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