As a parting gift, my high school librarian gave me the book Required Readings for the Disenfranchised Freshman written by Kristen R. Lee. I put off reading it during the summer but recently finished it within the first month of my freshman year of college. I’ve found myself in the same situation as the main character, Savannah Howard. The two of us are living similar lives as young Black students starting college at predominately white institutions, scared for our lives. Both of us are struggling to fully accept that our capabilities and accomplishments have guided us into the next phase of our lives. Both of us understand that there is a new game afoot, and we hope that life has equipped us with the skills to overcome it. However, our paths diverge when anti-Black hate crimes begin happening on her campus.
Like many books talking about the overlooked racism and microaggressions committed by non-Black or white students, this story is about Blackness in higher education and explores Black women's urge to fight against injustice, despite the fact that one might not know what they are doing. Savannah Howard is a smart Black girl from the hood who wants to go to college but feels conflicted about where to go. One option is the rich, prestigious, highly acclaimed Wooddale University where she makes up the entirety of the school’s diversity quota, or Booker T. Washington University, a historically black college that might not have the money for her financial aid, but the feeling of community is unmatched. This is a classic decision for Black students who applied to predominantly white institutions (PWIs) and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with the underlying question hanging in the air, “Community or Prestige?” Savannah ends up going to Wooddale and that’s where her worldview breaks.
Like Savannah, I recognize that there is an adjustment to the level of wealth, privilege, and ignorance when transitioning from a place where everyone looks like you to where you’re often the only Black person in your classes. A point that this book makes clear is that college, aside from academics, is about finding community and the struggles in doing so. In the classic debate of HBCU versus PWI, the most argued point for Black students is that our comfort with our people shouldn’t be sacrificed for academic rigor and success, which is true. We as readers see Savannah struggle with finding her place in college, but it’s under very different circumstances than the classic “new school blues.” Without spoiling too much of the plot, because I recommend that every Black freshman reads this book. As Savannah is getting acclimated to the new college environment, a series of hate crimes take place. Despite only being there for a few weeks, Savannah knows that what is happening is wrong and that she must stop it.
In the world of academia, change and revolution are considered loaded words. In the face of intolerance we as Black people, intellectuals, and students, are expected to grit our teeth and bear it. It’s understood that for every Black student at a PWI, there is a sacrifice of personal freedoms and cries against injustice. However, there are those students who say enough is enough and commit themselves to being advocates for others. The circumstances make it seem as if that is the only option, that Black students no longer have the option to simply be a student, that we have the responsibility of being a student advocate. These are the feelings that Savannah grapples with throughout the book, balancing the responsibility of creating a better school for the other Black students on campus and taking care of herself in the process.
As a Black, female-presenting, non-binary person, I resonated with a lot of the personal struggles that Savannah went through. Sometimes I don’t want my voice to be a “Black voice” or an “activist voice,” but there is power in being trusted by the community to lead a powerful movement. This isn’t a journey for everyone; it requires a lot of determination, courage, and commitment to a goal that not everyone will align themselves with. It’s a struggle to get people to see that racism isn’t just the clear aggressions. Racism can be masked behind performative school-wide emails preaching inclusion and diversity, and actions or non-actions can be subconscious and inherent in the structure of an organization. For many Black students, the responsibility of educating the larger community is a job that no one else is willing to do. Nevertheless, we understand that if there is any chance of real change happening, we need to be standing there at the forefront. We will be standing there, fighting through nerves and the feeling of being seen in our non-palatable version of Blackness, leading the revolution.