In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education determined that the racial segregation of schools is unconstitutional. Discussions of “affirmative action” in the context of admission into federally-funded programs emerged in the 1960s. In the subsequent decades, educational spaces across the United States began to admit African American students and students of other marginalized groups at a slow but steadily increasing pace. Colleges and universities, like Bowdoin, have sought out female students, LGBT+ students, students of color, low-income students, first-generation students and international students to diversify their student bodies. Institutions of higher learning are more diverse than ever before in the history of the United States. But, when combing over the breakdown of these marginalized groups at elite institutions, it becomes apparent that certain groups continue to be underrepresented in these spaces. One demographic that remains sorely underrepresented is African American students.
Now, let me clarify. By African American students, I do not mean “Black” students, I do not mean “students of Afro-descent” and I do not mean “students who identify as Black that grew up in the United States.” By African American students, I mean the descendants of the African slaves brought to the United States and forced to do unpaid labor and live in horrific, violent and traumatic conditions.
Hopefully while watching “Black Panther,” a viewer might understand that Blackness is different across the world. Music, dancing, food, history, language and dress are different for Black people in Nairobi, Kenya than for Black people in Havana, Cuba and Black people in St. Louis, Missouri. “Blackness” is a shared identity because of distantly shared ancestry and the continued marginalization of people of Afro-descent around the world. When the lens shifts to individual communities, the range of cultural practices distinguishes certain populations of Afro-descended people from others. African American people are their own subgroup of Afro-descendants with their own history, language, dancing, food, music and dress.
I am an African American student at Bowdoin, and sometimes I feel like I am the only one here. Through conversations with the few other African American students I have met, I realized just how few of us there are on this campus. The Bowdoin community does not seem to differentiate between different kinds of Blackness and actively lumps all Afro-descended people into one, monolithic group. When identifying my race on Bowdoin forms, I am forced to check a box that says “African/African-American,” as if I share the same identity as someone who has immigrated from the Caribbean and still practices that culture at home or another student who grew up in the U.S. whose parents immigrated from Mali. I do not and I cannot share that identity. I can only trace my ancestors to the deep South. My roots are in urban Detroit and rural Tennessee. My “Blackness” is the culture born from creative resistance to cultural obliteration and unfettered resilience to survive.
Somehow, despite initiating the process for equality in education, educational institutions are leaving African American people behind. The goal of affirmative action was to grant marginalized groups access to education and job training that would lift them from vulnerable, lower-class positions. “Affirmative action” is the closest thing to reparations that the descendants of African slaves in the U.S. have seen—especially considering the “40 acres and a mule” never did pan out. To see so few African Americans students on campus indicates that Bowdoin and other elite schools do not understand the importance of providing spaces for the descendants of U.S. slaves. African American students are not being lifted from positions of vulnerability as quickly as they ought to be. African Americans watch our culture being appropriated and mainstreamed, but are being denied information about or access to elite education. I cannot tell you how disheartening it is to see other African American students disappointed that they had not known about Bowdoin sooner in the application process.
Bowdoin needs to do more to find and recruit African American students. In no way am I arguing for fewer Black students from other backgrounds to be admitted. Truthfully, I am calling on the Bowdoin administration and the Bowdoin admissions team to consider that African American students deserve a place here, too.
Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez is a member of the Class of 2018.