HBCUChicago: Cultivating Blackness From 250 Miles Away

But as [my parents] tried to recreate a college experience I had never known, I realized that the ‘normal college life’ that I had imagined was not what I wanted.


Lauren Dotson, She/Her/Hers

My mom knocks on the door of my childhood bedroom. The room I had hoped to leave behind months ago. The room now adorned with dorm decorations purchased from Society6 in hopes of making something, anything, feel normal in this year that has been anything but. She knocks again.


“Laurennnn, it's your, um, dorm mother. Stop by the cafeteria (my dining room) for some breakfast (pancakes made by my dad) before you go to the quad (my backyard)!”


My parents are very imaginative. As I was dreading this school year, getting FOMO while scrolling through Instagram, imagining what life would be like without Covid, and dreaming about the Chicago that Trina Vega sang about, my parents were trying their best to make me feel a little less alone. To them, my house became my residence hall, and our neighborhood became the University of Chicago, Ypsilanti Campus. My mom was my RA, my dad was tech support, and my sister, who is a senior in college herself, tried to create every awkward interaction I could anticipate as a first year. But as they tried to recreate a college experience I had never known, I realized that the ‘normal college life’ that I had imagined was not what I wanted.

The college experience that I was prepared for was one where so many Black kids feel ostracized, the trademark of a PWI, and I was not excited for it.
Lauren Dotson, courtesy of the author

The college experience I had prepared myself for was one where I was the only Black girl in a class full of white people who had wealth that I could not comprehend, and privilege that they likely would not come to terms with. The college experience I had prepared for was one where I was forced to see white people every day, reminded of how much I am not wanted on this campus. The college experience that I was prepared for was one where so many Black kids feel ostracized, the trademark of a PWI, and I was not excited for it. So although I was annoyed being 250 miles away from the city I loved the most, I realized that at home, at the UChicago Ypsilanti campus, I was surrounded by the comfort of Blackness. Surrounded by my Black mom, Black dad, Black sister, other family members, and friends (who, if not Black, were at least not white).


I started to imagine my house like my parents did; my library was my bookshelf stacked with Assata Shakur, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Tomi Adeyemi. My dining hall was my mom’s cooking, full of seasoning and love. My communal shower was my personal bathroom where I could have 6 hour wash days, use up all the hot water, blast my music, and leave my curls around the drain, without worrying if Karen will think that my ‘naps’ look like spiders on the bathroom floor. I felt like I was in my own little Black alternate reality, like I had duped the system. And while my parents were making a Black college experience for me at home, I was doing so virtually. I joined OBS, participated in ACSA events, and made friends with Black students by bonding over bomb twist-outs through Zoom DMs. I joined organizing RSOs with people of color who could relate to the same things I could. I sought out Black mentors and professors that I could connect with, even if only over WIFI. And when I look back at those pie charts, the ones touting diversity, I felt like I had taken my 5.2% and made it into 100%.

Just like my Ypsi campus, just like my circle of virtual friends and professors, just like my life and love and hope and joy, it is all Black, Black, Black, Black.

In the times where I had no control, classes where I had no choice in my peers, I quickly found myself back in that familiar position where I was the only melanated face. I am reminded that I am outnumbered. On Zoom I toggle with my settings trying to figure out how to change my emoji to match my brown skin, trying to find the right angle at which my face won't turn into a black blob because my camera doesn’t understand my color grade, trying to tell my professor that what they said was racist, aware of the “mute all” button that they could press at any moment. So I'm sometimes happy when people's cameras are off. It is when I feel most free to turn mine on. Because when those deactivated cameras turn the classroom into empty boxes, I feel comfort in the blackness of their screens matching the Blackness of my face. When their cameras are off I no longer feel like I am an invader on their Brady Bunch title sequence. Just like my Ypsi campus, just like my circle of virtual friends and professors, just like my life and love and hope and joy, it is all Black, Black, Black, Black.

When we imagine, when we have the creativity to transform our present into what we want our future to be, we access the power to believe beyond what we have seen as possible, we have the power to believe in liberation.

Now reading this it may seem like I am a first year coddled by parents, another social casualty brought on by quarantine. But I argue I am coddled with Blackness and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being 250 miles away means that I decide who I dedicate my energy to. I don’t feel the social pressure to make small talk with a person who wants to take my rights away. I don’t feel the need to follow white people who post frat parties with their masks off, making sure their full paleness is known. I don’t feel the need to pretend like I am okay going to a school that works towards my oppression. I have made the choice for that to not be my reality. Because for Black people, imagination is everything. We have to imagine a life that is better for ourselves since our conditions are not, and never have been, built for us to thrive. My Black UChicago, my Ypsi UChicago, my HBCUChicago, is one where I have cultivated Blackness and refused to be pushed to the margins by the white supremacy that this university was built on. Because when we imagine, we make our dreams a reality and our alternative universe becomes our norm. When we imagine, when we have the creativity to transform our present into what we want our future to be, we access the power to believe beyond what we have seen as possible, we have the power to believe in liberation.