Lilian Spriggs is an audio production major at Howard University, from Jackson, Mississippi. After graduation, she wants to work as an on-air personality at a radio station.
Her words below are part of an interview for the larger radio documentary The Living Legacy: Black Colleges in the 21st Century, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).
I started ninth grade at a high school in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a predominantly black school, and I loved it. I knew everybody there; it felt like a community.
My sophomore year, my family found out that we lost our house in Jackson. My mom couldn’t make the mortgage payments, and we received a notification that they were going to foreclose. We moved to an apartment in Pearl, about 15 minutes from Jackson, to get ourselves more secure.
Pearl is a very, very small, predominantly white community. I made friends as far as friends go, but they were mostly black. I’ve never really had white friends. It’s not that I’m not open to it. I just couldn’t relate to their struggle. They had beautiful houses, and I was staying in an apartment.
I started my junior year at Pearl High School, and I was one of the only black kids in my honors classes. If you want to really get into the demographic, it was mainly black girls, not black males. I was doing really well, but what I noticed was they didn’t expect black kids to speak up. They just assumed that I was in honors classes as a token. They didn’t think I was actually smart. I didn’t feel comfortable explaining myself in a classroom because I didn’t feel like they would understand what I had to say.
One week in English class, we read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I remember there was a discussion about Huck and his slave Jim. The white kids were like, “Jim was a good person because even though he was a slave, he still stuck around because he cared for Huck.”
I was like, “It’s very much more complicated than that. He probably did care, a little bit. But, let’s keep things in perspective. Speaking as the slave — even though you’re a nice little white boy, we’re not just going to discount what you’ve been doing your whole life. Jim probably didn’t say anything because at any moment, Huck could have just snitched on him and it could have turned out really bad. Of course he’s just going to go along. He’s got to keep him on his side. He knows as long as that little white boy is with him, riding for him, he’s okay. But as soon as something goes sour, he’s dead. At the end of the day, he knew his role in the situation.”
The white kids in the class went blank. They had nothing really to say. Even the other black girl in class was like, “You’re making this hard for us.” I never got called on again for discussion.
When it came time to start thinking about colleges, I didn’t get much support from my high school. The white students already had connections. They were going to do what their parents did. Like, Joe is going to take over his family’s company, he’s going to be senior VP of real estate or something.
All I knew was, I wanted to be on the radio. I felt like it would be easy to get into that career, but I didn’t know how to do it while I was in high school. I didn’t know the right people to call. Being at Pearl High School, they didn’t really help me with that. I knew they had phone books, I knew they had business cards, I knew they had resources, but they didn’t give that stuff to me. They told me I should be a school counselor. They said, “You’re more suited to that. You like psychology, you like to talk, you’re a good listener.”
I knew I had to do something else with my life. And I just couldn’t wait to grow up to go to college.
I always wanted to go to a black college. I always felt like that was what was supposed to happen.
When I was growing up, my family would go to see the Jackson State marching band on Saturdays during football season. Jackson State is a historically black college, and when the band comes on, everything stops. They get out there and they just take over. The dancers, the majorettes, the food, the tailgates, the Greek life …. It’s just a sense of home.
When I was thinking about schools and looking at the college rankings, you see Yale, Harvard, the Ivy League first before you even see a black school. You automatically assume that’s the cream of the crop, that to get in there you have to be better than the rest. I don’t know if it’s a preconceived notion, or whatever, but to me a white school reads that they must be smart. It’s just what they teach us, what they’ve been telling us since forever, that the Ivy League is the best the nation has to offer. HBCUs are…well, they’re black schools.
My dad did not want me to go to an HBCU. I don’t know why, but he just doesn’t like black schools.
He started off at University of California, Davis, studying design. Then he transferred to Jackson State. He told me he wanted to be around his own people. But after he graduated, he couldn’t get a job doing what he wanted, which was to be an architect. He thinks it’s because black colleges don’t prepare you for careers, just for jobs.
But I can’t relate to that. I feel like once you actually do the legwork and research and learn about your own culture, you learn there’s nothing wrong with having a black school. You have to un-train yourself, break out of the mold of everything that you’ve been used to thinking and believing. You have to re-learn everything. I don’t like this whole idea that white is right, and that just because you’re not going to school with Becky, you’re somehow inferior to her. You don’t have to be in the best AP classes to show how smart you are. You don’t have to go to Harvard to make a difference.
When I look at HBCUs, I think of independence. People don’t expect black people to go to college. You’re supposed to get a job, not a career. HBCUs are bred from places that blacks could go because they weren’t accepted other places. Harvard didn’t want us. Yale didn’t want us. But Howard did.
I’m not going to lie. Harvard might get you a better job. Harvard might get you a car after graduation. But at white schools, they don’t tell you where you came from.
If you read a history book, you would think that black people just popped up as slaves, and then Lincoln came around and freed us. And then we couldn’t drink out of the water fountain. That’s all they tell you. “Oh, you were slaves but you’ve come so far! You have Beyonce, you have Oprah, you have Jay-Z. We have a black president now. Y’all are doing so great, girl.”
White people don’t want us to talk about race. “Why is everything a black issue? Why is everything a white issue? Why are you saying black lives matter when all lives matter? Why are you playing the race card?” No! We’re not playing the race card, we’re telling you what’s happening.
Right now in the black community, we’re going through a lot. They’re locking us up. Shooting us left and right. We built this country up. We built it. And now we’re fighting to survive.
At Howard, and at other black schools, they tell you that. They tell you, “You’re the cream of the crop, so we feel like we can be honest with you. This is what you need to know. This is what you’re up against. You need to understand where we’ve been and what’s going on right now.” You come to a black school, and you get the education that you need to be a black person in America.
Edited and condensed for clarity and length by Samara Freemark from interviews by Emily Hanford.
This essay is part of the larger radio documentary The Living Legacy: Black Colleges in the 21st Century, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).