I was one of the few N*gg*s at Howard University, and I was living foul. I was so foul that I was a minor celebrity. I was known best for my dirty hat that crowned my dirty body and clothes. But, what my hat symbolized was my dirty mind which manifested itself in my dirty mouth. I was fascinated with every degrading endeavor. I was, in fact, a filthy influence on everyone who came into my circle, and I took great pride in my devilishness.
These are all memories that I have kept hidden for over 40 years since I stopped being a N*GG* by the grace and mercy of Allah. I came to Howard University in 1962 on full scholarship, prepping to be a first generation bourgeois Negro, but my parents were both fatherless, and comfortable on Vine Street in Kansas City's night clubs and street life and proud of it, although they yearned to be middle class.
I left Kansas City, 9th in my class at the famous all colored Lincoln High, with a pledge to my street friends: "To be a N*GG* wherever I go and whatever I do, till I die or go blind."
"Donnie, you gonna stop being a N*GG* when you go up there to Howard?"
"Can a blind hog see it's a--?" was my oft repeated and often slurred toast before I hopped a train to Washington D.C.
My sendoff was not emotional. My daddy took me to the train station and put me on the train. My Pops probably shook my hand, but I know I didn't look him in the eye. I felt too guilty. I had broken every rule. I was a burgeoning alcoholic, inveterate womanizer, wanton cigarrette smoker, liar, gambler, and cheat, but highly regarded in Metropolitan Kansas City for various academic or artistic accomplishments. There were a lot of people expecting me to be a leader for our people, and I had a lot to prove.
There were so many forces pulling at me that I was tense, 17, small (5'6", 102 lbs.), wanting to be tough, trying to be slick, but scared.
The train stopped in St. Louis, and a gangly colored boy got on laughing and talking with his friend. They had obviously been sent off in a fashion completely unlike my dour departure. They were dressed in expensive pull over cashmere sweaters and had brand new Samsonite luggage, but they were extremely friendly.
"You going to Howard, too?" I guess it was a question, but there was a challenge and acceptance simultaneously that struck me.
I began to feel more confident and happy about the trip.
"My name's Donald. I got on this train in Kansas City," I said, standing up to shake hands as I had been drilled.
"Then you from Kansas City, not from no little country town around Kansas City?" Said Lawrence (Scook) Fellows, and thus began a friendship that is dear to me even today.
"Naw, I'm not. I'm out of Lincoln High School," Kansas City, Missouri. The big Kansas City, not Kansas."
"Yeh, there's two of 'em, ain't they?" Horace (Candy) Johnson, the tall kid that I had seen first was full of himself and proud of it. His comment bore no respect. It was more, 'Eureka! I had an epiphany or something'. Scook and I would come to call him "Dumb", "Big Dumb" Not that he was that dumb (he has a Masters degree from Pepperdine, today), but a little dumb was a lot at Howard, and people were quick to point out the dumb things you did or said, and Horace tended to do and say a lot of dumb stuff.
For instance, he wanted to be partners in crime with Scook and me, but he didn't want to be seen with us because we were N*GG*S, and proud of it. Social outcasts.
Well, Horace flunked the placement tests with his dumb self, and we were up on the 5th floor in Drew Hall outside of his room reading our class schedules, when these guys were talking about Chemistry and Honors English, Sociology with Dr. Hare, etc.
Horace, the Tulsa high school football star, still deluded about his lack of intelligence, blurted out, "What's this Rem uh dee ul Reading? I don't need no Rem uh dee ul Reading." Of course, all three of us were straightway labeled "country" and relegated to a subhuman status.
It took me about 3 months and I had to grow about 4 inches, but I eventually got my respect. First with the intellectuals. I spoke Standard English and admired polysyllabic speech. I was loud but could turn a phrase because I had prepped as a sportswriter for the Kansas City Call Newspaper.
I had interviewed Rafer Johnson after the 1960 Olympics, and discussed the arrival of Wilt Chamberlain at the University of Kansas with Dowdell Davis, the managing editor before his untimely demise. I had grown accustomed to winning arguments with sports writers and sports connoisseurs in the newsroom, the sportsbox at the University of Missouri football stadium, in pool halls, barbershops, and bowling alleys, usually with the facts in statistics, or quotes from newspapers and magazines that I was allowed to inhale in the newsroom at The Call under the vigilant eye of Ms. Lucille Bluford, the sagacious editor.
I was beginning to realize that I could hold an audience in the palm of my hand, formally and informally.
We congregated in our dormitory rooms, cafeterias, bars, and cafes, and we talked about everything. "What about the atom bomb? See, if Castro doesn't back down, tomorrow, we're all going to die and go to Hell."
"Can I get your meal ticket?" I was being funny and serious at the same time. I had sold my meal ticket when I conjured up this scheme to make some quick cash, but I had forgotten about buying food for the rest of the month. It was the 28th of October, and I was hungry as a character in a Richard Wright novel.
"I mean, we all gonna die, Cleve, but what if I live? Me and the cafeteria lady. And, she's got all this food and nobody to give it to 'cause all y'all are dead. The atom bomb done killed all of y'all. And, I go over to the cafeteria, snow blowing in my face..."
"Don't forget the fallout," Scook chimes in.
"Thanks John Scooker. Yeh, through the black snow and the fallout... and the cafeteria lady can't feed me because I don't have a damn meal ticket."
"You going over to the cafeteria, Baker? Bring me somethin' back, said Big Dumb Horace who I'm starting to respect a little more, but not much.
"I'm just telling Mr. Student Nonviolent over here that if he wants to do something to help Negroes so much, he need to give me his meal ticket. Sh-t, I ain't ate in days. The hell with the atomic bomb."
"You're a lie, and your breath stink," screamed Scook, jumping down from his bunk. This N*GG* lying. I saw you with a whole bunch of candy bars, coming out the vending machine room, this morning. Baker, you stealing and you lying. You a liar and a thief, and your drawers got dooky stains in 'em." Scook was exposing me to Cleve Sellers, a very serious kid, who lived down the hall on the 5th floor and was seriously pondering lending me his meal ticket.
"Baker ain't hungry; he's bummin' cigarrettes and money off everybody in Drew Hall, and he's got something going on in that vending machine room because I caught his broke ass coming out of there with more candy than you can shake a stick at, twice."
"Aren't you splibs scared the whole world is going to blow up tomorrow? Kennedy's going to push the button. The whole damn world is going to end. The Russians are going to push their button, and that's going to be it. ICBM's are going to destroy every major city in America and Russia, and the fallout and radiation is going to contaminate the rest of the world. The sun is going to turn cold, and..."
"Will somebody give Cleve a drink? He's starting to mess with my high."
"You don't never wanna talk about sh-t, K.C. You just wanna act like it's not even going on." Cleve seemed to sincerely pity my lack of sophistication, but his hand snaked out for the bottle.
"How'd you get a bottle of whiskey up here in Drew Hall? You know it's against the rules. You gon' have G.T. up here screaming."
"Let him scream. You said tomorrow was going to be the end of the world. I ain't worried about a damn dorm check."
That was my problem. I wasn't worried about anything, anymore, but how I was going to eat and get a drink, not necessarily in that order. I was doing what my mama called, "dissipating", an apt term. I was borrowing money with no intent of repaying; I hung out in all the campus pool halls, and I was looking for an easy mark on the pool tables or in a dice game. I wanted to play you for the fun and cheat you for the adventure. I had successfully employed one of my street ploys of stopping up the coin returns in the vending machines, then using my carefully crafted coat hanger to recover the backed up change, and I was dabbling in stealing food when I ran into Clyde McCutcheon, a kid from D.C. or who seemed very familiar with the city, and who admired my pool shooting skills.
"K.C., come on up to the Admin. building with me. I'm going to get a job."
"What kinda job? I'm too pretty to be gettin' dirty." I joked.
"You dirty, already. That hat is so dirty you should leave it outside when you go to eat." He knew like I knew that he, like most people, were jealous of my hat. "No, this is a good job, doing surveys."
I was still skeptical, but the job turned out to be fabulous. I made as much as $33/hour, sometimes. I was rollin' in the dough in about a week. There was no supervision. We just went down on K street and got a big stack of surveys from this office, took them downtown and asked people questions about Wilkins Coffee. Then, we took the completed surveys back and got paid 60 cents a survey.
We threw a mega party at my partners' Mackus and The Boys apartment off campus. The glass in the door to the lobby was out and I pushed through as though it was there, stumbled, then fell through the door in the lobby of the apartment building. I was carrying a bag full of liquor, but, somehow, I fell but managed not to drop the liquor. I had made such a commotion, however, that everybody in the lobby marveled that I was not bleedig. But, Horace laughed.
"You won't believe what happened to Baker when we were coming back from the liquor store. The N*gg* fell through the door with all the drinks in his hand. The N*gg* can't see worth nothin'. Thick as them glasses he wearin', he can't see the glass is out in the front door."
"Looked like clear glass to me."
"That N*gg* tripped and skipped and flipped..." cacophonous laughter.
"But, did I save the alcohol? That's 'cause I'm cool, cool as Jerry Butler and Jackie Wilson, too."
Though none of my peers seemed to appreciate my approximations of the soul singers at the Howard Theater's routines, it never inhibited my determination to practice my would be craft.
"Yay, yay, yay, I want the world to know. That is why. That's why I love you so. That is why... turn the music up."
I loved to party, though dancing was my dilemma. It was considered a family anomaly that I could not dance. I always froze up or I was mechanical and got bored one minute into the song.
My body was growing proudly and gangly in only a matter of months. I gloried in my emancipation from being short, and I let it all hang out. Scook (who danced even worse than me) and I, had recently and emphatically given up on graduation, and were running wild. Scook was even wilder than me when he got drunk and the Indian came out in him.
Sometimes, I had to hang with one of the only kids I could relate to that was also on scholarship, Willie A. Sims aka W.A.S. (pronounced WUZ). WUZ seemed to always be there with the quiet intellectual fearlessness. He had a 4 year, $1100 per, full boat scholarship, while I was on the cheapy $550 per year survival plan. Willie was also the best left handed pool player in the dorm and would sneak away from studying to break my loudmouthed dominance of the rec room pool table.
We both had single rooms on the third floor. Five floors of suites, double and single rooms, recently christened and steeped in tradition, ruled with what seemed at first an iron fist by G.T. Sanders, dorm director, who turned out to be a little too soft for a very difficult task.
At night, there was open rebellion brewing under the guise of public pandering to the school party line. I knew some guys down the hall on the 3rd floor who were trying to start a radio station broadcasting a litany of profanity from the window in their room that could be picked up on some parts of the campus, and their was Horace's crazy roommate, Julian, who was distilling gin in the room one drop at a time, about one or 2 shots per week, maybe.
I had a very dangerous and seasoned consort, Ernie Nevels, who had smuggled a year's supply of Jamaican 190 proof rum high up in his closet and dared you to touch it. There were card games and pool games for small but significant amounts of cash that I was heavily involved in.
G.T. began to take a stand against a lot of New York and Philly brothers who were rowdy. They were being denied certain visitor privileges, or something, so they rioted one night, and some people who just disdained oppressive authority joined in. But, they trashed the dormitory in one hellaciously destructive political protest.
There were comical nude drawings upon the doors of what were then comfortably called "queers" and blatant rants screaming hatred from various walls and doors.
I was heartsick because I hadn't known it was going down. I had not been as in with the New York crowd as I had thought. It seemed such a bold act until they began to call people in for questioning. Suspected scholarship students got called in first. They had me blind with fear before questioning me. I told them exactly what I knew, nothing.
I assured them of my allegiance to Drew Hall. They must have believed me because they kicked out a few brothers from N.Y. and Philly, and everything went back to the way it had been before, or so it seemed.
Who knew that riot would become legendary, ironically, and set the precedent for the bold student protests led by Ewart Brown* at Howard a few years later, protests that would sweep through all of the schools with Black student unions across the country for the rest of the decade? And, who knew that I would become one of the leaders?
Allahu Akbar! (G-d Is The Greatest! Fortunately, Allah knew, even then. And, He had a plan for me).
*The dynamic student body President, then, now, Premier of Bermuda, and, The Honorable Dr. Ewart Brown