This time 25 years ago, I graduated from UCLA with a BA in Sociology. This time 30 years ago, I graduated from North Central High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. So how did this native Hoosier end up on the west coast?
I had been planning my escape from Indiana since age 14. That was about the time I’d seen enough of Three’s Company, Charlie’s Angels and CHiPs to know California was the golden kingdom where anyone’s dreams can come true, even mine.
I only applied to four colleges, UCLA and USC (because only a major university with good sports teams would do); San Diego State (my west coast backup); and Wisconsin (because they sent me their application and there was no application fee). I thought that was nice of them, so I applied to be a Badger if my California dreams fell through.
No way was I gonna stick around Hoosierville.
Growing up as a young black man who refused to be somebody else’s stereotype in a state that still held on to Klannish ideas was not an easy challenge in 1960s and 70s Indianapolis. I was gonna split, it was simply a matter of where.
California was the place to be, so said the movies and TV. I was ready to join the beach party and find my very own blond surfer buddy who resembled Christopher Atkins, the star of Blue Lagoon, the hit movie of the summer before college. And since I’d grown up in a world of black men who hated on fags, I was sold on the all-American blond dream. California here I come!
First stop: USC in the fall of 1980.
First memorable moment: Being called nigger the week before school starts by bros from the Sigma Chi fraternity. A handful of us black students were walking home one night. As we passed the frat house, a head peeked through the curtains.
“Oh, niggers,” said a Sigma Chi, as if disappointed we weren’t a group of white sorority girls or white fraternity boys. His comment was followed by the sound of brothers laughing.
Welcome to California.
Later that night, I borrowed another student’s bike, rode to the LA Memorial Coliseum and broke down in tears while standing in front of the gates to the peristyle end, looking at the lighted field below.
What do I do now? I can’t just go back home. It’s not even the first week of school.
With the Coliseum as my witness, I vowed then and there to escape my new jail and this all-white-private-fraternity-party school ASAP.
I knew it was gonna take a while. In the meantime, I was even more determined to get my college boy on: make yell leading (no doubt in my mind), look for my dream buddy, be a great inmate, er, student, then get the #@&! out of the University of Spoiled Children who say things like, “oh, niggers.”
In retrospect, I should have gone to the Dean and the school paper, and told them both how much it hurt, hearing the Sigma Chi’s call me nigger.
I should have cried in front of them and let them see the tears of a hurt black boy who had put all his hopes and dreams into USC, only to have those dreams shattered in one casual blow when, the week before freshman year starts, he’s welcomed with “oh, niggers” coming from one of the richest, all-white fraternities on the all-white fraternity row (one or two token niggers excepted, oh.)
But kids generally don’t speak up, let alone reveal how hurt they feel. As an adult, I can admit I still cry for the 18-year-old boy who had to hear “oh, niggers” coming from the Sigma Chi house.
Back then, I wish I had bared witness to my pain, then carried on with my college dreams: wild parties, dorm hi-jinks, homecoming floats, football games. And beer! I went to college for the college life. And to meet my husband. Oh, yeah, and get a degree.
But that degree would not be earned at USC. “Oh, niggers” ruined USC for me. From that night on, the Trojans were a bust. While I was there, I gave it the old college try, lol, but I was determined not to live the rest of my life saying, I graduated from USC.
However, I am happy to say I was a yell leader during Marcus Allen’s Heisman Trophy season in 1981. As a student and as a cheerleader, whatever colors you wear, you want to win and win big!
After my sophomore year at USC, my efforts to escape–which began weeks after “oh, niggers”–finally paid off. UCLA was ready for me and I was ready for UCLA. You bet I was gonna be a Bruin cheerleader. No doubt! It’s a job, a job that I’ve been doing well since age seven. Duh! Thanks sis!
Two years cheering at USC, two years cheering at UCLA. One year in between as a just a UCLA student due to transfer status. One Rose Bowl. Two Fiesta Bowls. One NCAA trip. One NIT Championship (Reggie Miller, 1985), and one long, glorious, infamous, challenging, thrilling college cheerleading career.
Oh, yeah, and the degree. Twenty-five years later, the degree is the most important accomplishment of that time and my life.
My parents were right: a college degree is something you can be proud of the rest of your life. Especially for a black man; it means you passed some cultural test. Give yourself a hand. You’ve done a great thing.
My parents were right about another thing: When in college, stay in college until you finish college. Those who leave find it hard to come back, and the longer you leave, the harder the journey back. Graduate college. It’s a foundation for life.
Thanks, mom and dad, for getting me through college. And for giving me the foundation to graduate. And the fortitude to overcome all the challenging obstacles I faced during college, challenges that dwarfed “oh, niggers.”
I made it through them all. I finished the race. I past the test. I went the distance.
For the rest of my life, I will be proud to say, I graduated from UCLA.