Every two years the buzz begins online. A new Facebook page pops up, tweets with similar hashtags burrow deep into our frontal lobes, awakening a sense of urgency. The message is singular and clear: Don’t miss out.
No one can ever predict how many will come—and whether they come in search of old friends, a new mate … or just a good burger. Then it happens. The temperature in central Virginia reaches the high sixties, and Black people around the country pack bags with nice shoes. Some take to the air. Others get in their cars. With uncanny syncopation, they set their GPS to Charlottesville and begin the drive, as though nature—or God—were orchestrating their every move.
One night, the University of Virginia looks like a predominantly White institution: sundresses, cowboy boots, grown men in pastel shorts. The next day, if seen from a balcony overlooking the barbecue, it looks like Howard University.
They don’t all have bulging eyes, and thank the Lawd they won’t stick around for six weeks, but they may crash your wedding if it’s at a local vineyard. This brood is special. It’s the Black Alumni Brood, which emerges on odd-numbered years, often numbering in the tens of hundreds. And it’s bound to make some noise.
I graduated in 2005, which means I’ve had four chances to attend UVA’s Black Alumni Weekend. This year was the first time I felt ready. The first time I wasn’t completely intimidated and annoyed by this imagined scene: a veritable who’s who of the modern Talented Tenth—doctors and bankers in stilettos or Louboutins—swirling their drinks, wondering how a younger woman like me snagged the popular Dr. Paul Christopher Harris.
Not saying I was some slouch, but let’s be real: attractive, well-educated Black men who don’t spit like camels when they talk are hard to find. All that knowledge goes straight to the salivary gland.
By the time you’ve been married for eight years, most of these ladies have given up, realizing they should have snagged your man when he was a scrawny first year with an “even steven.” I thought I avoided Black Alumni Weekend because of one, maybe two of these women. That’d be like never flying again because you were on one lousy plane that made an emergency landing. Oh, wait, that happened.*
But when I moved past the cattiness, I was left with me. Especially during my mid-to-late twenties, I didn’t need any help feeling awkward or unsuccessful. The University of Virginia, I told myself, was the last place I dripped with potential. My family lined a small section of the Lawn on graduation day, and I ran over to them, shouting some line I’d crafted a second before: “And they said I wouldn’t make it!” Actually, no one had ever said that. Everyone had said the opposite. I was supposed to be there. Supposed to be great. And we were all just waiting … to see what I would do.
I never lived up to those expectations—not my own, not those I perceived my professors had of me. I wasn’t sure where I took the wrong turn and at what point I started racing against the clock to achieve success. But I know it happened after I stepped off that Lawn. So silly women or not, I wasn’t coming back to the place that lured me into measuring failure. Into comparing my old self to my current self and desperately asking for a “do over.”
It’s sad that, in my mind, UVA became haunted. When Paul and I moved to Charlottesville for his job, I avoided Grounds for a while. I needed distance from the current undergrads, the smart ones studying government or business and securing internships for the summer. The ones still full of potential. I looked young, but I felt “past due.” My children served as the safest way to separate myself from students and also the surest reminder that I would never be important in the boardroom sort of way. My kids were my career.
This year, I needed Black Alumni Weekend. I needed to remember what UVA meant to me. That visiting central Grounds is not the same as visiting a gravesite.
Sure, I absolutely stressed over the reunion. I overpaid for a blazer and leather flats, returned a bright scarf that screamed, “I’m trying!” I wondered if my hair would cooperate and exactly how wide (really or super) my hips would appear in jeans. I jealously reminded Paul that men have it easy. He could wear a Fruit of the Loom tank and some jean shorts if he wanted.
But when we pulled up with the double stroller to the grass lot of the amphitheater and began greeting people we’d passed every day on the way to class, I settled. I stopped obsessing over my blush. This felt right.
The community of Black alumni gathered at the cookout that Saturday told a simple narrative to anyone who listened: Once, we were alone. And then we were not.
Several of the smartest folks I’ve ever met had grown up as either “the only” or one of a few in their honors programs or magnet schools. Then we came to UVA, and for four years, we were spoiled. Not by the institution or its legacy of segregation, but by a rich community of engaged students who weren’t surprised to see one another excel. It’s as though we shared a secret: We have always been able.
And there were enough of us that we didn’t have to be like-minded or automatic best friends. We had choices. Some of the people I respected the most I rarely hung out with on the weekends.
That’s how it was with Kim. A scholar of scholars with nothing to prove, she used words like “anachronistic” and “jank” in the same conversation. She’s the kind who could be a diplomat and a chemist and an actress—all while bottle-feeding premature kittens.
I’d probably seen Kim once since graduation, but when I spotted her walking down the stairs of the amphitheater, I realized I’d missed her. I’d missed her and knowing that I could run into her at any moment. I’d missed having Kims in my life. Kim and Amey and Erva and Daisy—they reminded me of that feeling I took for granted years ago. That we were doing something. That we didn’t deserve to be here more than our grandparents or the folks who laid the first bricks, but if God was going to pour out His grace on us, we sure weren’t going to waste it. It’s taken me five years to realize that I’m still part of that group. I didn’t waste it.
After Paul and I moved back to Charlottesville in 2011, someone asked me if the “fish had gotten bigger” since undergrad. In other words, had I inflated UVA’s value over the years in my mind? Had I returned as an adult to find a campus just like any other, awakened to find the magic belonged to a dream?
I stumbled through the answer then, not sure how to measure memories against reality and my past reality against my current one. What if the sweet parts of my past were really that sweet?
Kim, the one who could be a best-selling novelist or brain surgeon or alligator wrestler, helped me answer that question for myself. She marked the Black Alumni Brood’s disappearance at the end of the weekend in the same way others had marked its emergence—with a Facebook status:
It’s a rude transition—to go from a weekend connecting with hundreds of dynamic people of color to a workweek in which I’ll potentially meet with ... two colleagues of color. UVA [Black Alumni Weekend], I miss you ... deeply. Two years can’t come soon enough.
As folks packed up their cars and checked out of hotels, Paul and I stayed here, feeling the slow leak out of Charlottesville. The hardest part is not waiting two years to feel the rush again. The hardest part, the one that threatens to lace my thoughts with bitterness, is that a greater leak remains: fewer and fewer Black students are coming to UVA. In 1991, African Americans made up 12% of the undergraduate body. This year, that percentage is 6.5. I’m sure the answer combines politics and economics and statistical regressions far above my pay grade. I’m sure there will be forums and Facebook pages and tweets and petitions to change this. Someone whom someone else has voted for or hired to resemble authority will say something. Someone will have to answer, maybe even make a promise. My hope is that in twenty years, when I arrive at Black Alumni Weekend with the ever-handsome Paul Harris, we will find more than a fragile shell of what once was.