Visit to North Carolina A&T College

Recently I had a rare opportunity to visit with colleagues and students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and to participate in a Writing Symposium for HBCUs sponsored by North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, with support from Bedford/St. Martin’s Press.
I’ll admit to being tired and out of sorts when I arrived in Greensboro: my flight got in late, around 11:00 that night, and when I got to the hotel they told me that, yes, I did indeed have a guaranteed reservation—but they had no room for me. So at 12:30 a.m. I found myself at another hotel on the other end of town and standing in line with other people who had similarly been bumped: not a happy crowd. On top of everything, I’d been flying all day and hadn’t eaten. So at 1:00 a.m., just as they were about to close the bar, I sat with a glass of wine and a . . . banana. So much for dinner.
Not an auspicious evening by any means. But all the hassles faded the next morning when I got to campus. “Aggie pride” and hospitality were everywhere, and I had time for a quick tour of the lovely campus, with its futuristic buildings and rolling lawns. I also learned just a little about the history of A&T (founded in 1890) and still later I got to stand outside the Woolworth’s store, my nose literally pressed to the glass, to get a look inside the place where four young A&T students held a sit-in at the lunch counter on February 1, 1960. Aggie pride indeed.
Back at the symposium, we were welcomed by Faye Spencer Maor, the dynamic chair of the English Department, who introduced me to Jason DePolo, director of composition and to Robert Randolph, director of the writing center. I spent a fascinating hour in the writing center with Robert and four of his tutors, and the next day attended a panel on writing centers where I met the directors of seven other HBCU centers. The big event of the afternoon was a talk and question and answer session with University of Kentucky Professor Vershawn Young, author of Your Average Nigga: Performing Race, Literacy, and Masculinity, and Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. This was a talk for students, and the large lecture hall was packed, row upon row of students eager to engage. Vershawn laid out his argument—that African American English is a powerful, legitimate form of language that students 9all students) should be able to use when and how they wish. Dr. Vay, as he is called, talked for about half an hour, offering lots of examples to back up his claims, and then said he’d take questions. The hall was fairly vibrating with energy, and hands shot up all around. The Q&A—the best and most spirited one I’ve ever seen—went on for another 90 minutes, without a pause. And the questions the students asked were HARD. These students weren’t necessarily buying Vershawn’s argument (and they had plenty of counter examples to offer), and they pressed him, peppering him with two- and three-part questions and following up with more. At one point, Vershawn held up a hand and pointed out that the students sere employing African American style—straightforward, direct, in-your-face-honest, so they then spent some time talking about that style and about its rich history. At the end of this two-hour session, Vershawn still had a line of a dozen or more students waiting to ask “one last question.” These students were so sharp, so articulate, so highly engaged that I felt worn out—even though I’d just been listening.
The next ay I gave a talk about digital literacies and how they allow for expanded notions of what good writing is and can be, with lots of examples drawn from students of color performing such writing. We followed with a sumptuous lunch and several other workshops (though I missed the last one, with Gesa Kirsch on feminist practices—to my regret). All too soon I found myself back on an airplane. Not that I noticed, however: I was still aglow with all I had learned and with inspiration from the students and teachers from these HBCUs. My two days at NC A&T have been a highlight of my year so far. Maybe if I’m very lucky, I’ll get to visit again!