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New Beginnings: My Black Cultural Awakening

DAVID LANG

Class of 1966

Before I arrived on Howard University’s campus in fall 1966, “black” wasn’t part of my lexicon. I was “colored” or “Negro.” In my eyes, as well as the eyes of many, I was an “ultra-conservative white wannabe.” My freshman year changed all that.

Out of High School Into College

In the fall of 1966, I was transitioning from “class president and “top banana” high school senior” at Charles Sumner High School to “a lowly college freshman” at Howard University. Sumner, in my hometown, St. Louis, MO, was built in 1875. It was the first secondary school west of the Mississippi River for children of the formerly enslaved. Howard, in Washington, DC, my new academic home, had been built eight years earlier in 1867, and it too was established to educate the emancipated enslaved and their progeny.

I knew that I was arriving on Howard’s campus during its upcoming centennial. Little did I realize that I was also showing up at the beginning of “the black cultural revolution.” 

 

Conks, Quo Vadis’s & Dreadlocks

When I arrived at Howard, “black” wasn’t part of my vocabulary. I was “colored” or “Negro.” Many saw me as “ultra-conservative.” For them, I was the epitome of a “white wannabe.” Why? Was it my burnished olive Tyrolean Swiss hat with the braided band? Was it my gold suede sport coat with elbow patches? Was it the pipe I smoked? Was it me looking like the picture of the prototypical Negro “Joe College” that appeared in the ads in the black magazines?

I was shocked when I arrived on campus to see the Rastas sporting dreadlocks. That was not the image I had of myself. I didn’t aspire to emulate that look.

I wore the classic razor hair cut we see today sported by President Barack Obama. In St. Louis, we called this “cut,” “Quo Vadis.” Ancient Roman soldiers in the movie “Quo Vadis” wore this hairstyle. And it was a universal one, adopted by Black men around the country

My other option was a “conk,” a “do,” sported by many black male entertainers, such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Nat King Cole, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Little Richard, and Chubby Checker.

While my mother had always railed against those performers “straightening” hair, she didn’t have to worry about me. I was never interested in having my scalp burned with lye to get that “look.” On the other hand, my classmate from Brooklyn, Stanley, who lived next door to me in my freshman dorm, Drew Hall, had the biggest “do” I’d ever seen. He fussed over his hair in the mirror for hours daily. He meticulously wrapped it up every night in a “do rag.”

Afros & Homecoming Queens

After arriving on campus, I eagerly anticipated my first Howard Homecoming Weekend. After all, choosing the homecoming queen was a “big deal,” and I soon learned this semester’s election was going to be unprecedented. A female student who was running for Homecoming Queen was wearing a “natural” hairstyle, and this was “a first” for the campus.

Like the Rastas wearing dreadlocks, a woman with “a natural” was new to me as well. Just the year before in 1965, I didn’t know such a style existed until I saw a picture of a woman with an “Afro” in Ebony Magazine. That picture was so noteworthy that reporters asked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. his opinion of these “freedom caps.” He approved. 

I wasn’t as approving. “Light, bright, and damned near white” had always been the de rigueur for the standard of beauty in the black community, as I saw it. Lena Horne and Josephine Baker ruled. I grew up adoring their hairstyles. 

Robin Gregory, with her “natural hair,” created a major campus uproar.  (Ironically, what we eventually found out was that Robin’s hair was not as “natural” as it appeared. The radical campus group that had come up with the idea to run her for homecoming queen had to put “chemicals” in her hair to get it to appear “nappy.”)

According to campus scuttlebutt, Howard’s only radical professor, Dr. Nathan Hare, masterminded Robin’s campaign. Hare was a black psychologist. In his book, The Black Anglo-Saxons, he presented a scathing indictment of Black middle-class mores. He was a major “influencer” on campus.

Howard’s administration retaliated against Hare for his militancy. They denied him tenure and fired him.  Those actions made him a campus “cause célèbre.”  However, his celebrity status waned in comparison to the level Robin and her natural hairstyle would reach. 

Black Hair & Campus Protest

There were five Homecoming Queen contestants. “The betting favorite,” Diane Montieth, resembled Beverly Johnson, Black America’s first supermodel who had appeared on the cover of Vogue in 1964. While Robin was “a pretty girl with a nice shape,” her looks and shape didn’t compare to those of “the betting favorite.” Diane was “the bombshell. “What “a beauty!” I voted for “the Beverly Johnson look-a-like.” I thought Diane was a shoo-in. I had no doubt; she would win.

She lost, and her loss shocked the campus administrators, and me too. Robin had won!

The tradition was that the university president escorted the Homecoming Queen on to the football field at half time of the homecoming game. The acting president refused because of Robin’s “natural.”

Although I had not voted for Robin, I felt the president’s snub was unfair, and so did just about every student. After all, Robin had won “fair and square.” 

Because of the presidential snub, something extraordinary happened almost instantaneously. Nearly every student who could “go natural,” did. Me too.

My Awakening Begins

My first shift: I started “growing out” my hair. I ditched my “Joe College” look. My daily attire became bell-bottom jeans, a safari jacket, and a lavalier around my neck that was a black power fist. I completed my ensemble with a pair of tinted “granny glasses” with wire frames. Stanley took the conk out of his hair. His was the biggest “Afro” on campus.

My second shift: Howard now appeared to me as a plantation with black overseers, and the students were “niggers.” By the time the second semester rolled around, I had joined with other students to mount a campus-wide boycott of classes. We locked the professors out of the classrooms and engaged in the first takeover of a university administration building in the nation. 

More Than About Hair & Fashion

It was more than about “hair” and “fashion.”

It was about how the university administration had:

  • Dismissed the will of the student body
  • Disrespected our collective voice

It was about us battling the unfairness of:

  • Judging the quality of a person based on superficial physical traits
  • Elevating a person to privileged status because they possessed physical traits that reflected the biases of the dominant culture

It was about the university administration wanting:

  • Us to identify with a white power structure that brought privileges to the black bourgeoisie
  • No change, whatsoever

We had been too young to participate in the freedom rides down South. Now we were old enough to defy race-based injustice wherever we found it, and we had found it rife on the campus that had buildings named after Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglas, none of whom who met the white standards of beauty that the administration was trying to force down our throats. We were now the defiant ones.

We were victorious. We got rid of the university president, the acting president, and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts. The administrators reinstated all the suspended students who had been leading the boycott and takeover.

My third shift: I became the first head of an elected student judiciary committee.

Culturally Awakened

Before my freshman year ended, I was no longer ashamed of the way God had made me. I no longer wanted to be a “Black Anglo-Saxon.”  I was “Black and Proud,” and I have been that way ever since. 

PS: Hare made out okay, too. San Francisco State University hired him, and he started the first black studies program in the nation. Howard made a “sea change” as well. The next president, Dr. James Cheek, had an Afro and wore a dashiki. Our culture change was complete.  Today, I’m proud of my role in “The Black Cultural Revolution” and ushering in change at Howard. I remain a proud HU alumnus. “Go, Bisons!”

 

What I’m Up To Now

I wrote a childhood memoir, I Am Curious Black, which details my experiences and escapades from age two to high school graduation, which is under review by a literary agent for the William Morris Agency. I also just completed a steamy romance novel, Cayenne, which is in search of a publisher. 

David’s Contact Information: Langscape@gmail.com

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Comments

  • Walter Fox Posted 12 hours ago

    David Lang was the president of our senior class at Sumner high school in 1966.. I remember reading and hearing from other St. Louisiana how the school had become ‘radicalized’ between 1966 and 1968.

    Reply
    • Jerome Paige Posted 20 hours ago

      Walter. I invite you to submit your reflections and ruminations.

      Reply
  • Ronald E Moore Posted 22 hours ago

    I can relate somewhat to David’s journey. I attended a small college in Central Missouri where Blacks made up 11 percent of the student poulation , 11,000 . We had to create our own Black sub culture. Coming from an all Black Highschool. This was a cultural shock and awakening. David and I attended the same highscool and entered our cultural awareness through different portals but expierenced the same personal cultural Renaissance.

    Reply

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